Inspired by his encounters with people in the migrant health field, Eric Bouwens documents the daily life of migrant farmers during the apple harvest season.

It’s always fascinating to learn more about the daily life around the world, which is why documentary projects remain a popular pursuit among photographers.

For Grand Rapids-based Eric Bouwens, it has also been a way to explore his creative side, which became especially important to him as a way to cope from the pandemic. Capturing some slices of life of migrant farmers became particularly interesting to him in recent times, apart from shooting portraits in a makeshift studio in his garage.

Bouwens, who works in a COVID-19 clinic, needed a creative outlet after months of shutting down photography projects and travel plans due to the pandemic.

“Staying healthy while working in a COVID clinic was more pressing. As the months passed though, the lack of creative outlet became more depressing and I began to look for projects that could still be performed safely,” he said.

Inspiration to tell remarkable life stories

It was his early life as a Migrant Health Service physician that gave him the idea to document migrant farmers during the apple harvest. But, what motivated Bouwens to make this project happen despite the challenges was the desire to work around the limitations set by his medical profession. “I had always felt restrained by patient confidentiality in sharing from the remarkable life stories I learned of in my practice.”

Indeed, this selection gives us the impression of the connection he had to make with his subjects to be able to take a peek into their work. It didn’t come easy for him initially, as he didn’t get to secure his access to the farms the first time he reached out to the migrant workers. However, meeting a friendly farmer made it possible for him to pursue the project with unlimited access to his land.

“Growers were private and suspicious and did not want strangers walking onto their land. I was threatened for walking down the street of a small town with a camera. A photographer did not seem to be welcome.

“One day, though, my fortunes changed when I met a friendly farmer who welcomed me onto his land with unlimited access. The workers also warmed up to me gradually, partially due to my previous work in the migrant health field, as well as being a fluent Spanish speaker. I knew many of their hometowns due to my extensive travel in Latin America.”

Snippets of life in and out of work

Bouwens’ series shows us scenes of the migrant farmers in and out of work, a storytelling technique that is one of the hallmarks of documentary photography. I find this to be effective in creating in-depth narratives about his subjects not only as migrant workers but also as individuals and members of their own community.

I also like how the friendliness and trust that the farmers have given him do show in the photos. They were comfortable enough to share with him some slices of their life, what they do and what they come home to after work. All of these tell us of a skill that every aspiring documentary photographer must learn to be a master of the craft: a genuine interest in life, wherever it happens and however it unfolds.

“Since early October I’ve repeatedly returned to the orchard as the fall turns to freezing temperatures and the migrant workers hope to flee south,” he said about his future plans for this project. “I’ll likely be able to wind up photographing life on this orchard in the first days of November, and then try to figure out a venue for presenting the work.”

Don’t forget to visit Eric Bouwens’ website and follow him on Instagram to see more of his work.