“Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town”
"Mississippi is magic, Mississippi is hell," I scrawled in a notebook during an early visit. Because of, and in spite of this feeling, I have spent nearly 80 days in the town of Greenwood, Mississippi, over the last four years.
In early 2010, I was sent to Greenwood on an editorial assignment. The people that I met there drew me in to show me their lives, and changed me. A few months after my visit, a young man from the corners in a neighborhood known as Baptist Town was shot and killed. Demetrius “Butta” Anderson, 18, was the third person in his family to be murdered. The following week I drove 16 hours to Greenwood, Mississippi, for Butta’s funeral. Shoulder to shoulder, the community came together to mourn. After songs and short remembrances, the Pastor stepped up and clarified that he was not there to judge, but he spoke pointedly to the young people in attendance.
“There’s no salvation in hanging out on the corner,” he said. “The only thing that is assured is a visit to a jail cell or an early grave ... if you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.” His admonishment wasn’t lost on the adults who nodded fervently. They have seen too much violence over the years. For the younger generation, many of them have never lost anyone so close.
My goal is to explore contemporary race and class disparities in a historically segregated town where 50 percent of the blacks still live below the poverty line, as opposed to 15 percent of the whites. At first I funded the project out of my own pocket and since have received grant support from an Aaron Siskind Fellowship, a grant from National Geographic Magazine, and a Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography. These make it possible to take time away from paying work, and to cover mileage for the long drive from Virginia to Mississippi, hotel costs and making prints for the people I photograph.
I've used this support to spend weeks at a time in Greenwood as I get to know people on "both sides of the tracks" and try to view them in an equally honest and intimate way. I have found that it is much harder to achieve trust and intimacy in the more affluent and primarily Caucasian part of town (North Greenwood). Over repeated visits, people have started to let me into their lives a bit at a time.
From this point, I hope to begin making collaborative portraits with people on both sides of town utilizing a 6x7 film camera so that I can slow my process from the typical documentary approach and photograph the residents as they see themselves. These images will be printed large for display in the community as part of a site-specific installation that incorporates sound and video. I plan to collaborate with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to create a safe space for dialogue so the town can own its past and move towards greater equality. The work will also be disseminated through a microsite for the project and as a chapter in an ongoing book project exploring microcosms of the American experience. The support of the FotoVisura Grant would allow me to pay for film and processing for this crucial piece of an enormous endeavor. With your help I can show this beautiful community, not as I see them, but as they see themselves.