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The story Behind the Reports from the USA

Despite having worked up many ideas for stories in West Africa, I decided in mid-March following a discussion with a friend to visit the USA.

In 2000, Hélène and I travelled through the state of Florida by bike, each night asking permission to plant our valiant little tent in people's yards. Not once did we sleep under bridges and on many occasions we had very friendly encounters. What would it be like this time, after September 11, 2001 and the current financial crisis which struck this state very hard?

I also had in mind all the reports I had read following my work on intensive agriculture in Spain (see the report "Europe's Garden or the Third World") and I found it interesting to try to document the model of this type of agriculture. Like California, Florida seemed to be a good choice. Therefore, it was on April 10, 2009 that I landed at Miami International Airport. I stayed about a week hosted by different CouchSurfers. During this time I travelled by bike through endless residential tracts, taking the measure of the extent and the severity of the crisis.

I learned that not very far south of Miami, in Homestead, a small rural town, the harvest had not yet finished. I decide to go there, and the second day after my arrival, in the afternoon, I photographed a group of Haitian migrant workers picking beans not too far from the entrance to Everglades National Park. The next day in the same area around the entrance to the park, while I photographed a group of South Americans working for the same company at an impressive speed (they were literally running in the field with buckets of vegetables), I was asked expressly and in an intimidating manner to stop taking photographs and not to set foot in the fields again. Despite the promise I made to the Haitians to come back, I decided, in order not to put them in difficulty, to avoid any further contact. I phoned them and told them that I had to leave the city but hoped to be able to visit them again in early July when they would be in the state of Georgia, there once again look after the bean harvest (see the report "Haitian Migrant Workers in Florida/Georgia").

During roughly the next two weeks or more I took up a position at the other end of Homestead, looking for and then documenting other harvests and the work involved in arboriculture.

Since all my requests to pitch my tent in people's yards were unsuccessful, I turned again to the CouchSurfing network and in this way I met a biologist doing research on the consequences of agricultural activities that had taken place in the 1970s in the heart of Everglades National Park. One short afternoon I had the good luck to accompany her to the site of her research activity. (see the report "The Hole in the Doughnut").

With the harvest reaching its end here, the city was empty of all its seasonal migrant workers. I decided to follow the movement north and to visit Immokalee, a small rural community that had the advantage for my projects of being the most important place for the production of tomatoes, and of being situated a reasonable distance (for a cyclist) from Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres. This area is sadly famous for its record foreclosure rate and high unemployment. It is where Barack Obama, when he was newly elected, presented his first speech on the economy, using the place as a symbol.

My arrival in Immokalee was a little difficult. With no active CouchSurfers, and after fifty negative responses to my request to pitch my tent from people I met outside their homes, I resolved when I saw a storm coming, to go to a campground. To my surprise, the campground didn't accept anything but trailers (a kind of mobile home), they refused me any kind of shelter and told me that there was a camping site in Felda, exactly twenty kilometres farther on. Standing on the pedals, I travelled the distance at lightning speed, stopping only once to try one last request for hospitality. It was a charming little house just outside of Immokalee, and there was a woman inside a car parked under a tree, about thirty meters inside the gate :

"So, you think it's funny to trespass on other people's property?"

"Not at all, but the gate to your house was open, and when I saw you from the road inside your car I wanted to ask your permission to pitch my tent in your yard. It's quite big, it's raining, and since I plan on leaving tomorrow morning I won't disturb you very much. I'm a French photojournalist and I'm here to study firsthand your method of agriculture."

"Look, I don't know if it's going to be possible. You found me in my car because I live in my car! My brother who lives here just barely puts up with me, so you see... In fact I came to Immokalee because it's my hometown, and after I lost my job in Texas I didn't know where else to go. It's hard here, you know. I don't think you are going to have any luck camping in Immokalee, you should go to a hotel. No offence, but the people here are going to confuse you with a homeless person, there are so many of them like you on bicycles..."

I arrived at the campground in Felda all soaked, where other encounters awaited me. I stood in the place indicated by the sympathetic owners of the campground, hesitating to unpack my things in the pouring rain, when a mother and her daughter seeing me from their kitchen window suggested that I put up my tent under the roof of the carport of the house where they were staying.

They told me that they themselves lived in a tent with the rest of their family. But because of the rain they had sought shelter in the house of their friends who would soon be home.

In the end, permission was given to me for that night and for the entire month that followed. In the course of this period I documented : first, the departure for Michigan of this family in grave economic circumstances, a story that truly saved the day for me (see the report "Following the Bee Season"), then, going every day to Immokalee, the work in the orange groves and the tomato and pepper fields (see the report "Haitian migrant workers - Florida/Georgia"), and finally the work of an apiculturist, whose job plays an important role in the production of fruits and vegetables (see the report "Apiculturists in the USA").

Paradoxically the photos taken in the fields are the easiest in this kind of reporting. On the contrary, it is much more complicated for me to try to document the lives of migrant workers, South American or Haitian, outside of work. The mistrust and misunderstanding directed toward me are enormous. And this in spite of the assistance I got from the coalition of workers of Immokalee. (http://www.ciw-online.org/). In the face of these difficulties, I decided to wait and see if, little by little, the barriers that prevented me from taking pictures that were a little more "natural" or "authentic," (that might attempt to reflect the real nature of the place), might recede...

It was fifteen days after my arrival, when I was in Immokalee very early in the morning to take pictures at the time when the immigrant workers were waiting for the buses and other vehicles that take them to the fields (for those who are "lucky" enough to be picked), that I asked for asylum in the shelter for the homeless.

("Are you without a fixed address?" "On this continent, yes. And I have a job to do, I have to explain it to you...")

Here I learned that in addition to the migrant workers that the shelter habitually accommodates, it receives an additional 25% of its applications from Americans in economic difficulty (foreclosure, unemployment) and that it is currently operating 120% of its capacity. I attempted to document as much as I could of life in the shelter.

The US residents of the shelter told me that there was another shelter in Naples (a nearby city and very close, according to rankings, to some of the richest subdivisions in the USA), and that "if I want to understand what is going on currently in the country with the economy, I ought to go there."

It was for this reason that I abandoned my idea of going up north to the Tampa region to follow the migrant workers and the harvests, and I spent two weeks in the shelter that was recommended to me. Belonging to the same network as the shelter in Immokalee, major differences are that the food is delicious, its capacity is larger, and the migrant workers are absent. The shelter usually accommodates a majority of people who have problems with addiction to alcohol and drugs. But like Immokalee, it has had to face since the beginning of the year a additional 26% of people confronted with economic problems, making it overstretch its capacity (see the report "Life in and Around the Shelters"). It took me several days to be in a position to photograph freely around the shelter. At the same time I was going to the construction site of a house worth an estimated $ 20 million, in a very select neighbourhood at the edge of the ocean (Gourdon Street), where Cuban bricklayers, Mexican and Guatemalan painters... work for less than average wages (see the report "Construction in Recession"). I also made contact with the "Habitat for Humanity" foundation (http://www.habitatcollier.org/) and I documented the restoration of a "Foreclosure" acquired by the foundation to accommodate another family.

Unfortunately, a little pressed for time, I spent few days in Port Charlotte in another shelter where I had heard that there were many homeless people living in tents in a nearby woods. Following that, to keep my promise, I travelled to Georgia where I spent two days with the group of Haitians I had met in Homestead, Florida. It was also important to me to follow a group of workers making the rounds from one state to another. Here, I was able (despite some difficulties) to take a photo of the first group of Americans I observed working in the fields, in this case watermelons.

A big Thank You to all the people who helped in one way or another the little "crazy Frenchie" in his North American adventure or in his work.

Best et Kind regards à toutes et tous,
Abrazos y suerte,
Thomas