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George 'Elfie' Ballis, 85, who photographed struggle of Cesar Chavez and migrant farmworkers, dies

George
George "Elfie" Ballis, 85, shown at right with Cesar Chavez, has died. Ballis was a reporter turned activist whose 30,000 photographs of labor leader Chavez and migrant farmworkers bolstered their struggle in the 1960s and 70s to improve working and living conditions in the farm fields of California. (Fresno Bee)
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By Emma Brown
Monday, September 27, 2010; 6:14 PM

George "Elfie" Ballis, 85, a reporter turned activist whose 30,000 photographs of labor leader Cesar Chavez and migrant farmworkers bolstered their struggle in the 1960s and 1970s to improve working and living conditions in the farm fields of California, died Sept. 24 at his home in Tollhouse, Calif. He had cancer.

In the 1950s, Mr. Ballis was an editor for a labor newspaper in California's Central Valley when he took a seminar from acclaimed photographer Dorothea Lange, whose pictures had famously shown the effects of the Great Depression on the American poor.

He began photographing farmworkers, capturing their unimaginable difficulties - substandard housing, child labor and clouds of pesticides sprayed on workers with no protective equipment - as well as their strength and poise.

"I wanted my photographs to reflect to them the power and dignity they had," Mr. Ballis told the Fresno Bee in 2004.

In one of his most famous images, a barefoot boy jumps over a makeshift high bar he had built with an old car seat for a landing pit. Fists clenched, the boy appears to leap above his family's shoddy shacks in the background.

Mr. Ballis documented Chavez's effort to organize would would become the United Farm Workers union and win rights for Latino farmworkers. His photographs of protests, striking workers and marches appeared in The Washington Post and the New York Times as well as in Life magazine, Time and Newsweek.

The images humanized the struggle and helped the workers, who had been invisible to most Americans, win concessions from growers and support from leaders such as New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who made the welfare of the poor a central tenet of his 1968 presidential campaign.

Richard Steven Street, a scholar who has written several books about the farmworker movement, said Mr. Ballis was among a small group of freelance photographers whose images so affected public perception that Chavez might not have been successful without them.

"It was definitely activist photography with a point of view," Street said of Mr. Ballis's work. "He knew what side he was on and he made no bones about it - he wanted his photographs to help the farmworker cause and to break through the veil that surrounds rural life."

Mr. Ballis went on to rattle some of California's most powerful businessmen in 1976 when he took to the courts to shut off a spigot of cheap water flowing illegally to the state's most powerful landowners.

The lawsuit brought by Mr. Ballis's tiny grassroots group, National Land for People, showed how the federal government had repeatedly violated a 1902 law that limited landowners to 160 acres of irrigated land.

For years, the government had winked while growers ignored that law, amassing thousands of acres made arable with dams, canals and other water projects subsidized by the government. The subsidy going to California's largest landowners amounted to millions of dollars a year originally meant for family farmers.


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