None of us work in a vacuum. There’s a history behind every picture, every
oral story, every recording, every single utterance we make. For a lot of the
work I did in the Bootheel of Missouri, I didn’t quite understand that context. I felt like I was the only person paying attention. Sometimes that feeling scared me. It was too much narrative weight to carry to think that the only stories told about this area, these families, these issues, these people would be the ones I could find a way to tell.
Few of us can carry such a load. There’s a risk that we adapt by either adopting
either a narcissist’s point of view (Only I can do this. This is my story
and no one else has the right to tell it. These people are lucky to have me
around to tell their story. And so on, into an infinity of self-inflating
bullshit), or despair (I’m not a good enough photographer/writer/filmmaker/
researcher/whatever to tell this story. I don’t have the lived experience
necessary to understand this story. Etc into paralyzing inaction). Both of
these sins descend on our storytelling heads when we forget that there is
context to every story. There is a past, there is a present and there is a
future. We are simply a part of that continuum, and our job is to bring
whatever skills, sensibilities, education, knowledge, lived experience and
wisdom, if we have any, to the storytelling.
So, Will Atwater and I went to the National Archives outside of Washington
DC (back when public appearances in public institutions was still part of
normal life) to go see what we, as taxpaying United States citizens, owned in
the way of context for stories we hope to place within Cultivating Justice.
We were overwhelmed by the kindness of the archivists, who seemed genuinely
excited about the project and who knew the collections impossibly well. Taxes
What we found was the past, as expected, but also a connection to the
present. The photo at the top of this blog is a great example. We don’t know
anything about the people in this photo except for the very sparse caption
attached. But it is not hard to think about what this photo might get us to think about — from land ownership, economic relationships, race, history and any number of other ways to see. What do you see?
Note: We will post more of the amazing photos we found in the archives. When institutions open for public consumption again, we’re planning to go back for more photo research and a serious look at the Archives film library, as well.