The present exhibition is the result of five years of work by the French visual storyteller Mathieu Asselin. It documents the activities of the US multinational Monsanto that has just been taken over by the German chemicals giant Bayer. Monsanto is notorious as the producer of Agent Orange, the defoliant used during the Vietnam War. It produces Roundup, an insecticide that has just been banned for private use in Belgium and dominates the maize seed market in the US with genetically manipulated seeds.
Co-curator Rein Deslé: "The Monsanto exhibition is important because it takes a stand. Often photography will simply provide a reflection. Here the photographer is not standing on the side-lines but has a story to tell, the story about the excesses of the Monsanto company. It is not a pretty story."
"Asselin says that he is a concerned citizen. He uses photographs that he makes himself, but also documents, adverts, cards and photos that he finds. In six chapters he attempts to reveal the unsavoury activities of this company that is purely motivated by profit."
The exhibition opens with a series of magazine ads from the Sixties through to the Eighties. Rein Deslé: "The ads come from a different world. The way Monsanto visualises its message would no longer be possible today. One ad lists all the chemicals contained in a simple orange. The message is clear: Monsanto believes that chemicals can improve the world and food production."
"The House of the Future" was designed for Disneyland in California. Rein Deslé: "It's a house made of plastic. Monsanto thought plastic could improve the world, but visual story teller Asselin contrasts this Utopia with the reality of the sites visited by Monsanto, where it produced its chemicals and dumped its waste and devastated the area and harmed its inhabitants."
We see how Monsanto factories mean entire areas become uninhabitable. Waste was dumped in the environment and local residents moved away.
Monsanto produced the notorious defoliant Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War to reveal Viet Cong fighters in the jungle.
Rein Deslé: “The exhibition documents the harm experienced by pilots and crews involved in the dropping of Agent Orange. We don't know whether the US authorities were aware of the dangers to military staff involved in this product, but Monsanto did. Asselin documents the effects Agent Orange had on the local population. There are pictures of deformed human beings and deformed babies kept at an obstetrics hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. To this day large parts of Vietnam remain polluted. US Veteran's children also suffered the ill effects of this chemical."
Rein Deslé: "Monsanto's a company that was well aware of the detrimental effects of its products, but chose profit before public health. When local people reacted, the company dug into its deep wallets to pay an army of lawyers to win their case."
"What strikes me is the ease with which the company switches to a new activity each time it comes unstuck. Today it possesses a dominant position on the maize seed market in the US and in South America. The company's genetically manipulated seeds can only be used once tying farmers to its product. The seeds and plants are resistant to the Roundup insecticide also produced by the company that thus becomes the farmers' insecticide of choice. Monsanto is already dominant in the US and South America and now hopes to conquer Africa and India too."
The exhibition concludes with a look to the future. Genetically manipulated crops remain banned in the EU, but Germany's Bayer has now acquired Monsanto. Rein Deslé: "The European Commission has just OKed the takeover. It remains to be seen what the implications will be for EU agriculture. Monsanto makes significant investments in research, but there is pressure to come up with the right results. Scientists who bring a different truth are boycotted."
‘Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation - Mathieu Asselin’ was first conceived for 'Les Rencontres d'Arles', the big photography exhibition in France. Curated by Rein Deslé and Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo in Antwerp it is on show at the Antwerp photography museum, the FOMU, until 10 June. In Antwerp it contains works especially created for this venue. After Antwerp it is expected to visit at least ten further destinations.