In 1975, photographer Cathy Murphy began an assignment that would change her life forever. She was asked by civil rights activist Cesar Chavez to become a staff photographer for the worker's union he co-founded, United Farm Workers. Here she tells of the chance encounter that led her to documenting history…
I was studying photojournalism at Brooks Institute of Photography and working part-time for the Santa Barbara News and Review. It was the summer of 1975 when I received the assignment to drive down Highway 1 to get a photograph of Cesar Chavez. He was leading a small group of supporters in what Chavez called, “The Thousand Mile March.” It was a pilgrimage to let farm workers know about the new California law that gave them the right to vote for a union. I had no idea how that assignment would change the course of my life so dramatically.
When I first saw Chavez, I was amazed. He was such a small man. How could he dare to take on California’s agribusiness? His security guards and two very large German Shepard dogs surrounded him. I jumped in behind the dogs and took my first photo of him. His piercing, dark eyes answered my question. I saw his power and realized that his strength had little to with his size.
I planned to spend a few hours on this assignment, but Chavez’ charisma drew me in, and I returned to the March the next day. I watched as he talked to farm workers and then met with him myself. After seeing my photographs in the newspaper of farm workers on strike at a near-by ranch in Egg City, Calif., Chavez made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Like all United Farm Workers volunteers I would be paid $5 a week for working six days a week and live in modest housing at the union headquarters in the Tehachapi Mountains.
I continued on the March and wondered about what I had just signed on for. We walked 20-25 miles every day for a month in the grueling heat. By the third day, I developed blisters on top of blisters. That evening I asked Chavez if I could ride in a car with the guards for a day or two to heal my feet. Instead of saying yes, he sent someone to bring a tub of hot water with healing salts in it. As Chavez sat at my feet and, with needle in hand, broke the blisters, I thought of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Chavez told me to keep soaking my feet so I could get back on the job of photographing the March the next day.
I spent more than two years documenting farm workers and their children working in what Chavez called “the killing fields.” They worked stooped over with short-handled hoes from dawn until dusk. Unannounced crop dusters sprayed entire families with pesticides.
I thought it might be my most important photographic assignment. It was.
About Cathy Murphy
Cathy Murphy’s award-winning career spans more than three decades and includes documentary, advertising and fine art photography. She is a Getty Images contributor and her exhibit “Marching Through History,” spanning her work with Cesar Chavez and the UFW, is on display through Sept. 30 at San Francisco State University.
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