Background image of Growing Power's aquaponics operation in Milwaukie, one of two dozen groups and places featured Douglas Gayeton and "Lexicon of Sustainability."

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At the Natural Capital Center: The new faces of food

As many as 100 photos meshed together with a backstory written in the gaps and along the borders.

Douglas Gayeton’s zeitgeisty, alluring photographic compositions of unconventional farmers from all over the country are hanging in the Natural Capital Center.

But he has no idea.

Or at least, he didn’t, until we contacted him last week to find out more about the show, “The Lexicon of Sustainability,” which he co-created with his wife, Laura Howard-Gayeton.  Turns out that anybody across the country can apply to curate this pop-up show; once they receive the two dozen high-resolution photos, they hang them wherever they choose. “People are more plugged into communities than we are and have a much bigger reach than we would,” Gayeton, 52, says. Shows started over a year ago. Our local exhibit came by way of Nana Cardoon, a local garden-based learning center, which has been moving the show all over the region.

That’s the nature of this project, which is designed to be accessible to wide audiences, while tackling terms of art in the sustainability and progressive farming movements – from freighted words like “food miles” and “green collar” to lighter ones like “farm fairies.” Each photo has backstory written in the gaps and along the borders. In the end, it’s a humanizing project and one worth returning to several times. We already have.

Q.This style first came together for your book on Tuscany [Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town]. How did it happen?

A.I was looking to do something different.  Photos are great but there’s no concept of time –it’s just a single moment. Whenever I looked at a photo I had more questions than answers. So I started writing on them and making composites. Some of the images in [Lexicon] are as many as 100 photos meshed together.

Q.This group featured in the show is a mix of kind of vanguard and old school farmers.

A.We said we’re only going to photograph people who defined sustainability and can express it in their own words. Who better to explain than the foremost practitioners of food and farming?

It’s a mix of famous people like Alice Waters and people you’ve never heard of. They’re urban and rural and people of different ethnicities. It’s really the face of sustainable farming. We’re trying to provide people with alternative viewpoint of farming. We can’t fix the food system if people don’t know what the basic terms of the system are.

Q.What’s the experience been like of watching this go viral, in a sense?

A.We didn’t know how it was going to be received when it started. Would people be willing to host their own shows?

Now, we’re finding that the hosts are becoming lending libraries – when the shows are done, they actually let others borrow them and show them.

Q.This project seems like it’s taking the halo off sustainability language?

A.How do you move people? Remove the barriers to language. We’re trying to do that. It’s a critical aspect of this whole sustainability movement — language that’s more inclusive and empowers people.

And because of this project, the next time you drive past farms and farmers markets, you’ll understand how that person working there is more connected to your life than you thought at first.

Q.But it’s still wonky stuff — can people dig into it?

A.We’ve always made the assumption that these ideas were over people’s heads. We learned that we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what people want to know. When people don’t know what you mean, they have an excuse to not get engaged. This project expresses things in personal and simple ways, so you’re creating an army of people around the country who are informed.

Q.There’s a neat succession in one of the pieces of a woman climbing around picking a tomato. What’s the story behind that?

A.If she’s just holding tomato you wouldn’t know she has to jump up and pick that.  That’s ability of this show – it allows you to show movement over time. That piece with Will Allen and his colleagues in Milwaukie was shot over six hours.  None of the people in it were shot at the same time.  It’s a photograph that shows a moment in time that never happened.

Q.What the most surprising thing that’s happened as result of the shows?

A.One of our subjects has worked hard on the issue of eating down the food chain. There was recently legislation introduced in California to protect targeted keystone species [those at the top of the food chain]. It shows what you can do when get people the right information in the right form. Policy makers want to be moved, too.

PBS is now showing three short films based on the Lexicon characters. Here is one on foraging.

Watch Forage on PBS. See more from The Lexicon of Sustainability.