Maria Aguirre Rosales de Bañuelos looks directly into the camera, the bright desert sun illuminating her strong cheekbones and dark eyes. Her weathered skin is deeply creased, taut and beautiful, and her hair is pulled back tightly, adorned with a bright white bow that resembles a rose. She is dressed up for this portrait in a festive, Sunday-best, black-and-gold sweater vest, sparkling earrings and three thick strands of pearls.
Artist Noé Montes took this photograph of Rosales de Bañuelos as part of his Coachella Valley Farm Workers project. A 2015 Alicia Patterson Foundation grant allowed Montes to spend the larger part of a year researching and photographing people of the Coachella Valley –– many of them farm workers or children of farm workers –– who are actively working to improve the lives of individuals in their communities.
Montes' Coachella Valley portraits are intimate and kind. On their own, without backstory or context, they are immediately impactful works of art. But the photographer's portraits, landscapes and contextualizing images are merely an entry point to what is ultimately a much larger and more complex, politically and socially significant artwork.
Click on Rosales de Bañuelos' "written profile" at Montes' coachellafarmworkers.com, for instance, and you can read her incredible life story, communicated beautifully through Montes' direct and honest prose.
"Maria was in an abusive relationship for most of her life," the artist writes about his subject. He goes on to tell how, at age 60, she attended a meeting where she heard other women speak about domestic abuse. "For the first time she saw herself from the outside, she gained self-awareness. She had never thought that she did not have to live with violence. This was a turning point in her life."
Montes tells how, after Rosales de Bañuelos established financial independence and left that abusive relationship, she went on to become a leader in the Lideres Campesinas organization, helping to educate women across the Southwest about their rights.
A similarly powerful story lies behind each of Montes' Coachella Valley Farm Workers portraits. In addition to the artist's written profiles, many of the project's subjects tell their histories in their own voices in single-shot videos that feature stoic backdrops such as a post office, a nondescript intersection or a used car lot with its flags and banners blowing in the breeze. As a whole, Montes' project relays a deeply researched and complex story, not just about a group of individuals but about a region, an industry, a culture and a society.
It is a world Montes knows intimately. The son of immigrant farm workers himself, Montes grew up picking crops in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley every day after school, on weekends and over long, hot summers. His parents worked hard to make a life for Montes and his two siblings in the United States so that they could go to school. They were constantly moving from farm to farm in search of the next crop, the next job. Montes attended multiple elementary schools per year, and remembers more than a few nights spent as a family in the car in between jobs and apartments.
After high school Montes attended a junior college, where he studied electronics. His first job doing component-level repair work earned him enough money to explore his lifelong interest in art by taking a few evening classes, including a photography course, at a local community college.
For Montes, looking at the world through a camera lens was transformative. "I found that it was a way that I was able to understand the world, to remove myself from it a little bit and observe it more objectively. I was also able to express myself, to express the results of those observations through photography," he explains.
That objectivity and outlet for expression led to a growing sense of agency, and photography gave Montes the ability to envision a bigger life for himself. He dedicated himself to developing his skills as an artist, supporting himself by doing technical work, printing and Photoshop for stock agencies. Eventually he was able to make a life as a freelance photographer in Los Angeles, where he now lives in Mid-City with his wife and two young children.
As a young photographer, Montes avoided making art about immigrants or farm workers. "For a long time I didn't want to do any work about that," he says, "but eventually I came around to thinking that I really had a responsibility to do something about that subject."
Today, the mostly blank walls of Montes' small Koreatown studio are punctuated by two large pieces of paper, tacked to the wall with strips of blue painters tape. On each is a simple statement, handwritten in thick black or blue Sharpie: "Take Action" and "Make Work," they read.
Sitting at his desk in front of those mantras, Montes talks about photography with passion. He has a deep knowledge and admiration for the medium and its history. He is as passionate about making mature artwork as he is about making a difference in the lives of young people and immigrant farm workers.
"This is my life," he says, gesturing toward his computer and sparse, neatly organized desk. "It's not luxurious, but I'm also not working like my parents. Their bodies are broken. They spent their whole life working in the fields, and I'm not doing that, I'm working with my brain, which is new to me."
Montes is still close to his mother, who he says has been very supportive of his artistic career despite the fact that "she doesn't really understand or have the context to know what my life is like." He thinks that she might have been an artist herself under different circumstances. She never completed elementary school and art was not a part of her reality. But, he says, "She's a romantic for sure."
When Montes talked with his mother about the Coachella Valley project, he told her that many of the women he met during his research related horrifying stories of sexual abuse in the fields. "Because so many of the women working in the fields are undocumented, they have no recourse, they can't go to the law," he explains. "I told my mom about that and she actually told me that that had happened to her as well. She said she'd never really talked about it with anyone. Suddenly it became really personal."
Montes feels a deep responsibility to the people and towns he photographed in the Coachella Valley. The Coachella Valley Farm Workers project has not yet shown in a gallery or museum (although it absolutely should) but is available in digital form online. "What I have been able to do," the artist says, "is use it as a tool for education. I've been giving workshops, especially to youth, about agency, about finding their voice. And that was actually one of my goals when I first started working on this project, to be able to take it back into the community. So I've gone back to the Coachella Valley to talk about it there, and to use the work as a tool for education."
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Montes thinks that education and storytelling are key to helping farm workers understand their value. "I guess that is the only thing I can do directly," he says. "To hopefully show people their value, and have them gain a greater perspective of their place. I feel like that's the ability that I have."
A Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities fellow, Montes' recent work includes "New Americans," an Annenberg Foundation commission for which he photographed recently resettled refugees in Sacramento, Oakland and San Diego. His brilliance as a portrait photographer shines in these works as well.
Montes' future ambitions involve helping young people gain agency through photography projects (something he has worked on extensively with various nonprofits and would like to formalize in the future), and a future work about mental health in Hispanic communities. Regardless of the subject, cause or means, one thing is certain: Montes will continue to do what he does best –– take beautiful, revealing photographs of people, and tell stories that matter.
"I've gotten to the point where [portraiture] really is my favorite kind of photography," he says. "That interaction between photographer and subject is unlike anything else. You are trying to get that person to open up, to let go of some of their defenses, and they are trying to show you what they want you to see about them. That interaction becomes really interesting. Space opens up and time opens, and hopefully you're able to together create something real, something true."