Celia Roberts championed human rights through photography
By Tamie Meck
Published Thursday, February 1, 2018 8:43 am
Photo courtesy Elaine Brett Paonia photographer Celia Roberts peers through the window of a Customs and Border Protection truck at "International Friendship Park" on the border of California and Mexico. Roberts, who championed the rights of immigrant farm
Celia Roberts was a petite woman, but her photographs and her indomitable spirit made a big imprint on the lives of her subjects, and on those who knew her.
Roberts was surrounded by friends, poetry and song when she died at her Paonia home on Jan. 21.
Roberts was called to a life of photography by age 5. Through most of her adult life she used her camera and boundless energy to champion the rights of the nation's immigrant farm workers. In 2016, at the biannual conference of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association in Washington, D.C., the association purchased "Gracias por la Vida," an exhibit of 40 black and white images Roberts captured of migrant families.
"It was a whole different side of Celia that people don't know about," said close friend Elaine Brett. Brett, who traveled with Roberts to the conference, told the DCI that when they arrived at the airport in D.C., Roberts was greeted with open arms and treated "like a rock star."
Early in her career Roberts studied under the late Austrian photographer Ernst Haas, who documented World War II prisoners of war. Haas inspired her to do a study of migrant agricultural workers through a series of black and white images. She photographed migrant workers harvesting peaches and grapes in Paonia, apples in Washington state, onions in New Mexico, and cabbages and ferns in Florida.
From 2000-2013 Roberts published "Gracias," a series of wall calendars focusing on migrant life and calling awareness of their culture to the public. Her intent, said Roberts, was to publish a book "on the people who are essential to our well-being, because they feed us."
Her vast portfolio includes images taken for Habitat for Humanity in Bolivia and Ecuador, UNICEF and the Breakthrough Foundation in India and Sri Lanka, the Foundation for International Community Assistance in Costa Rica, Pastors for Peace in El Salvador, and on her independent travels in Mexico and the U.S.
Roberts was also a founder and longtime board member of the Blue Sage Center for the Arts. Last July the Blue Sage hosted a retrospective of her work dating back to the 1970s. A gallery of Roberts' photos, a bio and more are available at celiaroberts.com. Information on purchasing prints will be posted on the website in the near future.
In 2006 she received the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association Plate of Bounty Award, and in 2010 she received the Migrant Education Harvest of Hope Award for her contributions to the farm worker community.
"If there was the commitment to cooperate in finding a solution to this issue, and if we included those most affected in the conversation, the workers themselves, I'm convinced a solution can be found," Roberts told the DCI in 2016. "Unfortunately, it's become this huge political issue while they've been left out of the process of seeking answers that work for everyone.
"I truly believe that if we just take time to say thank you for our food and the hands that harvested it, there would be a shift in consciousness in this country. It will make a difference."