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Monsanto by Mathieu Asselin
ThuýLinh, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, 2015© Mathieu Asselin Courtesy of the artist

These photos show the devastating human impact of one evil conglomerate

Monsanto® is an American multinational whose chemical and agricultural products have harmed people and the environment for more than 110 years

“Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.” When American politician, Henry Kissinger, described the reality of the US in 1970, he could never have imagined that this sentiment would still be prescient nearly 50 years later. But it is. Cue Monsanto® – an American multinational whose chemical and agricultural products have harmed people and the environment for more than 110 years.

Over its lifetime, there isn’t anything Monsanto® has not produced. In World War II, its chemicals were used to bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan. In 1962, the US Military sprayed Monsanto®’s Agent Orange over Vietnam, crippling not only the Vietnamese people but their offspring for generations and generations to come. The physical effects of Agent Orange are harrowing, and children are still being born without limbs. But Monsanto®’s grotesque and extreme for-profit culture doesn’t stop there. They currently own dozens of Superfund sites across America, which is any land in the US that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as posing a risk to human health and the environment. More than this, the company has evaded environmental laws since 1926; owns 85 per cent of America’s GMO corn and 92 per cent of soybean crops (used to sue innocent farmers with false accusations), and persecutes anyone who even tries to rise against them. Those familiar with Erin Brockovich will realise how terrifying it is to imagine our planet's future if it continues to be suffocated by Monsanto®.

Understanding the need to reflect on the company’s past and present as a way to understand Monsanto®’s future is French-Venezuelan photographer Mathieu Asselin, who has spent the past five years documenting the evolution of the company. The project, named Monsanto, features deeply touching photos of Monsanto®’s damning effect on humanity. From the young victims of Agent Orange to the suffering farmers, Asselin’s project brings the fight a much needed visual emphasis. On top of this, the project also comes with a comprehensive collection of archival material, including Monsanto®’s creepy propaganda, and old newspaper clippings that trace the world’s long fight against the beast.

With Monsanto currently on show at London's The Photographer's Gallery until 3 June, as part of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize exhibition, below we speak to Asselin about why photography is important for fighting embedded power structures.

Why did decide to do a photo project on Monsanto?

Mathieu Asselin: The first time I heard about Monsanto® was from my father who told me about the problem with farmers in the American Midwest and how Monsanto is bringing them to court because of allegations that they used Monsanto’s seeds illegally. The problem was that these farmers said that they never used the seeds. So I started looking into that story and discovered that the story of Monsanto® is bigger than just that – I realised we had a monster story. Other people have talked about Monsanto, I wasn't discovering anything new. But, photographically speaking, this story has never been told. As a photographer, I saw that I had a very interesting story to tell visually.

What about photography as a medium is important to this story? 

Mathieu Asselin: Through photography, we can touch another audience. Is it more or less important than writing or making a film? I don't know. What I saw is that as a concerned citizen I needed to say something and the way I can say it is as a photographer. Also, I think the audience we're reaching through photography is different than the people who see a documentary on TV or an article in a magazine.

How so?

Mathieu Asselin: Because photography has a chance to be shown in so many places – museums, schools, travelling exhibitions that can be taken anywhere. So we can reach a lot of different people. Not just people who know about photography and the art world, but the everyday citizen. We can show photography to students, as well. More than this, we can turn photos into much more than just exhibition. This project has many things that turn around that exhibition around like talks and conferences. For example, we are having an exhibition, an opening and unveiling in Belgium but a few days later, we are having an exhibition in the European Parliament. We have exhibitions in schools. There are many different formats to show the problematic of Monsanto.

Is that why you've included stuff like archival material, memorabilia and things like that?

Mathieu Asselin: The most important thing about this exhibition – more than the pictures – are the stories. The stories need to be told. Of course, I am a photographer so I use photography, but at the same time, I need to make sure the whole story is told. The story of Monsanto® is a very complicated one, there are many things going on, so as many tools as I can use to explain the story is better. This is why I use archival material. Because it's not just about my pictures, it's not just about this linear way of telling something – it's a story that you can dig on in different ways.

I noticed that you have newspaper extracts, are they ads that Monsanto put out about Monsanto?

Mathieu Asselin: Yeah. Because I never contacted Monsanto® to talk about what I'm doing but I needed them to still have a voice somehow. I didn't want to, but nonetheless, I thought it was important to have Monsanto say something. The best way to do this was to add these commercials because there is nothing better than them having a voice through their publicity. What's important is to see the way Monsanto® tried to sell itself to the public. They try to portray a very clean image by trying to sell is this idea of progress, technology and how they will change the world through their products. The interesting thing is when you put this publicity next to my work, you understand that this future they're trying to sell is not real. The reality is completely different and we can see the consequences of their products – contamination, health problems, the list goes on... And not long ago it was discovered that Monsanto® was hiding the results of its tests and selling products that its publicised as environmentally friendly, no dangers for human consumption, animals – but this is not true.

That's horrible. There is a lady in one of your photographs and she had the pill bottles that she had to take in front of her. What was the impact of Monsanto's products on her?

Mathieu Asselin: She is the first generation, a daughter of a Vietnam veteran who was contaminated with Agent Orange. These are the consequences of her father being contaminated in Vietnam. As you can see, in Vietnam you have second, third generation of children whose parents were contaminated with Agent Orange. This keeps going on and on at a genetic level. 

You've never been in contact with Monsanto, but I know they're renowned for persecuting people who try to come up against them. Have they ever been in contact with you to try and stop your project? 

Mathieu Asselin: Not at all. I think they are very busy right now – they have a very big PR mess and bigger fish to fry. Going after a photographer, or an artist, is not a good PR move for them right now. Maybe after we exhibit in the Parliament they will say something but for now, they're being very quiet. 

“Photography won't change the world, people change the world. So the most important thing is to have people raise questions from the photography they see” – Mathieu Asselin

This project really is important, because you've given people a platform to tell their stories, who might otherwise feel silenced out of fear...

Mathieu Asselin: Monsanto® is very, very aggressive. If more people start fighting against them it will be harder for Monsanto® to go against every single person that goes against them. Most importantly, there are different ways to fight Monsanto. One of the ways is to go straight to the streets and protest and build organisations that fight Monsanto and be very involved in this way. But another very effective way to be involved also is just to know what you eat, what you buy, what are the products that you consume and who are the politicians you should support or not. I think what is important is just to put it out there, and there are many other people who are doing that – activists, scientists, lawyers, journalists – so I'm just one more of this big movement.

Your series shows how this problem is so multi-faceted. Why is it important to photograph all these different perspectives?

Mathieu Asselin: So that we understand that Monsanto® is not just an agro-chemical company, that they sell seeds and pesticides. No. The story goes further than that. If we understand each one of the problems that happened in the past, we can understand who Monsanto is today and where Monsanto is bringing us. What is this idea of the future? So it's important to have all these different things so we understand that the consequences go further than just land contamination and GMO seeds. 

Some of your photos are absolutely heartbreaking to see. Why is it important to evoke a strong reaction in your viewers?

Mathieu Asselin: Photography won't change the world, people change the world. So the most important thing is to have people raise questions from the photography they see. Once they see my work, people will hopefully get out of the exhibition asking questions that they didn't ask before. When people start asking questions, this is the moment when things change. For me the important thing is that – to raise questions.

Monsanto is featuring at London's The Photographers Gallery until 03 June 2018, as part of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize exhibition 2018. You can find out more about the prize and show here