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Field Notes
Rob Clark Sugarcane
Photograph by David Coventry
Robert Clark
Interview by Glynnis McPhee and Paul Heltzel

For the October 2007 National Geographic story on biofuels, photographer Rob Clark spent seven weeks in the field, shooting in Brazil, Mexico, and all across the United States. Clark shot chugging industrial landscapes and portraits of farm workers among the plants they harvest, which are then turned into alternative fuels.

You shot corn and sugarcane–not necessarily the most exciting subjects. How did you go about it?

Using lighting specific to your subject in order to create texture is key. To me, although they are simple, all the organic materials I shot for this story are beautiful. I just tried to bring out the texture, detail, and color that is specific to corn. And I don't think a lot of people know what sugarcane looks like. It has all these subtle pinks and greens. Generally, I try to stay out of the way of the natural beauty of what I'm photographing. (See the Photo Gallery.)

In one of your shots, you placed a board behind stalks of soybean and sugarcane. Why?

I wanted to shoot the soybeans and sugar cane as specimens, but also in their natural environment. As a photographer, I've always felt my job differs from that of a writer's, in that the writer wants people to turn the page. I want people to stop and look at every detail in the photographs. I wanted the starkness of the white [board] to bring out all the details in the plants.

What do you think is the best shot from the assignment?

I like the lead image of the sugarcane worker leaving the field at the end of the day. I had no idea sugar cane could grow 14, 16 feet tall. These people are dwarfed by the plant.

What's an average day like for the sugarcane workers?

It's a young man's game, but we saw people in their 50s and 60 doing it. They look like 28-year-old atheletes. It's hard work and they don't take in a lot of empty calories. These guys work ten-hour days. They're in the field at sunrise. It's backbreaking labor. They burn this field, and it's hot and it creates a lot of eye irritation.

Why burn the field?

It reduces the biomass around the cane, it clears the field of snakes, and there's a myth that it makes the sugarcane sweeter.

When you're in a burning field, did you ever think, I'd rather be shooting a mountain expedition?

No, this was a great assignment. Brazil was a pleasure. I'd never been in a Portuguese-speaking country. And I don't think I met one person who didn't want their picture taken.