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.
See more of Nickerson’s work here.
(Image © Jackie Nickerson. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY)