Almonds blossom, tomatoes, parsley as far as the eye can see: California cultivates more produce than anywhere else in the U.S.A. Consequently, the drought that has been on-going for five years is reaching catastrophic proportions for the locals. Uwe H. Martin photographed this nightmare in the heart of the U.S. agricultural industry. Here is a talk about water shortages and the virtue of perseverance. See more of his images in the current issue of LFI, on sale now and watch a video about it here.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this reportage?
A: There were two things: I am working with my wife on a big project that we christened Landrush. In it we look at the consequences of agriculture around the world, asking how things will continue when we consider the increasing population and the erosion of arable land. When we were in Iowa doing a story about the production of ethanol, we spoke with a professor who reckoned that, if I was interested in agriculture, it was essential for me to know about Central Valley. Nothing about it is natural. It’s an enormous factory measuring 700 kms in length and 400 in width. Then, by chance, I read an article about the drought in California, and thought to myself, if I’m going to go now is the time, because the whole produce industry is in question because of the drought. So I went there for the first time last August and September, and for a second time in February.
Q: Were you surprised with what you found there, or were you expecting it?
A: The drought is immediately obvious when you look at the reservoirs. You also see it in the valleys where very high walls are visible instead of water. The boat docks are around 30 metres below the normal water level, sitting on the ground. In Central Valley you see lots of land lying fallow, but you also see large areas being cultivated because ground water is being pumped up. Almonds, pistachios, these are perennial plants that need to be kept alive. There were times when I did ask myself where the drought was.
Q: How good a companion was the Leica M for this story?
A: The camera is very discreet; people often ask me if the Leica is an analogue camera. I’m rather tall and get noticed because I’m bald: it could be that I appear less threatening with the M (laughter). I have to work abstractly, so I can’t immediately see if it’s a wide angle picture or a long shot. Another advantage is that I don’t have to post-process the pictures much. They look just as good in colour.
Q: Is the project complete or are you planning further chapters?
A: For the drought story I’m going to be dealing with the Colorado River next. In general, my projects tend to develop, and when something comes up, off I go. With the revival of the El Niño phenomenon, meteorologists are expecting more precipitation in California. If that turns into floods, I’ll head back there. Flooding and drought are two sides of the same coin.
Q: So your projects are never finished?
A: Only once I get the feeling that I’ve already done and seen everything. Some photographers have a better style than me, they’re faster and better at many things. My strength, however, is that I don’t lose interest so quickly, and I always motivate myself to return again, to take another look, to keep at it. I build bridges between magazine publications, web documentaries, exhibitions or installations. That’s what makes my work different.
Q: How do you manage to combine photography and video?
A: Photography is the decisive factor, so I’m always looking for the picture first of all. I take pictures in the best light. Then there are certain situations that give me a push – now I must film it! My film images and photos are often very similar. And sometimes I forget to film in favour of taking pictures. It’s very rare that I find myself thinking that I didn’t take enough photographs.
Thank you for your time, Uwe!
– Leica Internet Team