By Justin Bannister
Camera gives glimpse of life in border state
University researchers are supposed to wear white lab coats and conduct experiments in laboratories filled with beakers and high-tech instruments, right? Well, maybe that isn’t true for every researcher. Just maybe there are ways of gathering information and expanding the base of knowledge that don’t involve complex research papers or academic journals.
Bruce Berman is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication and a researcher at New Mexico State University. He doesn’t own any lab coats, just jeans with big enough pockets to hold his “Plan B” batteries, memory cards and lens filters. The closest thing he has to a laboratory is the iMac in his office. His high-tech instrument: the Nikon camera he always keeps around his neck or on the passenger seat right next to him while out and around the Desert Southwest and the U.S./Mexico border region.
“If you are doing good journalism you are finding information for other people to use,” Berman said of his style of research. “My job is to go out and try to learn as much as I can and then give that information to an audience who might need to know what I’ve learned.”
Berman got his first professional photojournalism job more than 40 years ago. For the past 30 years, his work has concentrated on the border region. He lives in El Paso, Texas, just three blocks from the bridge to Mexico. The Chicano community of El Paso and the dynamics of the Mexican city of Juarez are a focus of his work. His website, www.border-blog.com, has covered news, opinion and culture along the U.S./Mexico border since 2006.
In 2009, Berman received NMSU’s Rising Star Grant, and began working with fellow NMSU professor Mary Lamonica on their joint project, “Russell Lee’s Road; The People and Land Along Highway U.S. 60 in New Mexico.”
Lee was part of the federal Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, during the Depression, and was part of a group who later became recognized as the country’s preeminent documentary photographers. During the Depression, farm communities across the U.S. were devastated. It was Lee’s job to take pictures of those agrarian areas to show people who lived in the cities what the conditions were and why New Deal programs were needed to “fix” them.
As part of Berman’s project, he began photographing many of the same areas in the Southwest covered by Lee. Berman’s first stop was in Pie Town, a tiny community in far west New Mexico along U.S. Highway 60.
“It was sunset; I was looking west,” Berman said. “That road hasn’t changed in 70 years and I thought to myself, ‘Russell Lee could have been standing right here.’ That’s when I got the idea to call the project Russell Lee’s Road.”
Berman said he wasn’t trying to re-photograph Lee’s work, but he was soon surprised at many of the similarities between Lee’s photographs and his own from the project. Examples of the unintended yet similar photos include images of post offices, people listening to rural preachers and abandoned buildings along the highway.
“The project became a way to look at America and compare down economies from the 1930s and today. I immediately honed in on the economy and its impact on people,” he said. “It’s about our country. It’s about how we weather hard times and the changes they bring.”
Berman said while times are difficult today, they do not compare to the 1930s. One of his observations, of a girl sending text messages to her friends while sitting atop a horse before a barrel race, emphasized that point. Today, middle class families can still buy cell phones, as well as horses, trailers and trucks to take their children to barrel races – something he says never would have happened in the Depression.
“The 1930s was a decade of depression. Can you image how ground-down that would make a country? People were literally hungry, starving,” he said. “I think we’ve lost perspective a little bit.” Berman said he prefers, as did Lee, not to focus on the negative aspects of economic hardship, but instead on the hopes and aspirations people still have in difficult times. Images from the Russell Lee project can be found at www.russell-lee-road.com.