International Photographer Betty Press is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this photo essay. These images are from her project ‘Mississippi The Place I Live‘. To see Betty’s gallery of projects click on any image.
I never expected to be living in Mississippi. I grew up in a religious and conservative family on a rural Nebraskan farm. I was very influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. I got exposed to the rest of the world by traveling around the world with my husband and later working as a photojournalist for eight years in Africa. Because of this I bring a singular perspective to documenting the Southern black and white experience, which is so intertwined, and keeps the South a unique region in our country. After several years of living in Mississippi but not feeling it is my “place,” I decided to deal with this uneasiness by exploring the state, still largely rural and agricultural, through a series of road trips.
I started by visiting small communities listed in the Mississippi Atlas & Gazetteer, often with unusual names like Love, Darling, Expose, Fair Trade, and Midnight. The landscape away from the coast is unrelenting in its flatness or undulating pine covered hills, punctuated by small communities with their ubiquitous churches and well-kept cemeteries; county seats with sometimes crumbling courthouses, always flanked by a civil war soldier on guard. If people are out and about I stop to talk, that easy Southern hospitality and politeness coming through even with outsiders.
At other times I attended local festivals celebrating music and culture like the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, the Hot Tamale Festival in Greenville and the Bodock Festival in Pontotoc. Here, except for at the Redneck Festival in Baxterville, is where I would see people of all backgrounds mingling and enjoying the best of what Mississippi has to offer.
Eudora Welty, who writes from a strong sense of place, is my visual and literary muse. Calling herself a recorder of real life, she traveled around Mississippi during the depression taking photographs for the Works Progress Administration. These were later published in One Time, One Place. She photographed not “to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain.” I, too, am not trying to change or improve the image of Mississippi but simply to shed some light on this often-stereotyped state.
I was trained that photographs should be perfectly sharp, in focus, and well exposed. But now, having experienced more of life, this seems less important. History is clouded with uncertainties due to selective memories. Time past loses its clarity but not its meaning. Thus I chose black and white film to use with plastic and old cameras such as the Holga, twin lens reflex, and later a vintage Hasselblad, to capture evidence of the past with cameras used in the past. The resulting imperfections, the soft focus and light leaks serve as metaphors for how landscape, race and religion have played a part in the complicated history of Mississippi and still affect lives today. Exploring and photographing is a personal journey for me to better understand the past and present, and in time, the images may reveal more of this place where I now live.
By Betty Press