The Tobacco People Project
Tobacco has been a part of the background of this part of Virginia for hundreds of years. The tobacco barns that used to dot the landscape are falling into disrepair, and the former tobacco fields are planted with different crops. Roanoke photographer Sarah Hazlegrove became interested in all things tobacco thanks to her family’s farm near Farmville, where they grew the plant for 200 years.
Her vision to document the planting, harvesting and processing of tobacco took her from the Taubman Museum of Art to New York City to some of the most remote places on Earth and back again.
David Mickenberg, former director of the Taubman Museum of Art, discovered Hazlegrove’s work at the Sidewalk Art Show in 2009 and offered her a show at the museum. For Hazlegrove, the body of work was at its beginning, so she asked for more time. An international project of the magnitude that she envisioned would be costly. She started knocking on the doors of different organizations and tobacco companies. She mentioned her project to friends who lived in New York, and they told her the CEO of Philip Morris International lived in their building on Park Avenue.
Through a series of letters and packages—mostly delivered through the building’s doorman—she and the CEO connected. She met with him and presented her ideas. Within six weeks she was on her way to Switzerland to discuss details, and, after contract negotiations, left for Indonesia.
The “Tobacco People” project started in 2011. Philip Morris International sent her to Indonesia, Malawi and Brazil. In each country she recorded every aspect of tobacco from the seed to the sale. Over the years she also visited the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Tanzania, and hopes to raise the funds to travel to India, Japan and Turkey.
“This project crossed the line from commercial photography into fine art,” she says, adding that her typical assignments include portraits, bar mitzvahs, weddings, products and, even once, jewelry for dogs.
“I’m passionate about it,” she says.
The amount of research she’s done into tobacco across the globe has made her an expert on a side of the subject.
“I know more than most people.”
Talking with her about it is a lesson in history that follows tobacco from what is now Brazil as the early Portuguese explorers spread it around the world. Her travels in Brazil took her to a remote location in the Amazon, where she found one of the most ancient forms of tobacco curing in existence.
During the age of exploration, tobacco was considered a “prestige commodity,” Hazlegrove says. It was used by Portuguese traders to facilitate the slave trade with African chiefs. When the slaves were brought to America, some brought their tobacco knowledge with them. She notes the planting of tobacco in Africa predated the organized cultivation of tobacco in Virginia by the English.
“People today only think of tobacco as a killer,” she says, adding that in the 16th and 17th centuries it was thought to be a cure for almost any ailment. “It’s interesting that in the end, they may be right.”
Current research is exploring biomedical uses for the tobacco plant. “From panacea to killer to cure.”
Hazlegrove began her tobacco journey with an offer of an exhibition at the Taubman Museum. Six years later, she came full circle, when the museum, along with the O. Winston Link Museum and the Harrison Museum of African American Culture opened an unusual three-part show of her work and research.
“For me, the thing that’s amazing is how the project is ongoing and is evolving—like tobacco and the view of it around the world.”