In her new project VENDANGE, French for the grape harvest, Mercedes Polo Portillo shares her insights on the precarious employment situations that have affected livelihoods in cities in COVID-19 lockdowns. Through an autobiographical lens, the photographer and a few friends turn to finding work in the grape harvest of Southern France. This is a narrative of migration for work, heading towards an ephemeral future job in another country, convincing yourself that this was the best of the few possibilities that this static moment can give.
The grape harvest in France can begin as early as August and finish as late as the end of October depending on how ripe the grapes are and which region they’re in. In less than three months, a frenzy of activity takes place in the 750,000 hectares of vineyards in France, a country with a proud history of grape growing and harvesting.
COVID-19 revealed the undertones of our governing bodies perceptions of those in what they call ‘low-skilled jobs’. Exploring this notion through immersing herself in the world and work of grape harvesters, Mercedes became a participant rather than merely an observer. For Mercedes and her friends, such close interaction with grape harvesters led to a newfound respect: “Society is responsible for staining and discrediting a multitude of professions due to the lack of required qualifications, something that represents an impact on the new generations and avoids the development of manual tasks that are still necessary.”
In VENDANGE, Mercedes ruminates on forming bonds with an ideology of work that breaks the established and comes closer, in some ways, to times when humans lived more connected to their surroundings. Spurred on by the idea of a dubious situation in the future, she believes this break to seek a source to greater harmony is paramount to our way of life. She stresses the idyllic nature of her photographs, reflecting a sense of peacefulness and slowness, away from the noisiness of the city and all of its vices. “The harvest is based on humane and dignified working conditions”, Polo Portoglio says. “Working for a small ‘domaine’ of sustainable production brought with it the denial of the nefarious treatment to which millions of day labourers are subjected in countless parts of the world.”
It is only through a series of requirements respecting the dignity and quality of life of the worker that agriculture and harvesting work can be encouraged. Mercedes experienced living in a community, a setting on the edge of the abyss and relegated to extinction or to the exclusive practice of small groups. Individualism perpetuates the general behaviour of society, causing fragmentation in the human being, social by nature. The rhythm to which we are subjected overwhelms us and takes us away from the principles that sustain us as a species. Mutual support has been, throughout history, one of the keys to human evolution. Walking away could mean a break with our true identity.
In sharing and giving to others, every day becomes rewarding. It is a simple operation and organisation that strengthens the tribe. It generates dynamism in social relationships, helps us feel understood and valued, and love others unconditionally; it is the engine, driving us out of crisis situations.