While touring a plastics factory, I walked from station to station, photographing people as they worked. I was looking for people focused on their task, wearing a T-Shirt without a soft drink advertisement or sports team on it.
The people who made kayaks attracted me. The kayaks are sold in home improvement warehouses across the country for about $400. A new kayak would come freshly pressed out of the big machine about once every minute and a half. A worker would follow the excess plastic on the edge with a box cutter, as a child would do when cleaning the pieces of a model airplane. When it has been cleaned, it was taken to a different station, where workers quietly attached plastic knobs, ropes, and other accessories that made it a kayak, and not just a hunk of plastic.
I starting thinking about boat builders. At one time, there were people who were master boat builders, who dedicated their lives to making crafts that would allow their friends and family to survive many weeks away from home, or transport goods to places they would never see.
What thoughts and emotions did these builders have as they stacked, carved, and tied their boats together? Were they Bored? Tired? Entranced? Prideful? Did they think about the journeys that other people would take on them? Did that help them focus, or was it a distraction?
Maybe they run the gamut, as people do today. I thought that the people I photographed working looked bored, cutting and screwing and snapping things into place. They moved uniform pieces into uniform slots in a uniform way, like the identical plastic beads that were heated up and melted together to form the kayak.
What kinds of things would the workers spend their money on after they left the plastics plant? Food for their families, warm coats, maybe save up for something fun, like a kayak.
There are people who would enjoy these kayaks, who would have relaxing weekend memories with their children or best friends on them. They would have quiet moments, thinking about nothing and just listening to the water.
Then came a loud screeching sound from the kayak birthing machine. Things that ordinarily moved in one direction shifted back and forth, workers gathered to see what was wrong. A shriveled, misshapen boat was tugged from the machinery like a paper jam, and thrown in a machine that chopped up the plastic excess and turned them back into tiny balls of plastic. I was told that now as a good time to leave, because the machine was going to be down for another half hour, and it was already getting close to closing time.
Usually, as a photographer working for publications, the perk of the job is that the most interesting things are yours to report on. For example: when a writer was buried under notes detailing the latest unforeseen human side-effect related to the cleanup of the Deepwater horizon spill, I was out talking with a victim, and photographing his family. When a writer was freezing away in an over-airconditioned booth atop the rickety New Orleans Superdome, I was on the field, taking pictures. Usually, being responsible for the visual side of things makes life a lot more fun.
But when this arrangement backfires, it truly does backfire. The FA* National Convention and Expo features speakers and workshops on a variety of topics of interest to young people considering a career in agriculture. But much of the actual content; the speakers and information, the learning, goes on in fairly drab conference rooms. So what is left to photograph?
Why it’s the LASER LIGHT SHOW! The PYROTECHNICS! The guy dressed up as some coot from DUCK DYNASTY!!! WHO ALSO HAPPENS TO BE A FULL GROWN MAN WHO IS ALSO THE FA PRESIDENT! This is the worst kind of “visual content.” It’s the kind of things that drains your soul, something that you can’t even trick yourself into supporting.
The 2 hour production (performed twice daily on two days) brought down the house with music, a speed-painter, and numerous opportunities to reflect on the words FAITH, LEADERSHIP, VALUES, and PASSION. Representatives from the US Army and Dodge Ram were on hand to relate those words to their brand.
In fact, there were many companies there to
- Build awareness of your brand,
- Showcase your latest products and services,
- Interact with attendees who have a vested interest in your operations,
- Recruit future employees and
- Attract loyal consumers.
at least according to the “Become an Exhibitor" FA webpage.
I’m really not sure what to make of all this. Online, I can find pages and pages of resources dedicated to ensuring that every company, from Monsanto to McDonalds, TransCanada to Toyota would have the opportunity to give free swag to the students, let them play on their bounce houses and take home FREE PICTURES from the photo booth. And yet I still can’t find a single schedule showing what the students spent their day doing, the boring ol’ workshops where they sat and learned stuff about their careers.
What is the point of these large, national organizations? Why do we seek them, over smaller, local groups? I suppose, without the national FA, these kids may not have as rich of an experience in and outside of the classroom, and our future agricultural economy may suffer. But is all this advertising necessary? Do we have to pimp our children, and expose them to hours and hours of propaganda presented as “education”? Must the long term success of a benevolent organization solely depend on the money gathered from companies who are eagerly seeking another avenue into our minds?
I’m hesitant to say the whole event was superfluous, because it seemed like many were in there in earnest to broaden their knowledge base in the diverse field of agriculture, something they might not get the opportunity to do in the small towns they are from. I think it’s the format of the spectacle that leaves me feeling unsettled. At some historical point I think a line was crossed between information and entertainment, and each event from then on had to be more amazing and theatrical than the next, or else attendance might fall. And with each production, costs rose, virtually guaranteeing a higher bill to be paid next year. Or at least that’s how I imagine it.