Of the Earth
Jackie Nickerson makes photographs that examine people and their relationship to the earth through the physical and psychological conditions of living and working on the land. With her exhibition Terrain, Nickerson re-visits eastern and southern Africa, focusing on how the exertions of labor leave traces on people and the environment.
After fifteen years working in the fashion industry for clients like Interview and Vogue, Nickerson felt unfulfilled and sought something more. In the late 1990s she took a trip to Zimbabwe with a friend, expecting to be there for just a few weeks. She ended up staying for four years, traveling through other countries of Sub-Saharan Africa in a small flatbed truck. She has since returned many times to continue photographing farm life through her unique lens.Nickerson’s series Farm was her first look at these communities, corporate plantations, and the farmers that work the land. Her approach was different with this project, focusing decidedly on the individual. With her fashion background, it is no surprise that Nickerson takes an interest in her subject’s clothing as well—aprons made of many layers of fabric pinned together, and makeshift wraps of plastic to protect from dirt. Her images are reminiscent of nineteenth century portraiture in their approach and palette, and for some may call to mind the stark portraits of August Sander, or even some of the most iconic and emotional FSA portraits made in America. Some of the photographs depict only her subjects’ faces, composed nearly to the edges of the frame, poised with a sense of dignity and elegance. Nickerson is able to bring out the strength and pride in her subjects, amid their daily struggles. There is compassion behind the camera.
Farm became Nickerson’s first document of agrarian culture, a significant rejection of previous depictions of Africa, and an important push to expand the language of photojournalism there. This work led Nickerson to look even harder, and more conceptually, with Terrain.Hands and plants, limbs and fabric, bodies and soil—the subjects of Nickerson’s portraits are, in the fullest sense terrene, “of the earth.” Unlike the portraits in Farm, her subjects remain anonymous. The workers are obscured by the sheer size and weight of their harvest. In an exhibition, this is emphasized by the large scale of the photographs themselves. Many of her landscapes are photographed through a thin veil of plastic farming material, easily read as a metaphor for our modern separation from the natural world.
“I believe that we have an indelible link to the earth but we’ve begun to undervalue it—even forget about it,” Nickerson explains. Her contemplative pictures ask us to consider our own relationship to the land and to the food we consume in our daily lives.Nickerson’s photographs remind us of how distant western societies generally are from their food and its production. In his television show Food Revolution, British chef Jamie Oliver visits Huntington, West Virginia, statistically one of the unhealthiest cities in America, to try to improve its residents' eating habits. In one of the episodes, Oliver visits an elementary school classroom and discovers that many children could not identify ketchup as being made from tomatoes, french fries as being potatoes, or tell the difference between most fruits and vegetables. The reality show was a sad exposé of a common detachment from food, and the lack of basic education about it. Even for many affluent adults, food awareness today consists of nodding in agreement while reading the latest Michael Pollan book on an iPad. It’s clear that Nickerson wants us to dig deeper, to ask questions, and ultimately to better understand our relationship with the earth on a global scale.
Nickerson reveals by carefully concealing. “The lack of personal identity in the photographs is a deliberate question mark,” she explains. The portraits in Terrain are not about individual identity but are an attempt to go beyond the traditional path of concerned documentary photography, revealing her subjects as sculptural, monumental, even empowered. One of Nickerson’s portraits, Valentine, 2012, shows a woman looking straight into the camera, piercing the viewer with her eyes. This lone face—a gentle and beautiful portrait—is in fact most powerful on its own. If Nickerson had shown the faces of all of her subjects, the individual identity of this woman, or any other person, may carry less weight. It would spark another conversation altogether, and allude to a different photographic history.
“As a photographer, you’re in a powerful position,” acknowledges Nickerson. It is this inherent and complex power dynamic between photographer and subject that may have inspired her to approach these portraits in a new light. Nickerson’s photography is self-aware, and therefore requires a more careful reading. By collectively concealing the subjects of Terrain, Nickerson underscores her own distance as photographer, and further, our own as viewers. She forces us to contemplate this notion of identity, of
separation, of what it means to live a life of labor, to rely on the land, and to truly know it. The movement between obscured portraits and landscapes, takes us to a psychological place that is difficult to capture through photographs. “It is about us in the landscape,” explains Nickerson, “how we change the world we inhabit at every moment of our being human and how, for better and for worse, the habitus that we make, in turn, changes who we are.”