JTF (just the facts): Published in English in 2017 by Verlag Kettler (here); a French version has been published by Actes Sud (here). Hardcover, 156 pages, with 118 color photographs. Includes an introduction, multiple essays, and lengthy image captions by the artist, a foreword by Jim Gerritsen, and an afterword by Jean-Claude Asselin, as well as reproductions of newspaper clippings, screen shots, contracts, letters, advertisements, pamphlets, and other archival materials and ephemera. Design by Ricardo Báez. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Mathieu Asselin’s unequivocally full-throated takedown of the US chemical giant Monsanto stands apart from other issue-based photobook projects that have tended to take a more measured, arms-length approach when tackling controversial subjects. Often when we have been shown visual stories of war, corruption, injustice, political intrigue, and other crimes and manipulations, artists have offered us a parade of stark and sometimes shocking visual evidence, but have generally let us draw our own conclusions about what these pictures are showing us.
Asselin’s photobook does no such thing. Mixing the tenacity of an investigative reporter with the passion of an activist, Asselin takes aim at the many failings of Monsanto and unloads every ounce of ammunition he can muster at the various targets. There is no mincing of words, no balancing of two sides, no acknowledging of complexity, and no ambivalence. This project feels like a fiery rhetorical speech that combines equal parts protest book and withering diatribe, and few photobooks I have seen this year pulse with as much admonishing fury.
Asselin divides his portrait of Monsanto into five separate narrative threads, in each case combining his own photographs with a selection of archival material that supports and enriches his line of thinking. He begins in the town of West Anniston, Alabama, where a Monsanto plant systematically (and knowingly) contaminated the community with unsafe levels of PCBs. His photographs tell a tale of emptiness and abandonment, the landscape populated by overgrown houses and rotting gas stations, the few residents who have stayed on struggling with a laundry list of chronic health problems and putting too many of their friends and family members in the cemetery. Compared with the crisp “House of the Future” exhibit Monsanto put up at Disneyland in 1957 to celebrate the company’s achievements in plastics, these houses and their long term prospects look hopelessly bleak, Asselin’s image of the now-toxic Choccolocco Creek running through town tinted a pollution-rich blood red.
He then turns his attention to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant made by Monsanto (and others) that was famously sprayed over Vietnam during the war to scorch the dense jungle. Asselin unravels this historical thread in two separate directions, tracing the consequences for those both at home and abroad. The first part of the story takes place in Nitro, West Virginia, where the herbicide was made. Production wastes and residues were illegally dumped in the surrounding areas, and Asselin has tracked down several residents whose families contracted cancers as a result of the environmental contamination. He later traveled to Vietnam to follow the second part of the story, visiting an obstetrics hospital in Ho Chi Minh City and documenting the gruesomely deformed fetuses packed in glass jars on view there. While he was there, he also photographed several young people suffering from genetic disorders and malformations contracted as a result of exposure to the chemical, some of the subjects born without eyes or arms three generations down from the original danger. He uses these images to connect the dots back to earlier pictures he made of children of American veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange, finding a similar trail of deformity and severe illness.
Asselin’s third indictment of Monsanto circles back to the PCB issue, this time via the linked stories of two Midwestern cities – Sauget, Illinois, and Sturgeon, Missouri. Sauget was home to a massive series of chemical plants known as “Monsanto City”. These facilities were the nation’s largest producer of PCBs until the chemicals were banned in 1977 and the whole area is now designated a Superfund site as a result of the years of unconstrained dumping and pollution. Sturgeon was the location of a 1979 freight train spill, the chemical cargo coming from the plant at Sauget. Asselin’s images set the scene in both locations and his reporting follows the details through various investigations and long running court cases, using a series of reproduced newspaper articles to fill in the background. His conclusion is that even though Monsanto largely avoided responsibility for the Sturgeon spill, the publicity surrounding the events tainted the image of the chemical industry and pushed Monsanto to diversify its lines of business.
Asselin uses this bridge to turn his attention to the dark underbelly of Monsanto’s food businesses, and in particular its aggressive approach to managing its patented GMOs for corn, soybeans, and other staple crops. Parts of this story have been widely reported, but Asselin does a succinct job of putting the framework together once again and illustrating it with images of farmers who have been manhandled by Monsanto. The central idea is that in an effort to increase crop yields, Monsanto invested large amounts of time and money to develop genetically modified versions of key crops that are resistant to its pesticide Roundup. In theory, this allows the farmer to plant the seeds and spray the crops with Roundup to eliminate the weeds without worrying that the crops themselves will be damaged. The catch is that Monsanto has prevented the farmers that use these seeds from saving them from one season to the next (a practice that goes back to the very invention of agriculture itself), adding in sterility features that force them to buy new seeds every year. They have also taken a hard line against those that have tried to defy them, prosecuting farmers for seed saving or for the presence of GMO DNA in their fields, even when that very DNA can be transmitted naturally by wind or insects. This section of the book mixes portraits of victimized farmers with still life images of seeds and chemical canisters, the full force of the argument felt most in the explication of the fine print in the Monsanto contract.
The last section of Asselin’s energetic argument comes at Monsanto from the inside, using its own marketing materials and promotional merchandise against itself. Still life images of branded giveaways like matchbooks, key rings, ash trays, and playing cards are matched with snippets of text drawn from Monsanto advertising. Each pairing is rich with implied satire, with phrases like “Chemicals help you eat better” and “There really is not much difference between foods made by Mother Nature and those made by man” shouting their absurdities in large type. Asselin’s point is that these kinds of messages were nothing short of deliberate disinformation and propaganda, especially when the company knew that many of its products and business practices were harmful.
Part of the reason this photobook is so effective is that it has been extremely well designed. Asselin’s photographs are typically given plenty of room to breathe, with captions placed at the top and image locations at the bottom, both in unobtrusive text. The rest of the accompanying materials are reproduced to look like the originals, so page flips often have a scrapbook or dossier feel. And designer Ricardo Báez’ use of typography is particularly inspired (a rarity in photobook publishing), the lettering big and bold, keeping the structure of Asselin’s argument clean and legible.
The importance of Asselin’s book comes from its thoughtful revival of the genre of the photoessay in a modern photobook form. If we are honest, there is not much in the way of new information presented here (Monsanto’s pattern of transgression has been decently well documented already) and Asselin’s photographs, while well crafted, don’t offer a singular new aesthetic point of view on Midwestern landscapes, portraits, or isolated still lifes. But the integration of the images and text and the organization of the argument are what give this project its vitality. This photobook is angry, and that jangled emotion comes through in the purposeful energy invested by the artist in the various narratives. Asselin wants us to wake up and care about this disturbing content, even if we think it might be familiar. Ultimately, he’s married the storytelling instinct of a relentless photojournalist with the aesthetic insight of a careful photobook maker, resulting in a contemporary photoessay that resonates with insistent power.
Collector’s POV: Mathieu Asselin does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).