SMP logo

Bookmark and Share


Photographs by Ken Light with text by Melanie Light

January 24 – April 19, 2014
Exhibition Opening Reception, Artist's Talk and Book Signing: Friday, January 24, 6:00-8:00 pm

MIDNIGHT, Fiesta Club, Tulare, California, 2007

"If you look behind the fantasy of the California Dream, so carefully crafted, you will see there are shadows too. The Great Central Valley has provided the dream for many, but it is deeply shadowed." –Melanie Light


Documenting a region known for its agricultural plenty, Valley of Shadows and Dreams presents, in words and images, the harsh truths of farm workers’ daily experiences, while taking a sustained look at the impact of politics, environmental and water issues, and rampant, often ill-considered residential development. Ken and Melanie Light embarked on a five-year photographic journey to examine the legacy and contradictions of agricultural plenty in the United States. These photos and stories capture scenes of hardworking people fighting to preserve their livelihoods and traditions.


California’s Central Valley runs from Sacramento almost to Los Angeles and covers an area roughly the size of Tennessee. Starting in the 1930’s it has been the home of agriculture on a massive scale and of what we now all call “agribusiness.” There are more than 80,000 farms which produce in excess $36 billion annually, which is 11.2 percent of total US farm revenue. Nearly half of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables produced in the US are grown there. This scale of farming requires two things: water, and a large labor force. In 2009, about 1.6 million migrant, mostly undocumented and seasonal farm workers planted, grew, and picked these crops. More than half of the residents live below the official poverty line. In recent years, developers have begun converting thousands of acres to residential development. Between 2000 and 2006, more than a quarter of the Central Valley’s farmland was converted to “urban use.”

“It was John Steinbeck’s confirmed opinion that any culture that refused to protect and nurture those people who cultivated, harvested, and processed crops was playing long odds with potentially catastrophic starvation.”-- Thomas Steinbeck from the Forward to Valley of Shadows and Dreams.

FOOD LINE, Westside Community Center, Mendota, California, 2009


“The Great Central Valley is a photographer's and writer's dream, an amazing mix of startling light and a kaleidoscope of faces and stories. When we began our exploration of the Valley, our aim was to investigate the farmlands that produce 50% of the country's fruits and vegetables. The project evolved into a study of what can only be described as a slow motion train wreck of unsustainability. Everywhere we turned during this project, people's stories pulled us in deeper, and their circumstances seemed to get more and more desperate the longer we worked. The project lasted five years, during which we witnessed the largest undocumented immigration march in Fresno history, the most massive foreclosures since the Great Depression, food lines, drought, the election of President Obama, valley boys dying as casualties of the war in Iraq, a huge citrus freeze that threw thousands of undocumented migrants out of work, and numerous other moments that Ken recorded with his camera and Melanie in her interviews, conversations and writings.

If you look behind the fantasy of the California Dream, so carefully crafted, you will see there are shadows too. The Great Central Valley has provided the dream for many, but it is deeply shadowed. We hope that this record of the land and its people will plainly show what the lack of visionary thinking on the part of our politicians and leaders has wrought. The issues are played out in the valley American style, but they are the global challenges of our generation: water, land use, population, growing economic disparity.

It has become manifestly clear that the democratic process has been abused by powerful interests that control all the basics of our lives – food, money, and housing. The trickledown effect of this – foreclosure, unemployment, and corn syrup-based diets – has gotten bad enough that it matters. Government, as a concept and in practice, has been debased. But the reason it exists, especially the democratic varieties, is to check the baser bits of human nature like the will to excessive power, exploitation, fear and greed. The struggle to maintain the balance between freedom and regulation occurs constantly and every generation must learn anew the lynchpins of that struggle and set the machine back to work for the best interests of the country as a whole.

People need to find their own voices, own this mess and then find a new balance between those in power and the rest of us. The American Dream is in our own hands. If we are to take back our future, we need good information to circulate broadly and deeply. This same story we found in the valley exists between Congress and every other industry in our country. It is both the crux of our success and our downfall.”

“Ken and Melanie Light's work puts a face on the disparities experienced by farmworkers in some of the richest agricultural areas in the world.”--Caroline Farrell, Executive Director, Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment.


Ken Light is a social documentary photographer and educator whose work has appeared in books, magazines and exhibitions for over three decades. He is also the author of eight books including In the Fields (Harvest Press 1982), which examines the lives of farm workers and their journey from Mexico illegally to the United States; With These Hands (Pilgrim Press 1986); To The Promised Land (Aperture 1988); Delta Time (Smithsonian 1995); a study of the southern landscape, cotton and poverty; Texas Death Row (University Press of Mississippi 1997); a look at life inside the death house as the condemned wait to be executed in Americas largest and most active Death Row; Witness In Our Time: The Lives of Social Documentary Photographers (Smithsonian 2000) and Coal Hollow published in 2006 by The University of California Press. His most recent book Valley of Shadows and Dreams was published in 2012 by Heyday Press.

Ken Light’s images have also been presented in numerous international magazines including Tempo; VSD; Nieuwe Revu; the London Telegraph, Time, Newsweek, Fortune, Mother Jones, The National Journal, Speak, L'Internazionale, Camera Arts, Paris-Match, Granta, the London Independent, Spanish Elle and in magazines in Japan and Korea, Holland, Denmark, Mexico, Spain and Italy as well as on MSNBC and 60 Minutes.

Ken Light has exhibited internationally in over 200 one-person and group shows including solo shows at the International Center of Photography; the Visual Studies Workshop; San Jose Museum of Modern Art; Oakland Museum of California; the Southeast Museum of Photography; Smith College Museum of Art and the Visa Pour L’IMAGE (France). His images are held in numerous public collections including the San Francisco MOMA, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the International Center of Photography and the American Museum of Art (Smithsonian).

Light has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Photographers Fellowship twice, the Dorothea Lange Fellowship and a fellowship from the Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation. He is a Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley and is Director of the Graduate Center for Photography, also at UC, Berkeley. He was the 2012 Laventhol Visiting Professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has taught at the International Center for Photography and at numerous other colleges, museums and galleries throughout the US and Europe. He was editor of the University of California Press series on contemporary photography; a founder of the International Fund for Documentary Photography; and, a non-profit documentary organization. He is professionally affiliated with the editorial photo agency Contact Press Image.

Melanie Light’s expertise lies in uniting text and images. She writes about photography, has written in collaboration with photographer Ken Light on two projects: Coal Hollow (2006) and Valley of Shadows and Dreams (2012), and has published several special edition photography books. She has worked in multimedia to extend the reach of her projects. She was the founding executive director of Fotovision, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the international community of documentary photographers, and is the recipient of the California Book Award (2013) and grants from the Soros Documentary Fund and the Rosenberg Foundation. Light teaches and lectures internationally.

"Our sincerest wish is that this project will inspire everyone to look, see, and act—so much is at stake."
--Ken & Melanie Light

Click HERE for more information about Ken and Melanie Light.

All photographs are Silver Gelatin Prints.

Saturday, February 8 @ 3 pm
Join us for a truly special 75th anniversary screening of John Ford’s 1939 classic film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. John Ford’s Oscar-winning screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s famous novel starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, the head of a poor, dust-bowl family hitting hard times in Depression-era California.

valley valley
Drive-in, Madera County, California, 2007
Central Valley, California, 2006
ROPE SWING, 6 P.M., 100°F
San Joaquin River, California, 2010

Current Exhibitions | Upcoming Exhibitions | Past Exhibitions | Traveling Exhibitions


The Southeast Museum of Photography is a service of Daytona State College
1200 W. International Speedway Blvd. (Building 1200) Daytona Beach, FL, 32114, (386) 506-4475
Free Admission & Parking

Click HERE for museum hours of operation

Exhibitions and programs at the Southeast Museum of Photography are supported in part by Daytona State College, Volusia ECHO and the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on the Arts.

Daytona State College prohibits discrimination and assures equal opportunity in employment and education services to all individuals without regard to age, ancestry, belief, color, disability, ethnicity, genetic information, gender, marital status, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sex, and veteran status. For more details, read our Equal Opportunity Statement or contact: Lonnie Thompson, Chair of the Equity Committee at 386-506-3403 or 1200 W. International Speedway Blvd., Daytona Beach, Fl. 32114.