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Know the West

Photographing migrant foragers


Eirik Johnson's photographs document the life and landscape of the Pacific Northwest, where he lives. He's been featured on National Public Radio and in Orion and Audubon Magazine, among others. Johnson’s series of images on the region’s logging industry, Sawdust Mountain, was recently published by the Aperture Foundation. High Country News assistant designer Andrew Cullen, who was drawn to images from Johnson's  project, the Mushroom Camps, recently interviewed him about those photographs.

We recommend viewing these images in our gallery setting.

HCN: What drew you to this story, and why did you approach it primarily as a portrait series? It stands in contrast with some of your other work in that it involves people so directly.

Johnson: I grew up hunting for mushrooms with my family. We’d pick chanterelles in the fall and morels in the spring, so I’ve long had a fascination with foraging in the forest for food. I knew a little about the commercial mushroom trade, but it wasn’t until my first trip to the camps that I knew there was a story that I could tell. The project includes many portraits as well as pictures of the camps because the story is less about the mushrooms than about those who spend their time searching for them. If you’re going to build a small shack out of tree branches and tarps in the forest and live there for three months, chances are there’s a story to tell.

HCN: High Country News was drawn to the project because the photos led us to ask questions about the area and the practice of mushroom collecting there. We wondered: What, exactly, are these people looking for?

EJ: The photographs in the project were taken during two different mushroom seasons. The majority of the images are taken during the matsutake mushroom season in the fall. These mushrooms are picked, sorted, sold and flown to Japan within 48 hours, where they’re highly prized and sold for many dollars. Some of the photographs were taken during the spring morel and bolete hunts. Those mushrooms typically end up in high-end restaurants or in grocery stores.

HCN: Why do the harvesters come to these particular forests, and are they private or public lands? Do harvesters have to get permission to gather mushrooms there?

EJ: The foragers come to these high pine forests of Oregon’s eastern Cascade Mountains for several reasons. The high-altitude dry climate is conducive to the mushroom’s lifecycle. It’s also an area with a long history of volcanic activity, and the pumice-laden soil is a perfect environment for the mushrooms.

The foragers are required by law to purchase permits for the picking season from the national forest, which regulates the seasonal hunts.

HCN: The harvesters you photographed seem to form a pretty diverse collection. Where do most of them come from? Do different groups interact with each other? What's the dynamic like in the camps? How far do they come to harvest these wild mushrooms?

EJ: The mushroom hunters come from a variety of backgrounds. In the early days, the hunters were primarily locals who picked and sold on the side for extra cash. Some still do, although most old-timers are either buyers now or have quit. In the 1990s, Southeast Asian families flooded into the camps and now comprise the majority of the hunters. You’ll find foragers of Cambodian, Hmong and Laotian descent. Many are first- or second-generation immigrants, and the camps have become a sort of annual family reunion for extended families. Over the past several years, more Mexican migrant workers have begun to come to the camps as well.

HCN: It appears that harvesters do this to make money -- how important of a part of their income is this? Are they migrant workers or just people trying to make some extra cash, or a combination of both?

EJ: Some of the mushroom hunters follow a sort of year-round foraging circuit, which takes them throughout the Western United States picking whatever is in season, from mushroom varieties to mountain huckleberries. Others that I met held down steady jobs and chose to take two or three months off a year to hunt mushrooms.

HCN: What is the impact of these seasonal mushroom hunts - both from collecting the mushrooms and from what appear to be fairly permanent camps and structures - on the forests?

EJ: The impact on the environment is more controlled now than it has been, or at least that’s the intent of the national forest’s permits and regulations. Many of the hunters have moved from the forest camps to camps on the outskirts of small nearby towns like Chemult, Ore. They pay to erect the same shacks on private property and in return get electricity, which they didn’t have in the forest. Many of the hunters respect the forest, going out of their way to leave their mushroom areas virtually untouched. This also keeps others from discovering where they’ve been foraging, a practice known as “managing your patch.”

HCN: Likewise, what's the economic impact of the mushroom harvest on the area? It seems telling, and unusual, that a pretty run-down looking gas station becomes a clearing-house for gourmet fungi for a short period each year. Do the locals participate in the hunt, or eat its spoils?

EJ: I know, isn’t that a strange picture? I thought of the painter Edward Hopper when I made that photograph. The annual mushroom harvest can provide a shot of revenue for the small area communities. The idea that a small fungus can be plucked from a remote Oregon forest by a man whose parents fled Laos during the Communist takeover, then sold to an enterprising fellow in a vacant gas station, before moving on to Portland and from there a high-end restaurant in Tokyo amazes me.