Ken Light: Continuing the Documentary Tradition in the 21st Century

Over the last few years, Susie Katz, president and founder of PhotoWings, has been documenting the process behind Ken and Melanie Light’s Valley of Shadows and Dreams, their photographic and literary exploration of a region known for its agricultural plenty—and the marginalization of its people. Below is an excerpt from the first in a two part series from PhotoWings on creating a modern documentary tradition. 

Ripples from the recent economic downturn spread far and wide. Not since the Great Depression have the lives and stories of so many Americans been impacted in the collapse of financial systems. In the 1930’s, Roy Stryker sent out dozens of FSA (Farm Security Administration) photographers across the U.S. to make a permanent record of the times; in the process the FSA helped shape the history of the photographic medium. In the 21st century, Ken and Melanie Light continue that tradition of documentary storytelling.

Ken and Melanie Light were documenting lives in the Central Valley of California—the epicenter of foreclosures—before the economy tanked in late 2008. It was partly a case of right-place-at-the-right-time chance and partly their tenacity to pursue, doggedly, the issues unfolding. They have created a body of work that mirrors the concerns of the FSA nearly a century ago, and sadly shows us that social and environmental inequalities persist today.

The “Valley of Shadows and Dreams” exhibit at the new Istanbul Photo Museum, which opened in July.


Social documentary photographer Ken Light reflects on his work in the context of the history of documentary photography, his own influences, and shares his philosophy and process on image making. Light also discusses the nuts and bolts evolution of his project’s development – from concept and funding, through the publishing process, to exhibition and promotion. PhotoWings also goes behind the scenes at Heyday and presents Ken’s video journal of his book on press in Singapore.

See PhotoWings website for videos, slideshows, and interviews with Ken and Melanie Light.