‘Beneath the Barcode’ exhibit highlights child labor and exploitation

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Even though the photo documentary exhibition “Beneath the Barcode” is at the Vineyard Haven library, it is not referring to a book barcode. Instead, it is the barcode on the food in our supermarkets and merchandise in our stores. Barcodes may seem like simply a modern convenience of black-and-white stripes and accompanying numbers to ring up prices, but across the globe, they have a far-reaching impact on children’s lives, including those in the U.S. The show examines how children factor into the production, transport, manufacturing, refining, and distribution of all the things we eat, buy, and use. And every image carries a powerful punch.

Walking through the show is a contradiction of emotions — there is the breathtaking magnificence of the photographs, and the heartbreaking visions they capture. Photographer U.R. (“Robin”) Romano was a master of natural lighting and composition, and had a unique talent in capturing the profound humanity of destitute children in the direst of circumstances.

We can hear the wail of the black-and-white work “Baby at the Dump,” where a disheveled toddler sits letting loose a cry that echoes through the piles of garbage around him. This is a nightmare scenario in Indonesia of “Take Your Child to Work Day,” which Len Morris, editorial director and president of the board of Media Voices for Children, tells me is just a single example of countless similar scenes throughout the world.

Morris also talks about how although the exhibit is about child labor and human trafficking, it is at its heart about poverty. Morris says, “Poverty, along with racism and prejudice against indigenous people, are the drivers along the global supply chains of all these photographs. Everywhere we look at the very beginning of the supply chain of what we buy or eat, you’ll find this poverty. If people weren’t so poor, had food and shelter, clean water and the capacity to send their children to school, you wouldn’t see babies in dump sites.” 

The scrawny child in the photo seems to sink into the piles of garbage around him, and, in fact, there are sinkholes into which he could just drop and disappear. Morris elucidates, “These are very dangerous places. You have every imaginable type of waste there, including medical. You’ve got people picking for recyclables, but they’re actually also picking for food. There are huge machines used to move the garbage, and the children work very close to them because that’s where the good stuff is.”

Romano caught a look of utter hopelessness of the young boy in “Lightbulb Factory,” which incongruously is a gorgeous composition of colors; the glittering reflections on the glass bulbs at his feet are a thing of beauty. This child is the face of modern slavery. The boy, like truly countless others, was lured away from his parents in a village by traffickers, bribed with the promise of an education and job from which he thought he could send money home. Instead, he was thrown into a loft to be beaten and starved while working 14 to 16 hours a day. As Morris reiterates, “Poverty is a great recruitment incentive.”

“Picking Coffee” is a beautiful double portrait in which the Kenyan children’s dark brown skin and their luminescent white clothes play off the lush greenery around them. A girl reaches out to pick the beans with her hands coming uncomfortably close to breaking into our personal space. “These children start at dawn and work until dark,” Morris tells me. “They have no food. There is white powder and pesticides all over the plants, which are sometimes 15 to 16 feet tall, and the kids climb up and get into them and the hard stem punctures the skin, which usually gets infected with the unsanitary conditions in the village.”

Ironically, it’s through providing medical care with their field kit for weeks on end that Morris and Romano gained the villagers’ trust enough so that they agreed to let them set up hidden cameras in the field. “But as soon as the cameras came out, the plantation owner’s goons came and wanted to smash and cut us to pieces,” reports Morris, adding, “We took these kids out and put them into school, and the Island-supported Martha’s Vineyard Children’s Kenyan Schoolhouse Program is now entering its 20th year.”

Media Voices for Children’s curator Melissa Knowles selected photographs of children picking not just coffee, but also cocoa, tobacco, and other food crops — including onions in a poignant black-and-white image of an exhausted, ill, and bedraggled girl in 104° heat without water or shade, and plants sprayed with cancer-causing pesticides. She earns 60 cents per 60-pound bag like the one behind her. Standing dead center, she is the epitome of hopeless resignation. And this is not in some third world country but rather Eagle Pass, Texas, where some of the border issues are going on now.

Media Voices for Children is working with the Child Labor Coalition, based in Washington, D.C., to pass federal laws to protect this girl and some half a million American children working in agriculture today. “This is our food supply, unless you’re going to buy entirely farm-to-table, which we can do here,” Morris says, “but if you go into stores, this is involved in all of it. Interestingly, the political environment that is demonizing the actual people who are supplying our food.

“In global terms, every other child, more than a billion children, doesn’t have adequate food, medical care, access to school, shelter, sanitation, clean water. Or even basic safety or human dignity.”

The show, however, ends with glorious photographs of radiantly happy children whose lives have been transformed through Morris’s efforts and those of other organizations that have made inroads to bettering the worldwide situation.

Media Voices Voices provides a buying guide and an app that lets you check every product you purchase, and determine whether there could be child labor or forced labor in the development of that product. For more information about “Beneath the Barcode,” contact Len Morris at mediavoicesforchildren@gmail.com or by calling 508-693-0752.