It has been one week since I took down my show at Four Corners. Overall, I think the show was successful, and I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish, however, there were definitely aspects that I could improve upon and I hope to learn from these moving forward.
With hindsight, the biggest challenge for me was not being able to see the space in person before the day of hanging. As mentioned in a previous post, I had attempted to plan through building a maquette, and also begun experimenting with Google Sketchup, but I really found it hard to visualize the environment and the way that the work would look when on the walls. This put a lot of pressure on the day of hanging and the final arrangement wasn’t as considered as it should have been.
Evaluating the final layout, I think it would have been good to have less images displayed at a larger scale. I have made such a large quantity of work over the last two years, and I wanted to convey the time that I had spent journeying though this region, but perhaps it resulted in the walls being too busy. I didn’t show any images that I didn’t feel were strong, but I still feel like I could have done a finer edit and saved some of the images for a publication. With regards to the content of the images, the show was very portrait heavy. Additional details and landscapes might have enriched the body of work and helped new viewers to better understand the context.
There were additional visual elements that I had originally planned to include that my eventual time frame and budget didn’t allow for. I had hoped to show a map of the area, and provide text captions for each of the images. These definitely would have added to the experience for the viewer.
With all this said, I did receive a very positive reception from my audience. Although people complimented the aesthetic qualities of the images, It felt most rewarding to see the work facilitating discussion. One person said that they had not seen photographs like this before, which was a great compliment to receive. People said that the work was positive and that I presented my subjects in a very dignified manner - something that I am always aiming for. I appreciated my visitors sharing their experience at the show on their own social media, and my account received a lot of new followers throughout the week.
Reflecting on the exhibition experience, I can see that I didn’t allocate appropriate time for certain aspects of planning. I had hosted many exhibitions previously, but never a solo show on this large of a scale. I think I underestimated the challenge that this would be to organize remotely, especially when located ‘in the field’ for the month proceeding the exhibition. With all this said, I have to give myself credit for achieving what I did, despite these challenges, and use this as a learning experience for the future.
Hanging the show at Four Corners Gallery
I arrived in the UK this week and have begun framing my work for my upcoming exhibition. Working on the show remotely has been incredibly challenging, and unfortunately I was very disappointed in a number of the prints I had ordered. Although hard to see in the images above, the prints I received were incredibly contrasty and cold in tone, despite the fact that I prepared the files correctly and soft proofed them on a calibrated screen. Now that I am in the country, I was able to go a different print shop in person. I had test strips made from the same files and the results were very different. I am now having a number of them reprinted. This is very last minute, and is incurring extra cost, but I am glad that I can get them corrected in time for the show.
I am framing the work myself. I choose to use thin, oak wood frames in standard sizes. Each print needs to be cut by hand, but I am enjoying the process of putting the work together.
A story about my work was recently published in The Times-Journal, a local newspaper that covers three rural counties in Oregon. I met the newspaper’s editor whilst working in Mitchell and he was interested to learn about my work and what brought me to this small community.
Whilst a lot of the details in the story are actually inaccurate, I believe that the writer did a good job of conveying my admiration for Mitchell’s residents and my passion for the project. After the story was published, I received positive feedback from local residents and it definitely informed more members of the community know about my work. The Times-Journal also promoted the article on Instagram, helping us to reach an even wider audience.
I am very glad to have made the connection with Stephen, the editor at The Times-Journal. I told him that I am looking for a place to show my work in the area, and he suggested that we host an exhibition at the newspaper offices in the town of Condon. This would be a great opportunity to show my work locally and we are making plans for an exhibition in late August / early September.
Photographs from this year’s Shaniko Days Festival in Shaniko, Oregon (Pop. 28). This has become one of my favorite events to photograph in Central Oregon. Having now spent a lot of time with the residents of Shaniko, and seeing the challenges the town faces out of season, it’s wonderful to see the town busy for their annual event. The majority of these photos are of ‘The Shaniko Shooters’, a group of Old West enthusiasts who dress as cowboys, reenacting the town’s heydays with black powder gun fights in the streets. This will be my last shoot within the timeframe of the FMP, and I’m glad that I got to photograph this event before heading to England for my Exhibition.
Shaniko was once a bustling trade hub and home to over 600 residents, but now it is now only on this single day each year that cowboys appear on its streets. For the most part, I have avoided photographing the archetypal cowboy figure as it does not align with the Witness Marks project but this event is different as it is all make believe, they are acting out something that no longer exists there.
Recently, I’ve been enjoying the work of a couple of photographers who document the lives of ‘real cowboys’. The first is Rory Doyle, his series Delta Hill Riders explores the subculture of African American Cowboys in the rural Mississippi Delta. Also, Hakan Ludwigson’s Balls and Bulldust, which was Shot in 1980 but not published as a book until 2015, which follows the life and work of cattlemen in the Northern Territory of Australia.
My work was recently featured in the July issue of The RPS Journal. It was an honour to have my work selected and displayed alongside some great student photographers from across the UK. Rachel Segal Hamilton interviewed me for the piece, my full answers to her questions are shared below.
How old are you?
I’m 31 years old. I obtained my Photography BA in 2012 from UAL (Camberwell College of Art) and then took some time away from academia before embarking on my Photography MA with Falmouth Flexible.
What do you love about photography?
More increasingly, I love the opportunities that photography offers me. I’m an inherently curious person, and carrying my camera has offered me a passport into many situations that I would not usually be invited into.
Describe your photographic approach/style…
Over the course of my MA, I have taken a long-form documentary approach to making work. I’ve been revisiting many of the same people and locations for the past 24 months and have spent a great amount of time earning the trust of the communities that I have been photographing. Maintaining an ethical practice is incredibly important to me, so I have worked hard to create a harmonious, collaborative relationship with those whose lives I am documenting.
Is there a particular project you’ve really enjoyed working on? Why? What’s it about?
My current project, ‘Witness Marks’, investigates remote communities and towns in the central Oregon high desert. This project has been totally captivating to work on. I have become enamored by the self-reliant, resilient nature of those who choose to live in these isolated regions, as well as the distinct, dramatic landscape that exists here.
What are your plans after graduating and further into the future? EG Do you have a dream job/commission/exhibition opportunity?
I really enjoy being on the road and making work so it would be a dream to land some commissions which allowed me to document more of Middle America. I believe that residents of rural regions and small towns in the US are so often reduced to a series of stereotypes. I’d love the opportunity to work on projects which better represented this portion of the US.
I photographed Donny, a Mitchell resident, outside his Airstream trailer. Donny lives in the trailer, operating an open air rock shop and local curiosities Museum on the main in the town.
Matt Goodwin, changing water on the alfalfa fields in Twickenham, an unincorporated community of ranches North of Mitchell.
Matt is new to the area, and is working as a farm hand. I ran into him as I was driving through Twickenham with the aim of capturing some landscapes. He invited me to ride along with him as he worked on the fields. I think some of the images are quite successful and show an element of life in this area that I have yet to capture.
I am now settling into Mitchell and finding a rhythm to my days here. I have found myself to be busier than I expected as I am helping at both the hostel and the brewery in the town. I initially took on these roles as I felt they would help me to connect with members of the community, but working here is also helping me to gain a greater understanding of everyday life in a small town. With a population of just 120 people, many residents take on multiple roles and work tirelessly everyday to keep the town functioning.
Last night I took the opportunity to explore the residential area of Mitchell during the evening golden hour. Recently, I have found myself focused on portraits, so I wanted to photograph more details of my environment. The residential area is located high on a hill side just south of Mitchell’s Main Street. It is known to locals as ‘Piety Hill’ as it was here, in 1895, that the town’s first church was established. A church remains in this original location, along with many houses and the Mitchell K-12 school.
I think the above image of the fire hydrant and store sign is particularly strong, the evening light offering an almost cinematic feel to this ramshackle arrangement of objects on a street corner.
Letty, age 5, photographed around her fathers house and on the Main Street in Mitchell. I spent about an hour with Letty, taking photos and playing with her. She chose all the places to take the photographs, and most of these were shot at Donny’s Rock Shop. Letty is a strong spirited, adventurous young person. Her father, Jake, takes pride in raising her and allows her a lot of free reign. I would like to photograph the the two of them together and document this positive father-daughter relationship.
This week, I relocated to Mitchell (Pop. 120) in Eastern Oregon. I will spend the remaining 5 weeks creating work here before my FMP exhibition in London. It has been my plan to spend an extended period in one of the communities I have been photographing, and I am incredibly grateful to Pat (the town Mayor) and his wife Jallet who are hosting me here. They are accommodating me in a small travel trailer, and when not working on my project, I am assisting them at the church & hostel that they own in the town.
I am now 5 days into my stay here. I have already met many residents and I am gaining a much greater understanding of life in this remote town. It has always been my aim to ingrate into the communities I am documenting and I hope that my time here will allow me to better represent Mitchell’s residents through my work.
In addition to this, I am already noticing the benefits of being here full time as it allows me to capture unique and interesting events as they occur. This past weekend, we experienced ‘heat lightning’. The sky turned pink and purple as I was out photographing a young resident named Letty. The photos from this event are quite striking and I doubt that I would have caught it if I were not living here.
I have been making prints of my images at home using a Canon Pixma Pro 100. This printer enables me to make prints up to 13x19 in and I have found the quality to be very good. After researching different paper options at photography supply store in Portland, I decided upon Moab Exhibition Luster for my own prints. Taking time to correctly size, sharpen and soft proof my images, I have found the color reproduction to be very good and I am making crisp images with rich colors.
I will be printing images at a larger size for my exhibition at Fourcorners, so I plan to have these printed at the Falmouth Photolab. Whilst I understand that it is a risk to have these printed remotely, without the ability to view test strips, the price of printing locally is out of my budget. The Falmouth Photolab does not offer Moab paper, so I bought a sample pack of Hahnemuhle paper to find a close equivalent. I was very happy with the tests I made on the Photo Rag Baryta, and plan to order my larger prints on this paper.
In addition to making test prints, I also made a scale model maquette of the gallery space. This is the first time I have made a maquette, and I don’t think that I will use this method again! I found the process quite labour intensive and I have not found it to be useful in planning the layout of my work. It has definitely helped me to better understand the gallery space, and see the size of my prints in relation to the wall, but the 1/20 scale is too small for me to understand how the images interact with one another.
One solution might be to make a model with a larger scale, however, I think a better option for me is to spend more time learning Google Sketchup, and use this in future.
I recently finished reading The Documentary Impulse by Stuart Franklin. There were quite a few areas of the text which resonated with me and left me with food for thought regarding my own practice. Early in the book, Franklin notes that what drives him most as a photographer is curiosity, and I believe the same to be true of myself. It also seems that his viewpoints regarding both intimacy with the subject and ethical practices align with my own. I found The Documentary Impulse beneficial in that it expanded upon my own ideas regarding these factors of photography.
The idea of ‘intimacy over actuality’ is a reoccurring theme throughout the text. One of the earliest works to have the term ‘documentary’ applied to it was Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 feature-length film Nanook of the North. Scottish filmmaker John Grierson is stated to have been the first to use the term, referring to it as “a creative treatment of actuality” (Grierson in Franklin, 2016, p.6) Despite the fact that several scenes in Nanook of the North were staged, Grierson defended the work, asserting his belief that intimacy was more important than actuality: “Intimacy with the fact of the matter is therefore the distinguishing mark of documentary, and it is not greatly important how this is achieved.” (Grierson in Franklin. 2016 P.7).
It seems that staging has existed within documentary since its inception. I have long considered this as one of the key differences between ‘photojournalism’ and ‘documentary photography’ in that it is much more readily excepted in the latter. Creating my own work, I combine both approaches, sometimes photographing events and scenes as they naturally unfold before me, other times giving my subjects limited directions. These directions, such as where to sit or which way to look, are always given under the belief that they are not far from a scene that could happen without my involvement. For example, I would never ask a person to wear a particular outfit, or be photographed in a location that is foreign to them, primarily to meet my own agenda. Franklin notes that portraiture is an area of documentary photography where such staging has long been expected and understood. Franklin quotes Italian photographer Paolo Verzone: “The staging is part of the creative process, not only by the [photography] industry but because all portraits in the history of mankind have been staged”, and “It’s the beauty of the portrait to be staged. There’s so much to invent in the photographic portrait” (Verone in Franklin. P. 175)
With regards to achieving intimacy with my subject matter, this has become an important factor of my practice over the past 2 years. This was initially driven by ethical concerns, believing that closeness with the communities I am photographing would better equip me to represent them in my work. As a by-product of this, I believe that the collaborative relationship that I have formed with those I am photographing has allowed me to make much more successful, compelling images.
‘The thinking around is different [today]… Photography is creating new narratives, ones less focused on the craft of making good photographs, more on telling stories that are meaningful.’ (Rubio in Franklin, 2016, p.176)
When I first began my project in Central Oregon, my work rightly received comparisons to road trip photography. At that time, akin to Stephen Shore’s work ‘American Surfaces’, I was well aware that I was just documenting surface impressions of the places I was visiting. In The Documentary Impulse, Franklin draws attention to Lee Friedlander’s recent work:
“Lee Friedlander’s photobook America By Car (2010) is a road trip through the United States with every image shot through car windows, the people and landscape viewed as they are customarily seen, as objects spotted whilst driving. Across two pages in the book we see a heard of cattle in Nebraska through one window, a small black bird in Death Valley, California through another. The landscape in both images appears the same: miniaturized, contained and framed within a discourse about car use.” (Franklin, 2016, p. 132)
The longer I spend with rural communities in the US, the more passionate I feel about creating images that are intimate and meaningful. I reject the notion that these areas are primarily to be driven through and to be viewed only through car windows. In Sara Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, the author speaks of the negative repercussions of using vocabulary such as ‘flyover country’ to describe the rural Midwestern states such as Kansas and Nebraska. It is my aim to represent working class communities in Oregon in a more complex way, and I will continue to build on the relationships I have formed here in order to gain greater intimacy with my subject matter.
Franklin, S. 2016. The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon.
Smarsh, S. 2018. Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. New York: Scribner
After much deliberation, I have decided to host my FMP exhibit in London in August of this year. The show will take place at Four Corners gallery from August 13 - 19th. I have learnt that my work has more appeal to British viewers, and displaying my work in London will allow me to reach a wide audience.
The space is larger than I originally envisioned, so I have begun thinking of creative ways to use the space. I do not have the financial means to frame all my work, but when speaking with Stella, she recommended that I frame some pieces. I definitely think there should be variation in the size and positioning of prints on the walls and have been looking for examples of exhibitions which I think are particularly successful in this approach (see below).
I have already been making small prints of all my images to help guide my editing process, but now I will begin making larger prints. I am able to make my own prints up to A3+ size, from these I will decide which images to send to a professional print studio to print at a larger size. I will also begin playing with potential layouts using the gallery floor plan I have received.
A selection of images from my work in progress was recently published by MAYN Creative. Their quarterly zine, ‘Intro’ features the work of a single photography student at Falmouth University. I felt honored to be selected by the team at MAYN, and it was a pleasure to work with their editorial team. I believe that the writer assigned to the project, Harry Lawlor, did a good job of translating my motives for creating the work into words. I’m glad that more people have access to my work and look forward to sharing this with the people who are featured in the images.
In relation to my previous post, I recently discovered the work of Amanda Lucier through her series Women Ranchers published by the New York Times. I was very interested to learn about the changing demographics in ranch ownership in the US, and Amanda’s images are incredibly successful in showcasing the demanding work that these women do. Amanda also has an ongoing project documenting 4-H Fairs. 4-H is a youth organization that operates across the United States but is most prevalent in agricultural regions. Each year, young 4-H members care for livestock such as pigs, goats, and sheep, in anticipation for the summer fairs, at which the animals are judged. Many of the young people I have met whilst creating my work also participate in this program. As the population of young people living in rural areas continues to decrease, I believe that it is important to document this increasing uncommon childhood experience.
I contacted Amanda to express my appreciation of my work, and discovered that she also lives in Portland. I was fortunate to meet her in person and we discussed her work as a photojournalist. As I feel my work is moving in an editorial direction, I greatly appreciated her sharing her knowledge of this photographic field, and am grateful to have her as a local contact.
In her recent article, ‘Three Women Photographers Reclaim the American Landscape’ writer Rebecca Bengal brings together a number of female photographers who, to use her words, are ‘deconstructing the mythology of the Wild West’. The article opens with a mention of Debora Bright’s ’Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men’, an essay that we read during the Informing Contexts Unit. In this essay Bengal notes. “Deborah Bright called for women artists to “recoup landscape photography for themselves in response to its long-time character as an exclusive white male preserve.” The cherished ideal of the Wild West, metaphoric repository of the American dream, seemed particularly hunted and besieged”. (Bengal, 2019)
Whilst I understand that a disproportionate amount imagery of the American West continues to be made by, or depict, white males, it has not been the the focus of my own work to challenge this. However, gender plays a more prominent role in the work of photographers such as Susan Lipper. Lipper’s book Grapevine made an impactful impression in the early stages of my current work. The intimacy between Lipper and her subjects is clear in her images, and it drove me to foster deeper relationships with those I am photographing. Revisiting the work now, I see that her images strongly emphasize the polarized roles of men and women in rural communities. Her photographs which, to an extent, are staged or dramatized, depict males brandishing guns, drinking beer, making fires, whilst females care for children, fix their hair or expose their breasts to the camera.
Lipper’s following series Trip, played on the idea of an archetypical American Road trip - a pastime traditionally dominated by males. Lipper stopped at small towns along I-10 in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, combining staged scenes and found objects to encourage the viewer to manufacture a fictional narrative for a road trip that didn’t really happen.
Her most recent work Domesticated Land, which focuses on the Californian Desert, is the last in this trilogy of monographs. Again, her role as a female photographer is present in the work -
‘Her expedition was anchored in a dual search for ‘true’ America and her own territory: a personal, female perspective of a male-driven land, and a new fictional account of a well-trodden narrative’ (Bright, 2019)
In addition to prompting me to revisit the work of Susan Lipper, Bright’s article also introduced me to the work of Kristine Potter. I am particularly interested in her recent series Manifest. Created whilst working in remote areas of Western Colorado, this work explores the archetypal character of the American Cowboy. Bright writes -
‘Potter encounters men who sparingly dot the terrain, seemingly both tethered to, and in divergence with, the myth that precedes them. Manifest does not act as a documentary, but rather as a re-coding of the western myth, the territory and its men, it is both fantasy and reality. Weaving body and landscape, the book lays open the seduction of the West, the opportunities it promises, the disorientation of altitude, and the confrontation of persistent danger.’ (Bright, 2019)
Bright’s article, and the work of Lipper and Potter, have reminded me of the dominant position that white, christian males take in traditional depictions of the American West. It has prompted me to look at my own images and analyze the way that I represent both women and men within the western landscape. Appraising my own work, one image stood out to me (below). The image, taken in Shaniko, depicts Shaniko resident Hugh teaching his granddaughter how to shoot a black gunpowder pistol. Whilst I photographed an archetypal male cowboy character, I chose to captured a tender moment. It is the young female holding the gun, the older male playing a nurturing role.
I travelled again to Wheeler county last weekend, the snow has now mostly melted making both traveling and shooting far easier. My first stop was in Spray, where I had scheduled to photograph a young resident named Emily. I had met Emily earlier in the year when she was cheerleading at a Spray school basketball game. Her mother Megan, who also coaches the cheer team, has been incredibly welcoming and very open to the idea of me photographing her daughter for this project. Emily lives with her family on the outskirts of Spray which has a population of 160. Emily tells me that she is one of only 6 students in her 5th grade class, with 62 students in the entire Spray School district. Last year, there was a graduating class of three, with Emily’s elder brother Robbie as the valedictorian. On the high school level, the school, like several others in rural Oregon, augments its budget by enrolling out-of-state and international students who are housed in a dormitory. Emily is a cheerleader for her school’s basketball team, the Mitchell-Spray Eagle-Loggers. Mitchell and Spray school districts combine players to make up the numbers for a full team.
On the day of the shoot, the weather was still somewhat adverse, I had scheduled the shoot for late in the afternoon, hoping for good natural light, but unfortunately it remained quite flat. Emily is also still getting to know me, you can see that we are not yet fully comfortable with one another in the images, which are quite staged or posed. Although I’m not sure if any of these images will make the final edit, it was wonderful to spend more time with Emily, I continue to be impressed by the character of the young people who live in this region. I believe that her family are growing more comfortable with me and hope to continue to collaborate with them. I plan to return to Spray soon and take some environmental portraits of Emily, and the rest of her cheerleading team in their uniforms.
On the second day of my trip, I returned to Mitchell. This has become my ’home base’ in Wheeler County and my aim is to spend an extended period of time here making work there in the summer of this year. I was able to get some strong portraits of some of the town’s residents on this trip, as I become more familiar to people there. One photo which I believe to be particularly successful is of Glenn Raber, shown above. With such small populations, residents in towns like Mitchell are often required to take on many, often voluntary, roles in order for the town to function. Glenn is no exception, I caught him on his Sunday morning rounds as a garbage collector, but he is also the town’s Internet installer, computer repairman, handyman, city councilman and fire chief.
In the February of this year, it snowed heavily in Central and Eastern Oregon. It made it difficult for me to continue my work as usual. Many locations became inaccessible and the weather conditions were difficult to shoot in. However, I was able to travel out on two occasions, on the first trip I went to Mitchell in Wheeler County, (Pop. 120). I didn’t produce much work on this visit, but I did strengthen my relationships with the community there. I don’t know if any of the images I took on this trip will appear in my final series, as the snow makes them very different aesthetically from the rest of my work. I have made prints of what I consider to the stronger images, and I will place them alongside my other images to see if they might work together.
On my second excursion, I traveled to Dufur, the town in which I have a strong connection with a number of residents. Two of my previous subjects offered to show me their firearms, and I had my first experience of shooting a gun. The prominence of guns and gun supporters in Central and eastern Oregon has become very apparent over the course of this project, and I do want to better understand gun culture. On the day that we took these photos, I was made to feel safe, and I know that I was in the company of responsible gun owners. Coming from England, firearms are still a foreign concept for me. I have conflicted feelings regarding them, as I whilst I understand the dangers, I have also learnt what a huge importance they have to many rural communities. Due to this, I think it is important to represent them in my work, and I will continue to learn more about them as my work progresses.
Last week I travelled to the UK for the Face to Face Event and Symposium hosted at Falmouth University. It was a great experience, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet the faculty and my classmates in person after 18 months studying remotely.
I participated in a number of workshops. I was interested in experimenting with digital medium format over the coming months, and the session led by Stella gave me a much better understanding of the cameras. I had been considering using digital medium format to make some fine, close up portraits of community members in central Oregon, to compliment the images I have already made. Jesse recently introduced me to the work of Paul Kranzler, who uses this style with great affect in his series The Drake Equation. However, getting hands on experience with the Mamiya Leaf system made me realize that this wouldn’t be the correct tool for me - As Stella noted, these cameras really work best in the studio environment, it would be hard to work in the field with this camera. I’m going to attempt to get some close up portraits with my current camera and see if they are successful, before experimenting with smaller digital medium format systems such as the mirrorless Fuji GFX.
I participated in two analog workshops - machine film processing and color darkroom printing. Both were enjoyable and reminded me of both the pros and cons of analog processes! Whilst I aim to continue working with digital for the time being, I recognize the strong technical foundation I gained learning with film in college and on my BA. It was a a good refresher to analyze prints coming out of the color darkroom for casts and understand what adjustments needed to be made. My final workshop, ‘Prep for Digital Print’, was particularly useful at this stage of the MA. It was great to sharpen up my skills in this area as I begin making plans to publish my work.
The most beneficial experience of the week was the day of critiques. It was incredibly emboldening to receive positive feedback on the work from many new viewers. I agreed with the overall consensus the Witness Marks has the potential to be a successful book, and that I must keep working with same enthusiasm I have for the project to make this a reality. The positive reaction my images received whilst in the UK made me consider the best audience for my work, and I have begin considering hosting my FMP exhibition in England where there seems to be a keen interest in the series.
Although I was unable to stay for the entire symposium, I was very grateful to hear Michelle Sank speak about her work with youth, including the series My.Self, in which she photographed young people from the Black County in their bedrooms. I find myself increasingly interested in the experience of children and teenagers living in central Oregon communities, and I plan to contact Michelle to talk about this aspect of my work.
As my project has progressed, I’ve become interested in the way that white, working class communities are represented, not just popular culture, but also in the art world. Recently, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest County on Earth (the audiobook format is particularly impactful, being a memoir read by the author herself). Raised in America in a poor, rural community, Sarah Smarsh grew up knowing that the world considered her ‘less’ for coming from an impoverished community.
“People of all backgrounds experience a sense of poorness—not enough of this or that thing that money can’t buy. But financial poverty is the one shamed by society, culture, unchecked capitalism, public policy, our very way of speaking.” (Smarsh, S. 2018)
Whilst Smarsh acknowledges that poor people of color are potentially the most vulnerable group, her story is about being White and poor. Of the term ‘White Working Class’ she notes -
“The experience it describes contains both racial privilege and economic disadvantage, which can exist simultaneously. This was an obvious apolitical fact for those of us who lived that juxtaposition every day, but it seemed to make some people uneasy, as though our grievance put us in competition with poor people of other races. Wealthy white people, in particular, seemed to want to distance themselves from our place and our truth. Our struggles forced a question about America that many were not willing to face. If a person can go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills, and the reason wasn’t racism, what less articulated problem was afoot?” (Smarsh, S. 2015)
In American popular culture, the derogatory term ‘White Trash’ is used freely, (this label is explored in-depth here by Leah Donella). TV shows such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty perpetuate stereotypes about white, rural, low-income communities. However, I don’t feel that these negative representations are confined to the world of mainstream media.
In documentary photography, people living in poverty are so often depicted in dark, grainy black and white images. Matt Black’s Geography of Poverty is a recent example. Whilst I see the formal beauty of the work and understand that the images are very impactful, I also note the detached manner in which his subjects have been depicted. The people’s faces are always blacked out, the environment they inhabit seems alien. They seem to be presented as ‘other’, not as fellow humans.
In Stacy Kranitz’s As it was Given to me, I appreciate the raw, visceral nature of the images, but I feel like they perpetuate many of the same negative stereotypes regarding low income, white communities as we see in popular culture.
On paper, many of the people I have been photographing live below the poverty line. Many are experiencing economic hardship due to the difficulty of living in small, rural towns. In the communities I am photographing, I see the problems that so commonly accompany poverty - substance abuse, mental and physical health afflictions, inadequate services for vulnerable groups (namely children and the elderly). However, I never wanted to focus on the negative aspects, because I feel like that story has already been told. Instead, I wanted to photograph my subjects with warmth and dignity and depict them in a positive light. I have experienced nothing but kindness and generosity from my subjects, and I want to offer them the same through my work. With this approach, I hope to offer an alternative perspective on these often misrepresented communities.
Smarsh, S. 2018. Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth [Audio Book]. New York. Simon & Schuster Audio.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to visit Wheeler County, the region of Oregon I plan to focus on over the coming months. Although I already have quite a strong body of imagery to carry into my Final Major Project, I definitely intend to continue shooting and building upon my work, taking a long form, immersive approach to creating this project.
I am eager to spend more time in Wheeler County, as it is the least populated region of Oregon. The majority of people live in three small towns; Fossil (Pop. 446), Spray (Pop. 160) and Mitchell (Pop. 120) each located around 30 miles from the next. I continue to learn more about the life of young people in these areas. I am particularly interested in the boarding programs at the schools, without which, they would not have enough students to operate. Even with these boarding programs in place, graduating classes average around 5 students, or less.
On this trip, my intention was to learn more about the area and introduce myself to local residents. I visited a high school basketball match in Spray and was able to speak with the cheerleading team. Despite the poor lighting conditions in the gym, I was happy to capture some images that I could share with them. I would like to photograph this group again, having been inspired by Alice Mann’s series Drummies.
The town of Mitchell was my base for two nights. I met a number of local residents who warmly welcomed me and were happy to share their knowledge of the town. I see great possibilities for creating work here, and am interested to learn more about the life in this extremely remote location.
On this trip, I also stopped in Dufur for one night, where I have been working closely with one family. The series ‘The White House on Main Street’, which I began last module, documents the life of Meliney and her experiences growing up in small town America. I initially intended for these photographs to be included in Witness Marks, but I feel it has become its own body of work. Although I am now placing this work on a back burner, I will continue to slowly add to it over time. The connection I have formed with the family will hopefully allow me to capture Meliney at different stages of her childhood and maybe even into her teenage years.
Reviewing my recent images, I realized how many of my photographs were taken on, or around, the front porch of the house that I have been photographing in Dufur. I enjoyed reading this well referenced website created by a student at University of Virginia detailing the history and cultural significance of the American front porch. I wonder if I could use the front porch as anchor when exploring life in small town America on a winder scale. Front porches are largely an architectural feature of the past, rarely seen in urban areas, but they are still utilized in many rural communities and small towns. The porch, as an outdoor space which brings a family’s home life into a public realm, reflects the sense of trust and connection between neighbors, as well as the sense of community that exists in these areas.