Photographer George “Elfie” Ballis, who became known for documenting the struggles of migrant farm workers and later the Civil Rights Movement, died Friday, September 24, in Fresno, California, after a lengthy illness. He was 85 years old.
Ballis, described on the Take Stock: Images of Change picture agency Web site as “a tough, wiry ex-marine with a pixie’s grin,” had first been a labor reporter in Chicago, then moved to Fresno in 1953, where he became editor of the Valley Labor Citizen. After taking a six-month photography course with Dorothea Lange, Ballis started taking pictures of migrant workers, their labor and their living conditions. Soon after he was shooting for the mostly Filipino union of field workers known as The Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC).
Ballis carried his cameras everywhere, and began to experiment with an unobtrusive style that well suited his purposes. “I began to consciously develop ‘invisibility’ for photographing people naturally and unposed,” he once recalled. “This involves turning down my electricity, going psychically ‘limp’ so that people do not feel threatened and, hopefully, my presence is virtually ignored.”
Eventually, he set his camera on the struggles of the United Farm Workers movement, led by Cesar Chavez. One of Ballis’s most memorable photographs shows Chavez leading farm workers on a pilgrimage from Delano to Sacramento in California in March of 1966.
In recent years Ballis followed protesters with his video camera, covering issues ranging from the treatment of animals to the war in Iraq. Some footage he shot during a Peace Fresno protest was included in Michael Moore’s 2004 movie Fahrenheit 9/11.
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