The new exhibition at McKenna Theatre Gallery shows the fruits of photographer Veronica O’Keefe’s labor.
“On The Farm,” O’Keefe’s series of photographic portraits documenting Chinese farmers, will be on display from Friday, Sept. 28, until the last week in November. The exhibition was presented in conjunction with the annual New York Conference of Asian Studies (NYCAS), hosted by New Paltz on Friday, Sept. 28, and Saturday, Sept. 29.
“I thought [her project] was a really good idea,” David Elstein, assistant professor of philosophy and co-organizer of NYCAS, said. “It’s a part of China that’s fast disappearing as things become so urbanized…There are more cities in China and village life will soon go away. It’s nice that she could capture it while it’s still around.”
O’Keefe, a New Paltz alumna, came up with the project idea after minoring in Asian Studies during college. She said she became interested in where our food comes from and later began researching the relationship between China’s vast population and their limited arable land. She found that Chinese farming varies in organic, traditional and industrial styles.
“Farming is one of the most important jobs that people are doing today,” O’Keefe said.
While researching, she said she found out that not much emphasis was being placed on the farmers themselves.
“Half of the Chinese population are farmers, and I didn’t know that until I went there,” O’Keefe said. “This is a documentary project so it’s from my perspective, but it does provide an insight to farming in China and how incredible these people are and it’s also like paying homage to the people doing this.”
O’Keefe, a 2009-10 Fulbright Scholar to China for Photography, was awarded a Critical Language Enhancement Award in conjunction with Fulbright to study Mandarin at an immersion institute in Beijing. These awards allowed her to travel to China’s nine major farming regions and document the workers and their lifestyles.
“I was intimidated at first,” O’Keefe said. “Carrying around all my equipment and being by myself was scary, but people were amazing and I would always meet someone on the train who’d be excited that I’m American and they’d want to talk and wanted to protect me.”
When O’Keefe’s language immersion ended, she said she found an apartment in Dalian, China and found a local university to support her project. She said since her job entailed photography, she rarely stayed at home.
“[I ended up] traveling all over and staying at random people’s houses,” O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe said editing was the most difficult part of her project. She said she had to cut her photos down to 20, and printing them was difficult since they were shot with film.
Scanning all the negatives digitally, working with them in Photoshop and printing them on a digital printer took about five to six hours per image, O’Keefe said.
Despite the traveling and printing obstacles that O’Keefe faced, Elstein said her project pays tribute to those not typically given attention.
“This is a part of China that people don’t focus on,” Elstein said. “Their impressions of China are mainly economically driven, mostly about the advanced and modern country. The people there are still very poor and living a different lifestyle and that’s what she focuses on. The other side is what she focuses on. She brings out the simplicity.”