Do not come to this museum and expect to leave unaffected. It is devastating.
I’m so proud to be a part of this remarkable exhibit of Southern Photography at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Some absolute luminaries of Southern imagemakers.
This is my photograph titled, “Cricket’s Birthday Party at Old Ground Farm, Big Pine, Maeison County,, NC
My beautiful mother-in-law, Faye Cooper Stilwell.
Me and Waylon at Salix's Birthday Party. The only baby in the tribe who will let me hold him without wailing. In Sodom.
Somewhere, sometime, I read a quote from someone, I can't remember who. It goes something like this - "Growing a garden is the most radical thing a person can do in this life."
I've thought about this a lot over the years and have come to believe the statement's simple and eloquent truth.
A garden connects us with the earth, the soil, the dirt, the stuff from which we are made. To have our hands in this most fundamental ingredient of our lives, to which we are returned upon death, to smell it, to taste it if you dare; these are gifts a garden offers.
A garden gives us something real in our everyday worlds of plastic and electronics. In our lives of daily exhaustion, of noise, and crowdedness, and anxiety, a garden offers refuge.
A garden empowers us. It encourages us to take some measure of control over what we put into our bodies. It allows resistance to the mainstream culture and the junk it wants us to eat.
A garden requires faith. Faith the seed will germinate and grow. Faith it will produce a harvest that will nurture us and help us grow. Faith it will provide seed to start the process another year.
A garden provides us with memories - of earlier times, of our parents or grandparents, or of gardens we, too, have grown in our past.
I remember my first garden. It was my first taste of fresh spinach. Not the Popeye variety, in a can and cooked to death, but fresh crisp leaves that left your mouth feeling fresh and crisp. Swallowing, you could feel its goodness going down and know, from that day onward, it would be in your life every spring.
We want to believe we aren't like this anymore.
"That was a long time ago," we say. "Things are different now."
"But are they?", I ask.
Perhaps we should ask Trayvon Martin that question.
Or Eric Garner.
Or the man choked to death for selling loose cigarettes on a street corner.
"I can't breath," his final words.
Or let's ask any of the scores of victims of extra judicial killings for which no one is ever held accountable.
Or perhaps we should ask any of the thousands of refugee children separated from parents and caged in steel lock-ups.
"It's like summer camp for them,"
one enlightened legislator pronounced.
I don't pretend to know the answers.
But I do know right from wrong.
I know good from evil.
I know the difference between what is legal,
and what is honorable and human.
I know we have a choice.
Last week, I visited Birmingham, Alabama, to give a talk to a group of photography enthusiasts my friend Carl is involved with. While there, we drove down to Montgomery to experience the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The Memorial, and adjoining Legacy Museum, documents the history of slavery, lynching, and present-day mass incarceration of people of color in our country. Each of the 800 steel monuments (above) represents a county in the United States where a documented lynching took place, over 4,000, between the years 1877 and 1950. The names of the victims are etched into the monuments, which forces us to understand this was somebody, someone's son, or wife, or father; our son, our wife, our father.
As a long-time student of American History, I've visited numerous Sacred Sites around the country - Selma, Wounded Knee, the Little Big Horn, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the Trail of Tears - among many others. My interest in these sites is a desire to understand the truth about our country - how it was really founded and enriched and how it continues to enact laws that continue the oppression of poor people, people of color, and people we simply don't like. This memorial is undoubtedly the most gut-wrenching and powerful I've seen and should be required viewing for all Americans.
I go to these Sites hoping to gain understanding, but my words after each visit are, "I don't understand." I don't understand how people could possible be so cruel. I don't understand people's need to dominate. I don't understand why people think they are better than others. And I don't understand our inability to see ourselves for who we really are and the debt we owe our fellow citizens whose land we stole or who we enslaved to build our country.
This Monument is hard for a white person, as well it should be. It forces us to experience our shared history and recognize our present-day complicity in a system that continues to not value the lives of fellow citizens, fellow human beings. As Carl and I were leaving, we looked at one another, and simultaneously wondered why any black person, or Native American, or Muslim, would want anything to do with whites. Carl answered, "It's because they are better people than we are; more forgiving, more caring, more human."
In this time of increased racial animus, with leaders who encourage the ugliness, it's important for all of us with open hearts and curious minds to resist the return to our hideous, dishonorable, and inhumane past.
I haven't published this photograph online before, likely because of the poor condition of the original negative. Photoshop has helped some, but it's going to take someone with more skill than I have to complete the repair.
But I looked at it the other day, thinking I would include it in a slide show, and the photograph brought back memories, as only photographs can do, of my earliest year in the area. Some of those memories are good, some bad, but seeing the picture also raised a photography question I've wrestled with throughout my career.
When I arrived in Western North Carolina, I viewed the place through adjoining filters of romance and nostalgia and this picture fills that bill. The angular man plowing with a mule into the sunset, the light on the peppers, the beginnings of mist in the background. The receding diagonal lines, the way our attention is drawn to the white shirt, the reins draped across the man's back. It takes us back to an older time, perhaps a better time. For me, this became my defining photograph of mountain life.
But I also knew something of the reality of this particular farm, and many others like it, and knew there was little romance about it. It was a hard life, physically grueling, financially insecure, and emotionally draining. And I could see in the landscape around me those small mountain farms and the towns that serviced them were dying, slowly being overtaken by modernity in the form of bigger roads, convenience stores, and more people working away from their places, seeking the mainstream.
I began to ask does the reality of life during that time make the romance and nostalgia of this photograph untrue? A fiction? Or, at the very least, not the entire story? Was I, in fact, misrepresenting an entire culture?
I've begun to believe all photographs are fictions. They have nothing of the smell, taste, and feel of the situations they represent. They are a momentary glance that turns a three-dimensional universe into a stilled life on paper or screen. Yet still, when we look at photographs, and the reality in them, truth is not so much our concern. Rather, we want the memories they evoke, always the good memories, those of romance and nostalgia, when life was more fiction than