Believing like Ernest Lowe that farmworkers were not to be patronized for their poverty, Ballis made "straight", ungimmicky pictures that celebrated the humanity of his subjects. He carried his cameras everywhere, and began to experiment with an unobtrusive style that well suited his purposes. "I began to consciously develop 'invisibility' for photographing people naturally and unposed," he recalled. "This involves turning down my electricity, going psychically 'limp' so that people do not feel threatened and, hopefully, my presence is virtually ignored."
Growing discouraged with slow progress, the AFL/CIO In 1962 began to pull back from AWOC, and Ballis and other organizers were discharged. Two years later he was in Mississippi, shooting for the Southern Documentary Project, a team of eight photographers attempting to chronicle the changing patterns of life as the South struggled to come to terms with the civil rights movement.
But the following year in September as the grape harvest began, Filipino members of AWOC voted to strike. Cesar Chavez and his fledging National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) joined them, and Ballis was back, photographing the strikers, the children brought in as strikebreakers and the growing wave of activity as the vineyards around Delano came alive with protest and rebellion.
Over the next six or seven years Ballis followed the ups and downs of the United Farm Worker movement, donating his pictures to UFW and other radical publications, supplying his own newspaper, now called the Pacific Scene, doing occasional assignments for Time and Newsweek, and eventually accepting long-term assignments from government anti-poverty programs to document migrant worker self-help projects. During this period he amassed more than 30,000 still images, the largest body of work by any photographer covering these subjects.
Beginning in 1969, Ballis began shooting and producing films, including, I AM JOAQUIN, an epic Chicano film poem (with El Teatro Campesino) that was a winner in several film festivals; THE DISPOSSESSED, the struggle of Pit River Indians to regain their tribal lands (best foreign film in 1972 Mannheim, Germany Film Festival); THE OAKLAND FIVE, blacks taking on a reactionary school board; TOUGHEST GAME IN TOWN, Santa Fe poor folks trying to organize themselves out of poverty; THE RICHEST LAND, the glory and misery of California agriculture.
From 1975 through 1982, Ballis organized and led National Land for People, an unsuccessful struggle to enforce a federal law, which requires that small farmers get priority in the distribution of federally subsidized irrigation water. National Land won cases as high as U.S. Supreme Court, but Congress overturned the victories thereby severely limited chances that Farm Workers could enter farming on their own.
In 1983 Ballis created Sun Mountain, a 40-acre land trust with an environmental and spiritual mission. One of Sun Mountain's first projects was to promote low-cost straw bale-adobe dwellings for farm workers. A prototype building was constructed and the project continues in cooperation with the United Farm Workers Union.
In 1995, Ballis returned to photography, producing a large installation of his farm worker photos: DREAM WHAT WE CAN BECOME AND REJOICE, a multi-media, multi-cultural, bi-lingual picture-poem that was first exhibited at the University of California at Northridge. A large format (11" by 17") book version of the show that is suitable for classroom or community center display is available on Ballis' web site. www.sunmt.org
Since 1997, Ballis has been working and experimenting with digital video. He describes his first productions as "an 18-minute celebration of this return to one of my elemental passions, ELFIE'S EYE, THE SECOND COMING, a cinematic caress of SunMt, 40-acre land trust where I live." It has won a Telly Statuette, Videographer of Distinction and been shown at the Long Island Film Festival. With his wife, Maia, Ballis has since produced: SI SE PUEDE, poor Chicano carpenters rally to improve their conditions; O MATAKE OYASIN, elder Indian wisdom on Alcatraz; ABORIGINAL PLASTIQUE, a young musician makes didgeredoo out of junk plastic pipe; PAT'S 50, celebrating and reflecting on 50 years by a decorated Vietnam veteran; WALMART/SLAVEMART, protesting WalMart's sweatshops in Nicaragua; GAP, protesting GAP sweatshops on Saipan, confronting city hall, tangling in courts; AWAKEN, 5 union plumbers at Seattle WTO meetings; ¡MUMIA! DEATH ROW POWER, an at-risk teenager finds visions of social and personal transformation at a save Mumia rally; GARBAGE TO LIBRATION, World Bank-IMF protests in Washington D.C.; STOP ROLLING BLACKMAIL, a California Labor Federation video on phony power shortages; and INVISIBLE NO MORE, a film about low pay home care workers organizing.