As a child in rural Missouri, Saundra Sturdevant couldn’t have imagined she would become a top Asian scholar—and then abandon academia for a lifetime of advocacy and art. Her father was one of 13 and her mother an orphan; her father left when she was nine months old to join the military. Sturdevant spent her early years at her great-grandmother’s, on marginal farming land. She put herself through college and graduate school, earning her PhD at the University of Chicago in modern Chinese history.
Why China? “What happened in China in the ’30s and ’40s was a peasant revolution,” Sturdevant says. “We had not seen a successful peasant revolution. It was a new way of organizing life, society, and economics.”
As an activist in the Civil Rights movement during college, Sturdevant realized “on an experiential level” the problems within American society. “I saw this system wasn’t working,” she says. “China offered an alternative.”
During the Vietnam War, Sturdevant joined the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars to advocate against America’s containment policy of China. She came to UC Berkeley in 1972 for her post-doc and stayed on to teach Peace and Conflict Studies. The early ’80s found her in Beijing, editing English language publications and living among an international community of what the Chinese deemed foreign experts. It was the first time the Chinese had interacted with North Americans for decades.
“This was when I began photographing,” Sturdevant says. “And I made the decision that I didn’t want to stay in the academic world. I didn’t fit there; I was too good a teacher, and that is not thought highly of. My working class consciousness was very strong, and I was one of only five or six women in Asian studies at that time. It wasn’t good for me.”
Photography offered an alternative, and her study of the Chinese language gave her a valuable reference: every Chinese character can fit within the same square, and each is perfectly balanced. “I had a sense of framing based on the language,” says Sturdevant. She provided the photographs for a 1992 book she coauthored: Let the Good Times Roll: Prostitution and the American Military in Asia. Not long after, she traveled to India for a vacation. Rest turned into inspiration; it was here Sturdevant laid the cornerstone for the women’s agricultural photography project she operates today. “I photographed what women do in the fields, and when ag work is not available. They work with cement, in cashew plants&almost all in the countryside. It was three months hotter than hell, and we ate whatever the peasants were eating and slept on boards.”
When she returned to the States, she had an opportunity through the American Friends Service Committee to work in California’s Central Valley. “The central question is what kind of work women really do in agriculture, and how it differs when you have petrochemical farming as you do in the valley,” Sturdevant says. “For instance, the harvest of lettuce is mechanized, but women do certain tasks and men do certain tasks. Women’s work here in the Central Valley is pretty much the same as women do in non-mechanized India. I call it the `U’ series, where women are bent over in a U. They’re in perfect Yoga poses, like a triangle. Women are the planters of the world. They’re the ones who put the seed in the ground, the life-givers.”
The Migrant Photography Project came about when a revolutionary school superintendent wanted to use photography to address the problem of illiteracy in valley schools. Alphonso Anaya was fired soon after—”He rocked and rolled too much,” according to Sturdevant—but the project lived on. “I’d never done that kind of thing,” she says, “and I wasn’t sure if I could. Sixty percent of the Lindsey district parents are illiterate. While Al was superintendent, he was able to raise enough money to outfit a darkroom. We bought used cameras, chemicals, and he housed us in a building on campus. We started recruiting women to come learn photography. We were open to recruiting men, but men don’t do this. Women do the school relationships, the kids and school.”
After Anaya left, funds ran out. But Sturdevant was able to stay in the building—and then the grants began to come. “We’ve gotten grants to work on pesticide drift, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy, groundwater toxicity due to dairy runoff. We photograph housing and labor and use the photographs to educate. We do exhibits in the community and elsewhere.”
The fotonovella project is something new. The first fotonovella—written by community members with photographs to illustrate the story—is about pesticides drifting into the home and the neighborhood. “They’re basically comic books,” Sturdevant says. “It’s eight pages on pesticides. We’ve had horrendous drift dousings. The drift goes into people’s homes, and it’s generation after generation exposed to it. The project photographed 350 images of home, and then we edited the images and the story. The next one is on pesticides in the field.”
One of the best parts of the fotonovellas is that it’s a new form of advocacy, one of nonprofits working together to serve the community. The Committee for Pesticide Reform raised the money to develop the fotonovella, and the Migrant Photography Project took on the technical aspects. “It’s a combination of forces putting out material for education and organizing,” Sturdevant says. “It’s very different from how people have worked in the past.” CPR is now training community members on how to educate using the fotonovella. “I was pesticided photographing for this one day,” she says. “You have a right not to be pesticided. It should not be part of the deal.”