A conversation with David Bacon, photographer and activist
Hotel workers, members of Unite Here Local 2, go on strike against Marriott Hotels in San Francisco, protesting low wages that force many workers to work an additional job besides their job at the hotel. | David Bacon

Editors note: The story and interview below, by Meredith Blasingame, were done for and have appeared in The Guardsman, a publication at the Community College of San Francisco.

Activist, journalist and documentary photographer, David Bacon has dedicated his life to social activism. Mild-mannered and matter-of-fact with a quiet sense of humor, Bacon has a way of putting people at ease – a skill that has no doubt served him well through many years of labor organizing and taking photographs to reveal and resolve inequities.

Bacon was born in New York City where his father, a printer and the head of the Book and Magazine Guild union, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He grew up in Oakland, and his father and mother gave him a first-hand look at what it takes to organize a group of people behind a common cause.

“Organizing and printers ink both run in the blood,” he says, referring to the fact that he, like his father, worked as a printer for a time. Bacon worked to organize a union during his first job as a factory worker, launching a career that spanned two decades, both as a factory worker and union organizer. He has worked with the United Farm Workers, the International Ladies Garment Workers, and other labor organizations.

Bacon’s time as a union organizer evolved into documentary photography and journalism in the mid-1980s. Today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights. He has written for publications including The Nation, The American Prospect, TruthOut and In These Times, and he is the author of several books.

In the prologue to his most recent book. In the Fields of the North/En Los Campos del Norte (2017), Bacon states, “For three decades I’ve used a method that combines photographs with interviews and personal histories. Part of the purpose is the ‘reality check;’ the documentation of social reality, including poverty, homelessness, migration, and displacement.”

“The Reality Check” is also the name of Bacon’s blog, where he documents topics ranging from the working conditions of Iraqi oil refineries to California farm workers to hotel and school workers on the job.

I sat down with the documentary photographer to learn more about his career path, his goals and motivations, lessons from the field, and next steps in his lifelong mission to sow the seeds of change.

MB:  How did you get into photography?

DB:  I was into it as a teenager, but my camera got stolen and life moved on.  I didn’t come back to it until later.

I was a union organizer for a number of years.  In the mid-1980s, I picked up a camera again to take pictures of the strikes that we would organize.  That beginning was utilitarian in a way – to publicize strikes, give prints to people on the picket line to take home to their families to show that they were standing up.  Then I began to realize that the photographs themselves had a meaning beyond what I was using them for, in that they were a documentation, especially at that point, of the changing demographics of the workforce – especially in factories here in the East Bay.

On the one hand, we had a lot of factory closures. Also, lots of Mexicans and Central Americans were coming into the workforce.  Before I got there, Black workers had broken racial barriers at work too, so you could see that. The photographs showed this, and people’s response to it, which in my case was to organize unions and go on strike.  That was the root of the kind of work that I did, and in a way, it still really has a lot in common with what I do.

MB:  You were a factory worker at one point.  Is that how you first got involved in union organizing?

DB:  Yes and no.  I needed a job.  I had kids and a family, and I needed an income.  But also in the 60s and 70s radical movement, a lot of people thought that workers were going to be the engine for social change.  It was important to be in the factory; it was important to be where workers were to help people organize. So pretty much as soon as I started going to work, I started trying to organize unions.  I got fired from a printing shop in San Francisco for doing that, as well as from other jobs, including from National Semiconductor in Silicon Valley.

MB:  At what point did photojournalism become a large portion of your work?

DB:  I started working for unions partly because I was really interested.  The first union I worked for was the farm workers.  I think it was partly because I wanted to understand. I grew up in Oakland. I didn’t know anything about farm workers or Mexicans or Spanish.  The union taught me about all those things. It was a real education for me. That’s still part of what I’m doing today. My latest book included oral histories of farm workers in California, which goes directly back to that experience.

But also, especially after I got fired and blacklisted in Silicon Valley, working for unions made sense.  It seemed like important work – helping to build the union. I did that for a long time – over 20 years.

Workers picket the Marriott Union Square Hotel on Oct. 4, 2018. | David Bacon

At the end of that, I started taking pictures and writing short articles about what we were doing, and it kind of took over my life.  It became more important. I took classes in the photography program at Laney College in Oakland, while I also worked as an organizer.  That was a little crazy because organizers don’t have a lot of free time.  But I could begin to see that I really liked doing this work and that I thought it was important. Also, I looked at it as being another form of organizing.

Organizing people is really all about changing the way people think.  Organizers do it by holding house meetings or talking to people at work. If you do the kind of work I do, you’re really still trying to change the way people think, but you’re doing it through different means – sort of on a broader scale but also less directly.

For instance, I just did a big project on documenting the Marriott hotel strike in the Bay Area, all the way from last March when they were first thinking about it to the end of the strike.  It’s still basically trying to document what happens to us as working people – what our lives are like, but also with a perspective of seeing us as actors, as social actors.

We’re not just victims of bad circumstances. We are also capable of changing them, and in fact, I think that’s the process that’s really the most interesting – the combination where you see the world that people are living in, and how people respond to it, and then what they do.  And that’s kind of my approach to writing and photography both; that’s what I’m doing.

MB:  When you say “we,” who do you mean?

DB:  When I say what happens to “us” as workers, I’m talking about workers as a whole, in general.  But obviously, some working people are at more of a disadvantage than others. Some people are more conscious than others.  Some people do something about it and other people don’t. I mean – how many workers are there in the United States? We are not just a majority of the population, we are like 80 or 85% of the people who live in this country.  So obviously, there’s an enormous, huge, variety. That’s one of the things that makes this fascinating.

MB:  What is it that you think actually makes people do something about it?  Out of all of those people, there’s a large portion that doesn’t proactively work for change.

DB:  First of all, generally speaking, people still need to be pushed into it.  Usually. Not always. You know, in my generation, a lot of people got swept up in the civil rights movement, in the anti-war movement, and went into workplaces to help organize workers.  That was a product of people’s political understanding, I guess you would say.  But that’s by far not the way most people wind up becoming part of social movements in this country.

Usually, people are responding to a crisis in their lives or a general feeling of frustration or dissatisfaction.  Looking for answers. And that is very widespread in this country. I think that most people, actually, are frustrated and angry and looking for answers.  But we are taught, as people in this country, to be distrustful of politics, cynical, and kind of susceptible to hot button quick answers, without really having to try to understand how the system works.  One of the obstacles that organizers have to overcome is that you have to help people understand how the system here works – that Trump-type answers – “build the wall” – are not good answers for us.  But to help people understand why that’s not a good answer, for instance, they have to understand why people are coming here, to begin with.

So it’s a process.  I think it’s a combination of the pressure on people and people’s feelings of anger and frustration about it, but also things that set off sparks in people’s minds, that help them think more deeply about their situation.  And that can be a lot of things. It can be reading books, or some organizer knocks on your door, or reading about Bernie Sanders in the newspaper and saying, “God, that makes sense to me.” But it’s that combination of the impact of ideas and the base of circumstances.  It’s not to say that comfortable people don’t struggle, because they do.  But I think the big motivating force for change in this country comes out of social and economic crisis.

For example, the anti-war movement had a lot to do with the fact that we had a draft.  Young people had to think about whether or not they wanted to go, and what the war was about.  And the civil rights movement had to do with the unbearable conditions for African American people in a lot of parts of the South, plus this rising idea that we’re not going to take it anymore and that we don’t have to.  You can trace it to people coming home from WWII, to having seen something of the world. You can trace it to radical organizations in the South, that agitated over all those years against lynching and for civil rights. Those seeds got planted and finally, they grew.  So I think that’s how social change takes place.

So what’s my part in it? I used to be on the organizer side and now I’m on the idea planting side.  But really, they’re so closely related that it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes.

MB:  For migrant workers who are undocumented, is there a disincentive to organize due to the risks associated with their undocumented status, or have you seen instances of undocumented workers organizing?

DB:   I went to work with the United Farm Workers Union in the 70s, which is when I first started learning about immigration and immigrant rights. I saw my first immigration raid and tried to understand what it was like to be Mexican living in the United States.  That’s when I first started getting interested in Mexico. If things are as bad as they are for people here, I thought, then why are people coming here? That led to a whole interest in Mexico, and now I write a lot about Mexico.

I’m an activist – a journalist, or an activist documentarian. One of the places where that activism happens is in the immigrant rights movement.  I’ve been an immigrant rights activist for a long long time. The first people who taught me about it were farm workers. One of the things I could see was that, as you said, not having papers makes it riskier to go out on strike or join a union. But it doesn’t stop people.  In fact, most of the people who belong to the United Farm Workers union are undocumented. So obviously it didn’t stop people. It’s not to say that there aren’t conflicts between people who have papers and those who don’t. But certainly, I could see that people were willing to struggle.

My work as an organizer was almost always talking with immigrants and people of color, and a lot of it talking with people who had no papers in foundries and factories.  That was mostly who we were organizing.

So it wasn’t just learning that people could do it, but trying to figure out as an organizer, with those workers, how they could defend themselves against the risk you’re talking about. What you can do if your boss threatens to call the migra on you. What to do if the migra actually shows up at the factory where you’re working.  Very practical questions like that also lead to a certain level of political immigrant rights activism.

I’ve been part of working groups to change immigration laws, with big debates over whether we need to have enforcement, or what the border should look like. I’m very involved in that too.

In fact, a new book I’m working on is about the border.  It’s trying to look at the border, not just as a wall, and not just a place people cross in order to come here, but as s a place where people live.  It is also, especially on the Mexican side, the scene of lots and lots of social movements and social struggles about the conditions for people there.  It comes from almost 30 years of photographs and interviews, which try to document the border as a region of people in movement.

MB:  So what seeds are you trying to sow through projects like that?

DB:  You know, I originally called my blog the “reality check,” because the idea is that, if we’re going to talk about immigration laws or migration or the workplace, let’s look at who’s there. What do those situations look like? Let’s listen to the people who are there, and then try and figure out what to do based on that.  So that’s what the seed planting idea is. When I was an organizer, I used to write a lot of leaflets, which were urging people to immediate action – go on strike or boycott or whatever. I had to cure myself of that when I started, to move away from being an organizer and work as a journalist.

So now what it’s trying to do is to draw a picture of the world, or part of it, in an accurate way, in a fair way, but certainly in a partisan way too.

I don’t believe in neutrality. I don’t think that anyone is really neutral about anything.  I have a war with journalism schools and the way that they treat neutrality in journalism because I think often that is used as a pretext for ensuring that the politics that appear in the newspaper reflect the editorial position of the owners and the people who manage it.

If you read the foreign coverage of the New York Times no one in their wildest imagination would believe that this is objective journalism. The reports don’t even pretend it is.  They just try to assume this is the only way you can possibly see the world. But objective and neutral?! Not in a million years.

We choose what to write about; choose who to talk to; choose whose eyes we’re gonna take a look at the world through {or the lens through which you tell a story].  Our mainstream media looks at the world through the eyes of people who have power. Unfortunately, where working people and people of color appear in our media world, they generally tend to appear as victims.  There is a certain muckraking tradition in journalism here and a lot of lip service is paid to it, but it doesn’t necessarily see people as actors very much, who are able to change it. I very consciously try to do the work I do in a way that pays attention to how people analyze their world and change it.

San Francisco hotel workers vote to ratify their contract at the end of their strike against Marriott Hotels on Dec. 3, 2018. | David Bacon

For example, I wrote a long political biography of Rufino Dominguez about a year ago, right after he died. Rufino, apart from being a friend, was a very crucial figure in the migration of people from Oaxaca to the United States and helped to organize some very important organizations both here and in Oaxaca.  I was trying to present the ideas he contributed – and he contributed to some really brilliant ones. He talked about the duality, for instance, of the fight for the rights of migrants in the countries they’re going to, as well as fighting for the right to not migrate in the places people are coming from.  In other words, there have to be political and economic alternatives in the towns where people are growing up so that a young person can actually decide, in a voluntary way, whether to leave and go to the US, or whether to stay and have a future with dignity. Rufino was a very important person in developing that idea. In fact, I was so enamored of that idea that I wrote a book about it called The Right to Stay Home.

The whole biography tried to figure out Rufino’s political history. Where did he come from politically? What were the currents of thought that helped him to develop both the ability to organize people and also his ideas?  This is really a very important part of documentary work. We listen to how people analyze their world and understand the ideas that they come up with. We don’t just treat people as victims.

MB:  Do you photograph people in Mexico to highlight circumstances there as well?

DB:  Absolutely.  That border book I was talking about – there’s a section in the book called “Communities of Resistance.”  This is a Mexican phrase, and they are communities along that northern part of Mexico, along the border.  If you go back 60 or 70 years, very few people lived there. Now there are cities of millions of people. So one of the things that’s happened is that people – poor people – have sometimes organized themselves to take over land owned by the Federal government. Before they changed Mexico’s constitution, basically to help investors become secure in their land-holding titles, people could settle on Federal land if nobody else was there.  They changed the constitution to throw that out because, you know, it was not a good policy for attracting foreign investment.

There are a number of communities where I have taken photographs, settled by people who were looking for a place to live.  Because they’re communities of very poor people, the first thing you see in the photographs is how poor they are. But they are also communities willing to create these settlements and to do that, you have to fight the government. The government’s going to bring in the police and try to stir up contra movements within your own community. Leaders will be sent to prison. So these are very activist communities.  And some of the struggles in the factories to organize independent unions have come out of those communities. They’re really interesting to me because they have this combination, and you can see it visually. You can see the poverty of people but you can also see them in action. It’s the way I try to document what’s happening in Mexico – looking at that combination of things over and over and over again.  It’s real easy in Mexico.

MB:  When you take photographs, what are you looking for in a “good” photograph – one that is trying to convey your desired message or achieve your desired result?

DB:   I’m not basically a landscape photographer, so usually its people.  One of the things I’m looking for is emotion – a feeling of intimacy, a feeling of closeness. I was at Horace Mann Elementary School in Frank Lara’s class (a teacher and community activist in the Mission).  You know, kids are fun. They’re very aware you’re there and have this desire to mug for you and you have to wait for it to pass. But they’re also very accepting so it’s easy to get close.

I take a lot of photos with a wide angle lens – getting really close so you can see the person big in the frame but you can also see the context. That’s sort of a classic environmental portraiture technique.

After a week on strike against Marriott Hotels, hotel workers, members of Unite Here Local 2, are arrested for sitting down and blocking Fourth Street in San Francisco in an act of civil disobedience. The sit-in took place in front of the Marriott Marquis Hotel, the flagship Marriott hotel in the city. Workers were protesting low wages that force many workers to work an additional job besides their job at the hotel. | David Bacon

Timing.  You know, still photographs are a slice [in time] – they’re different before and different afterwards. You’re just going to pick out that one moment.  You’re always looking for moments – you’re trying to predict what’s going to happen and where you want to be. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it gets to the place where I’m not really thinking about it. Some of it feels below the level of consciousness – I’m in the zone.  You have to trust yourself and develop your instinct to do that, and timing is a very important part of it. Watching people and seeing what’s going on with them. I’m always looking for people expressing something with the way that they’re moving or the expression on their face.

MB:  I read that, from your perspective, photos and writing individually are not as strong as they are together.  How do they work best together?

DB:  It works in two or three different ways.  The classic way is – for example, the latest book that I have [In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte] is basically photos and oral histories. Even the captions on the photos are sometimes extended quotes from someone in the picture.  We’re listening to voices and looking at the images and the combination is giving us a much richer idea of that part of the world and the people in it – what they think, what they have to say, what they look like. You’re getting a deeper understanding.  So that’s one way of doing it.

There’s another way. I do a lot of writing.  For example, I covered a meeting between a farm workers union in Baja California and one in Washington State. I wrote about the things they found they had in common with each other – which was a lot.  So the article was illustrated by photographs of some of the people quoted in the article, or who the article talked about. The photos are used to illustrate the story.

Generally speaking, especially now, I don’t think I will actually sell an article without pictures.  If you want an article from me, you have to run the pictures. I don’t have to fight so much [with editors] anymore because they know this is what I do and they like it.

Occasionally I’ll do what I call photo essays.  They’re really basically a string of photographs together.  Newspapers, magazines, and websites are run by editors who are word people.  They will almost never run a selection of photographs made up of just the photographs, or photos with captions.  They’ll want a story, even if it’s a brief one. So I’ll give them the story. But they’re really pieces that are carried by the photographs.  So that’s another way of doing it.

I think in some journalism schools, young photographers are taught that the photograph must be iconic, meaning that it has to stand by itself regardless of the context, with no explanation.  I find this a kind of problematic idea. Especially in documentary work, context is very important. You can change the meaning of a photo by changing the context in which someone is looking at it.

Words and images react with each other to produce the politics.  So when they talk about the iconic image, journalism schools are trying to pull the politics out of journalism – a way of making it more conservative, more acceptable to the New York Times’ owners or whatever.

Think of the young girl naked running down the road with smoke rising from the burning village behind her [Nick Ut’s photograph of the child fleeing the bombing of her village during the Vietnam war].  You can understand that picture without knowing it’s the Vietnam War. I think most people will understand that it’s war.  But if you understand which war, and if you understand who bombed the village, the photograph becomes much more political.  The reason it helped end the Vietnam war was not just because it was a generic photograph of a young girl fleeing a burning village, but because it symbolized the horror of that particular war, that our bombers were bombing that village and that young girl was fleeing the napalm into the arms, ironically, of the US soldiers who were participating in it.

MB:  Regarding the photo essay “Mexicans Greet Their New President” what were you trying to convey there?

DB:  It was a project borne out of necessity.  I guess if I’d really wanted to, and really tried, I might have been able to engineer myself into the group of photographers that were on the stage when [Mexico’s new president] Lopez Obrador received the staff of office from indigenous leaders.  That was certainly a very important thing in Mexican history.  We all knew what was going to happen and why it was important. Lopez Obrador was recognizing that Mexico is a multi-cultural country. He is the first president of Mexico ever to talk about the cultures of Mexico – plural. But I didn’t really want to do that, partly because there were already people taking photographs of the ceremony.

I was more interested in how people were reacting to this enormous political change – ordinary people interested enough to come to the Zocalo [Mexico City’s central plaza] to see the thing happen, but not the powerful and influential people sitting on stage or in the Mexican Congress.  I watched Lopez Obrador’s speech to the Congress on TV, which preceded the event in the Zocalo, and thought it was a remarkable and very important speech.

As a photographer, I wanted to look at what was happening to people.  In some ways, you could predict what some of it would look like. People were moving down these avenues in downtown Mexico City, which are lined with the old colonial buildings, so it’s a great environment in which to take pictures.  Then they’d be in the Zocalo, a huge square with a million people in it.

So I just walked around taking pictures of people.  Some of the pictures are very overtly political. Lots of people had flags, banners, signs that all have “AMLO (Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador] Mexico” and similar writing on them.  To me, that’s important to have in a photograph. That’s what people are saying through what they’re carrying.

One of the pictures is a guy who was part of a bus drivers’ movement that I documented 25 years ago.  In the Zocalo, he was appealing to Lopez Obrador for justice for their cause, which they are still fighting for.  So in the background, you have part of the banner, which says Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and you can read enough of it to know his name is there. But what you’re really doing is reading the emotion on his face.  It’s really all about what’s going on in his face.

After 61 days on their picket lines, San Francisco workers celebrate the end of the strike and the agreement on a new union contract on Dec. 3 2018. Workers protested low wages that force many workers to work an additional job besides their job at the hotel. | David Bacon

Other photographs were not overtly political.  I’m just trying to shoot what’s there.  The world is a rich and complicated and marvelous place, so I’m not trying to limit it by saying that the only pictures we’re going to show are people with banners marching down the road, although there are some of those too.

I was actually looking for people marching into the square, and there were not a lot of people marching. Then at the end, as I was leaving, there were these people marching down one of the avenues.  I was like “Oh, thank God!”

MB:  Do you see any changes occurring as a result of the politics with respect to immigration here in the U.S.?

DB:  There have been lots of changes.  We could talk for hours about the terrible things that Trump has done.  On the other hand, people spontaneously went out to the airports when he issued the first anti-Muslim order and shut them down – in San Francisco they got 50 people out of detention – I haven’t seen that before.  All the women who came out on two marches a year apart.

People are upset, angry, trying to organize in different ways.  I’ve been taking pictures – at the marches. It’s one of the reasons that I was taking pictures at the Local 2 [Marriott Hotel] strike. I would have been there anyway, but it was really interesting and a morale booster that this happened right in the middle of all this Trump shit.  Here they do a strike against the largest hotel chain in the world and they win! You know life is not just full of terrible news.

MB:  Do you have any upcoming projects?

DB:   I’m trying to get enough time to finish this book; or at least get a proposal together. Then we’ll see.  Publishing photo books is really really hard. The last one I was able to publish because a university in Mexico decided to do it and then I was able to use that to convince the University of California to co-publish it.  They all take an extraordinary amount of effort and luck. I’ve published books that are just text – it’s easier to be a professional writer than a photographer.