Terrain, Jackie Nickerson’s third book of photographs, opens with a portrait of a trim man standing against a neutral backdrop refusing our gaze. Before I try to respond to his refusal, which is obvious, challenging, and enigmatic – a detour. It is an established practice in written encounters with photography to begin with specifics, to translate what is visible and describable into words, and by so doing affirm through language what is verifiable and knowable about this world. It is a productive strategy, one that I want to dispense with temporarily in favour of thinking more broadly and contextually about Nickerson’s photographs.

Terrain is a book of portrait and landscape photographs descriptive of the materiality of labour on a variety of Southern and East African farms. The latest instalment in Nickerson’s long-term enquiry into farm labour, Terrain is neither an impartial nor all-encompassing document of working life in sub-Saharan Africa’s largest employment sector, even if the photographs are underpinned by Nickerson’s acute awareness of these environments as politicised spaces. Hers is a less tightly bounded project, one in which the dominant tactics are play, obliquity and quiet refusal. More purposefully, Terrain is a book that roams, geographically, but also imaginatively.

In affirming what this book is, I don’t mean to deny what is obvious and inescapable. Agriculture is an unavoidable fact of African life: it accounts for 70% of employment on the continent, and 25% of its GDP. While descriptive of modern agribusiness, Terrain essays its subject in a visual language that responds to the material circumstances of its subject. It refuses to merely illustrate statistics. It also rejects the orthodox grammars of explication and moral indignation that are the dominant mode of photojournalism, instead relying on a reduced and unstable artistic grammar to flag what Nickerson regards as important debates around crop specialisation, subsistence farming and food security in sub-Saharan Africa.

Formally, Terrain presents a synthesis of two ways of seeing and describing the daily grind of commercial farming. The book juxtaposes portrait studies of farm workers, many pictured at the site of their labour, either harvesting or gathering industrial crops such as tobacco, maize or banana, alongside descriptive landscape studies, typically of open fields and enclosed sites of cultivation. The sequencing of these photographs is however more important than the genre they belong to: Terrain makes no distinction between ethnicity and geography; it erases very real linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences. It is a risky strategy. Although sometimes overstated for effect, there is a common-held perception in the global north of Africa as a vast undifferentiated space.

Nickerson, who is nominally an outsider on the continent, is well aware of this bias. She accepts as given that the circumstances of a Malawian farmworker, for example, differ substantially from workers in Kenya, South Africa, Zambia or Zimbabwe, all countries pictured in Terrain. Nickerson has observed these differences first-hand – principally on month-long excursions to specific farms for this project, although it bears noting that Nickerson lived on a farm in Zimbabwe for five years in the late 1990s, an experience that sharpened her understanding of the daily nuances and political complexities of farm labour. But Terrain is not an evidentiary record of what distinguishes here from there, him from her, this from that.

Extending on the remit of her debut book, Farm (2002), a series of mostly frontal portraits of farm laborers made in Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe that included tightly-framed images showing the improvised protective aprons worn by farmworkers, Terrain offers a statement about the shared specificities and common habits that typify working life on farms across Southern and East Africa. In particular, it focuses on the unexpected collocation of materials on the intensely worked farm environments she visited. Delicate filigrees of shade netting or plastic sheeting typically obscure Nickerson’s farm landscapes. If these are highly political spaces, as the uneven successes of Zimbabwe’s agrarian reforms and centenary of the disastrous South African Natives Land Act of 1913 forcefully remind, these farm environments are nonetheless also aesthetic locales.

Although portrayed with a frank and unsentimental eye, Nickerson is capable of intuiting an uncommon stillness in the landscapes she records. The African landscape, long the subject of romantic and ideological projection by travelling western photographers, is shown to possess a simple dignity: it is neither abundant nor bare, merely a ripe context for human activity. It is however Nickerson’s portraits that decisively announce a conceptual shift in her way of looking. The cool objectivity of her previous portraiture, which shares formal and geographic affinities with the colour documentary of Zwelethu Mthethwa and Pieter Hugo, has given way here to an idiosyncratic and highly expressive approach.

Drawing on scenes noted in passing, Nickerson collaborated with a range of farmworkers to stage a series of portraits in which their identities are obscured by the materials of their labour: a load of dried tobacco or tangle of wire, a handful of banana leaves or tower of plastic crates. Unavoidably, Nickerson’s portraits recall Jean-François Millet’s respectful observations of bent peasant women bearing fagots of wood, also the material richness described in the street portraiture of Eugène Atget (in particular his 1901 study of a Parisian lampshade vendor) and August Sander (one thinks of his 1928 frontal portrait of a young man bearing a load of bricks on his shoulders). Irving Penn’s formal studies of working class Parisians, Londoners and New Yorkers, produced in 1950-51 for Vogue, are also a key reference point, in particular those where – like in Atget and Sander – the material accoutrements of a profession are synthesized into the identity of the subject.

For Nickerson, the hybrid forms that emerge in her portraiture are illustrative of what she views as the profound material relationship between farmworkers and their environments. Compositionally, Nickerson’s portraits demonstrate a keen interest in the everyday material qualities of farm labour. Plastic objects recur throughout her photographs, notably plastic sheeting, crates and bowls. The sheeting is especially adaptable: it can serve as a translucent barrier wall, be worn as protective dress, or used to fashion an abstract totem. Drawing on routine gestures and transformations of subjectivity that she noticed in passing, Nickerson invited her subject-collaborators to pause and be photographed during these moments where form and subjectivity awkwardly coexist. Some of her portraits recall Albrecht Dürer’s serial studies of drapery, while others seem to share a kinship with William Kentridge’s processional shadow figures, notably his famous icon of a workingwoman bearing a brazier.

While highly theatrical in outcome, Nickerson eschews speaking of her portraits in such determined and expressive terms. “For me, hard labour is a mixture of violence interspersed with very peaceful breaks, where, in this quiet moment, the power and energy of the exercise becomes apparent in the physicality and physiognomy of the person working,” she says. Her comment recalls a statement in a letter by Jean-François Millet, who, like Nickerson, was an interested spectator of farm labour, able to recognise in the stances and postures of farmworkers something beyond mere fact. In a letter written shortly after he moved from Paris to Barbizon in 1849, Millet records: “In cultivated land sometimes as in places where the ground is barren you see figures digging and hoeing. From time to time, one raises himself and straightens his back, as they call it, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand … Is this the gay and playful kind of work that some people would have us believe? Nevertheless, for me it is true humanity and great poetry.”

Much like Millet, Nickerson knows that there is nothing romantic about farm life. And like John Berger, who in A Seventh Man (1975) noted the idle metropolitan projection of fecundity and plenitude (“the wealth of a cornucopia”) onto farm landscapes, she knows that farming is constant toil, hardship and difficulty, a kind of “violence,” as she puts it. Violence – it is not a frivolous word. “Today’s rural life has been devastated by years of free trade and anti-peasant policies imposed on our governments by their bilateral and multilateral allies,” writes Diamantino Nhampossa, a senior member of Mozambique’s national peasant union União Nacional de Camponeses (UNAC). “The forced privatisation of food crop marketing boards – which, though flawed, once guaranteed African farmers minimum prices and held food reserves for emergencies – and the closure of rural development banks, which gave farmers credit to produce food, have left farmers without financing to grow food or buyers for their produce.” The material impoverishment of Nickerson’s subjects has a historical context: this is it.

But Terrain is not about recording material poverty. The radical juxtapositions that define the sequencing of this book extend to the very subject matter of the portraits. Terrain describes the material plenitude of farming and farm labour in all its contradictions: from the modern cultivation techniques employed using various plastics, through to its codes of dress and entrenched patterns of deprivation (none of the labourers pictured in this book wear gloves, and only a few possess uniforms). “I try to illustrate the embodiment of a metrical cycle, an ongoing cycle where the subject is a fulcrum in this massive cycle from farm to table,” elaborates Nickerson. “Perhaps the visual language – the poses – seem incongruous with the difficulty of the work but I’m trying to ask a question about values and trying to create a visual that will do that.”

So, after a detour, we arrive back at the man wearing an olive green button-shirt and soiled khaki workpants. He is pictured standing against a white wall. There is no diverting context, just this man. He faces his interlocutor – the photographer – directly. His pose is however ambiguous: he holds up an intervening prop, a well-used red plastic crate. The man is refusing the photographer – and by implication the photographer’s interested and questioning ally, us. This refusal is mirrored in a similar portrait at the close of Terrain. Refusal is an inflexible word; implicit in the man’s pose, as well as Nickerson’s decision to place his photograph upfront, is a concession: see me, but on my terms.

All portraiture represents a negotiation of some sort. These negotiations are fundamentally unknowable, although a photograph can offer varied traces of the underlying negotiation, whether camera angle, comportment of the subject, or use of textual addendum. But fundamentally, the encounter between photographer and subject is unknowable. I mention this is because of the habit to either elide or exaggerate the political dynamics of this unknowable encounter, to either ignore or overstate the dynamic role of human agency. The photographic image is open to multiple abuses: everyone knows this, from dictators and frustrated lovers to fishermen and truck drivers.

In Kayes, a busy trucking port midway between Dakar and the Malian capital of Bamako, I spent a week chatting to truckers, some who agreed to be photographed, as many who didn’t want to yield to my colleague’s camera. “Why?” they routinely asked. I have heard this simple, irreducible question asked countless times: at a Senegalese fishing port, in a Malawian TB hospital, late at night in an obscuring mist at a truck stop on the Swaziland-South Africa border. “For whose pleasure?” This is what I hear echoed in the pose of the man in a green shirt and work-soiled pants.

Of course, while the pose belongs to this unknown man, Nickerson retains the power of nomination. In conversations, she regularly returns to this subject: the fundamental power imbalance between photographer and subject. There is no antiserum for it. Photographers take and possess, as much as they describe and make. Inaction is not an option. Nickerson prefers to tackle this impasse head-on, through practice, photography offering an eloquent tool for producing an ethical discourse on labour and power.

— From the essay, Moving between land and subject, by Sean O’Toole

Sean O’Toole is a journalist and writer living in Cape Town South Africa.

Terrain by Jackie Nickerson
Publisher: T.F. Editores, S.L.C.
Hardcover: 112 pages