I am an avid maker and viewer of photo books, but gradually I have come to think that this two word term can be as much of a shackle on interesting work as it is a useful genre distinction. The best photo books are not really photo books at all. They are just books, which might predominantly contain photography and which might employ and manipulate it in ways which have the nuance and subtlety you would expect from the photography world, but which avoid letting this nuance define them. They are books which, rather than becoming bogged down in design fads and trends, or in self-referential and irrelevant ponderings about the specificities of photography, have something that they urgently need to say about the world, and which they need to say to as wide an audience of possible.
In all the many books I view each year, I encounter relatively few which really seem to do this, and particularly at the Rencontres d’Arles Festival where there was a staggering number of books on display I discovered only a handful amongst the works shortlisted for the various prizes which spoke to me in this way. One of these few titles was Mathieu Asselin’s Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation, which received the honourable mention in the festival’s LUMA dummy book award. In it Asselin uses photography as an investigative tool to probe and reveal the consequences of the practices and products of the multinational agrochemical corporation Monsanto in Vietnam and it’s home country of the United States. These activities are immensely broad, but those documented in the book share the common trait that they have had severe long term consequences for the communities where Monsanto’s products have been developed or deployed.
In some respects Asselin is revisiting depressingly familiar territory. He looks for example at the company’s manufacturing of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, considering the well-known consequences for Vietnamese today through a series of gruelling images of Vietnamese people with severe physical and mental defects caused by dioxin poisoning. What makes this book distinct though is the way he connects threads and links issues which other photographers might have treated in isolation. For example alongside these images from Vietnam he considers how United States servicemen exposed to the chemicals have also subsequently had children with birth defects likely to have been caused by the chemical, as in two striking images of Helen Bowser, the daughter of a former serviceman. In one striking image Bowser’s hand holds a photograph of her father in military uniform, only after a moment do you notice the misshapen fingers which clutch the print.
In another sequence of the book Asselin examines Monsanto’s contemporary diversification and development of genetically engineered crops, designed to resist herbicidal chemicals like the corporation’s Roundup weed killer. Asselin highlights the way the company treats these engineered crops as a patented product, forcing farmers to purchase seeds each year rather than resowing from the seeds of a previous crop, and litigating against those who don’t, a policy which has led to a spate of cases and bankruptcies. As Asselin pointed out when I met him in Arles, this idea of seed crops as corporate property is an entirely new and frightening development, which takes ownership away from the farmers for the first time in history.
Another important component of the book is the reproduction of material from some of Monsanto’s own advertising campaigns, which arrayed alongside Asselin’s documentation of the fallout of their activities creates a jarring contrast between the corporation’s own projected self-image and the realities of its activities for the communities it operates within. Perhaps the most potent example of this is the Monsanto House of the Future, a Disneyland attraction sponsored by the corporation and which opened in 1957. ‘Tomorrow is always built on today’ a video advertising the house prophetically announces, but in this book this house of the future becomes a sort of dark metaphor for a future which corporations focused on short term profits actually care very little about.
Asselin’s photographs become a sort of testament to what happens when the well-being of the future is traded for profit in the present, and specifically the consequences for those people who have to occupy that future, who are inevitably often the poor and the marginalised, the last people in other words who might own stocks in a company like Monsanto. So many images in this book stand for this idea, but one in particular lingers on my mind. Taken in West Anniston, Alabama, formerly the site of a major Monsanto plant, the photograph shows 65 year old David Baker at the grave of his brother, who died at the age of 16 from cancers caused by PCB exposure. Baker was a leading figure in the campaign which ultimately led to Monsanto being fined $700 million for polluting the town. It is a powerful, shocking image of past, present, and a future denied.
As I’ve said, many photographers would have documented just one of these issues in isolation, particularly the devastating long term consequences of dioxin poisoning in Vietnam, famously recorded Phillip Jones Griffiths in his book Agent Orange: Collateral Damage in Vietnam. What is rare though is to see a photographer making the connection between these different activities and using them to develop a sustained and highly persuasive argument against a company’s activities, and by connection against this sort of aggressive corporate activity in general. This type of interlinking seems to be me to be an ever more essential strategy for documentary photographers in a world which is so interlinked, globalised and networked, yet relatively few yet employ it perhaps because such an approach runs so counter to the way we tend to think about photographs. In that sense, and in terms also of the sense of indignation which seems to boil below the surface of the book, Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation calls to mind Griffith’s seminal anti-war book Vietnam Inc. as a work which transcends simply being a photo book to become a powerful investigative polemic on a topic which affects us all.