Born and raised in New York, Jon Anderson studied and taught literature at Columbia University before switching to photojournalism. He trained himself by working as a lab and teacher’s assistant at the International Center of Photography, and thereafter worked independently on a variety of subjects in New York. In 1996 he joined the Black Star Agency and produced essays on homelessness, poverty, pediatric AIDS, and prostitution. His work has appeared in such publications as Newsweek, Newsweek in Spanish, Vogue, Emerge, as well as a variety of texts. He recently exhibited photographs at the United Nations.
Drawn to ways of life that have abided for centuries, he has traveled in Asia and South America, photographing, among other things, an ancient Shaivite ashram in Varanasi, where boys are trained to become priests; a group of Hijras (eunuchs) from Delhi; and Brazilian Macumba in the favelas, which sparked an ongoing interest in the culture of the African diaspora.
After covering the historic Dominican elections of 1994 and 1996, Anderson eventually took up residence in Santo Domingo in order to work on two books, one documenting the problem of the bateys, and the other, a kind of novel in pictures entitled The Good Life, depicting a culture, rooted in long-established rural traditions, that is now disappearing due to the rise of an urban consumerist.
Caña brava is the finest cane, the sweetest, and the toughest to extract. Its roots run deep. Its stalk repels the blow of the machete. Brava connotes ferocity, anger, heated aggression—qualities that define the malevolent environment in which the cane cutters find themselves; for cane is their implacable foe, and the plantations their perdition. Many thousands have died on the plantations. After the Taino Indians were worked to extinction, the Spaniards brought in African slaves from the Congo; and long after that, when Americans revived the plantation system, the gringo “misters” brought in the Haitians, who to this day comprise the majority of cane cutters. As a Chinese proverb says, no cane is sweet at both ends, and while we in the United States continue to savor our imported sugar, those who cut it, crush it, extract and boil its sap, taste nothing but bitterness.
The bateys, a Taino word for their villages—later appropriated to designate plantation housing—can be anything from a cluster of tumble down shacks to a more systematic arrangement of bachelor barracks. In recent years, they have become housing for the landless rural poor, and Dominicans and Haitians mingled together there. Living in almost complete isolation, they lack basic things Americans take for granted, including legal rights; they are essentially stateless. Even those born on Dominican soil are denied a cedula, an identity card, and without the cedula they are ipso facto without identity. They are simply braceros, men who live by the strength of their arm (brazo).
The braceros today are in limbo, caught between the demise of the old sugar economy and the new tourist-driven economy that now buoys the Dominican Republic. The cruelest irony of all is that while it was bad enough under the old dispensation, it is worse still in an era of economic progress. The plantation system has fallen into neglect; sugar factories are in disrepair or shut down. There are many bateys, lost amid forests of wild cane, where the people are starving for lack of work.
The photographs here, culled from two years of shooting, lay bare the plight of these people, but more importantly they celebrate a way of life born out of adversity, which has historically formed an essential strand of Dominican life as a whole. They serve as a reminder, not just of the strength and humanity of these people, but of the fact that Haitians and Dominicans share more than geography and history: they share a vital culture. In the face of this connection, the ethnic and linguistic differences that have so long divided the island disappear.
—Jon Anderson, April 2002