SOUTH CAROLINA: Kingstree, 1969
There Is More Work To Be Done
George "Elfie" Ballis (1925 – 2010)
Ballis had a storied career at the intersection of photography and social justice. He chronicled seminal movements in American history including the Civil Rights movement in rural Mississippi, the United Farm Workers movement, and the rise of self-help housing in rural America. Ballis insisted on capturing images of ordinary community members in addition to leaders at the forefront of social change. This reflected his belief that leaders thrived because of heavy support behind them. High-profile leaders, including Cesar Chavez, according to Ballis, were only the spokespeople for what was really going on. Ordinary folks were the movement, and he wanted to capture the dignity of the everyday people.
As an advocate for empowering the rural poor, Ballis was driven by the same values that continue to drive the Housing Assistance Council (HAC). Those present in HAC’s early days have shared their memories of Ballis for this project, reflecting on Ballis's legacy and the relationships that he built with rural advocates from coast to coast.
“George was high energy, enthusiastic, brilliant, very self-directed, and had great confidence in his ability to analyze political situations. He was an amazing individual, and it was a great gift to spend most of my life evolving with him.”
- Maia Ballis, Social Activist, Artist, & Widow of George Ballis
SOUTH CAROLINA: Kingstree, 1969
George Ballis enlisted as a mechanic in the United States Marine Corps during WWII. Matt Herron, a noted photographer in his own right and one of Ballis's contemporaries, said that Ballis's whole view of established political culture and how it affected the lives of ordinary people was forged from that experience. After the war and dabbling in writing, Ballis became a reporter and editor at the Valley Labor Citizen in Fresno, California. It was during his time at the Valley Labor Citizen that his photography career was born. He took a course with Dorothea Lange, a prominent photographer during the Great Depression, and she showed him how photography allowed him to marry his passion for the camera with his passion for social justice.
NOVA SCOTIA: Glace Bay, 1969
“Photography could be a way of life. It is not only a way of exploring the world but also exploring yourself.”
- Matt Herron, Civil Rights Photographer
FLORIDA: Collier County, outside of Ft. Myers farm labor camp in Immokalee, 1969
In the 1950s, Ballis began taking photographs of migrant workers, their labor and their living conditions. Soon after, he was asked to chronicle the work of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) union. As AWOC's members, Filipino-American grape workers, voted to strike, Cesar Chavez and his National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) union joined them. Paul Chavez, Cesar Chavez's youngest son and now CEO of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, told HAC of Ballis's close ties to the Chavez family and the broader labor movement, emphasizing that Ballis's respect for the humanity of the marginalized allowed the rapport leading to his powerful images.
Ballis aided the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee by joining the Southern Documentary Project in Mississippi. Working alongside Matt Herron and others, this small team documented life during the pivotal summer of 1964 in the Deep South, capturing images that continue to frame the Civil Rights movement. Herron compiled the stories and images from the Southern Documentary Project in Mississippi Eyes, the only book to provide a firsthand account of what it was like to photograph the civil rights struggle in the Deep South. Mississippi Eyes also tells how Dorothea Lange recommended George Ballis to Herron for the project.
“During the last time we saw Cesar Chavez in a private setting, Cesar was thanking George Ballis for all his work for the farmworkers. George responded by saying: Thank you for giving me something of value to document.”
- Maia Ballis
CALIFORNIA: Three Rocks, Fresno County
Throughout his career, Ballis's advocacy for rural communities included land use, standing up for small farmers in California's Central Valley, and housing. Maia Ballis explained that housing projects were attractive to him because they focused on how people were working together for community betterment.
A co-worker recalled how Ballis urged fellow housing advocates to also fight for land rights and better rural policies; he had a systemic approach to rural issues. George would later become the Chairman of the advocacy group Rural America.
“George felt that when people sweat together and were working harmoniously, they know how to repair the structure because they know how it was built. Communities are also built in relationship with your neighbors.”
- Maia Ballis
NEW MEXICO: Construction at Atoca, 1968
LOUISIANA: Self-help houses, pre-cut by Kingsbury, Edgard, 1969
In combination with Ballis's strong drive for social change, his unique character made him an exceptionally noteworthy co-worker, friend, and inspiration. He made his presence visible in all spaces, whether it was on Capitol Hill or in his office. Joe Belden, a past HAC employee who crossed paths with Ballis in HAC's early years, recounted a time where Ballis publicly challenged the Secretary of Agriculture. The new secretary from Iowa, John Block, was speaking at a conference when George stood up in the audience and asked pushy, humorous questions. Block and Ballis got into a good-natured, but pointed exchange where George was trying to grill the secretary on what he thought about small town agriculture and sustainable agriculture.
These traits continues show the true essence of George Ballis. He was a leader who was optimistic in the face of whatever struggle he was up against. He never stopped working, and he was always about to say something that would surprise, intrigue, or outrage somebody.
CALIFORNIA: Biola, Fresno County
“I knew him as a community organizer and rabble-rousing activist. George Ballis was out to change the system.”
- Joe Belden, former HAC Deputy Director
PUERTO RICO: Borinquen, 1969
As we celebrate a half century since Ballis captured some of his most iconic images and celebrate 50 years since HAC’s inception, we reflect on leaders, including George Ballis, who set a foundation for progress. Such reflection leaves HAC and our friends grateful for Ballis’s contribution, even against still-daunting odds.
PUERTO RICO: Santa Catalina, 1969
PUERTO RICO: Near Barranquitas, 1969
“George used photography because he was actually trying to move things and to make change. He was not alone and it very much was a movement. This narrative needs to continue because people can make progress but problems don’t go away.“
- David Bacon, Photojournalist
CALIFORNIA: Brothers study together in their new bedroom, Parlier, 1968