Success and/or Failure
No blog would be complete without an apology first. I don't blog nearly often enough and lately even less so. I'd say that I would make more of a point of it, but I'd probably be lying to you and I don't want to do that.
A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure, as I do every year, of heading out on a long weekend photo trip. Some of you may know already, but I usually head out to somewhere in the mid-South region of the U.S. In the past, I've made it to Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and this year I went to Kentucky; specifically Hardin KY outside of Paducah. I had never been to this area before and picked it as I usually do: a scientific combination of Google Maps, Wikipedia, and City-Data.com. I use Google Maps to determine an area roughly halfway between my home here in Waco and my Dad's home in Virginia. From that I check the street views of a few small towns to narrow it down to a few small towns. Wikipedia and City-Data combine to fill out the rest of the information and winnow the selection down to a couple of the smallest towns. I usually like to find towns with a population less than 500 residents and set that as my target.
This project has changed a bit over the years. The selection process remains roughly the same; tools varying based on current technology. The target towns remain similar in character. My first trip was to Lawrenceburg TN because it was the exact mid-point and I wanted to see if I could make good photos in a town not known for a rich photographic heritage. I made a few and was generally pleased with the results. The next trip was to Shuqualak MS and the goal on this one was only slightly different: to see if I could make some good photos representative of the area. Again, I made some good images and was generally pleased with the outcome. In 2011 I headed to Newbern AL after watching a show on PBS about Auburn's Rural Studio architecture school. I really wanted to see the impressive buildings that counterpoint with the poor, rural landscape. This trip was a bit hijacked by the Tuscaloosa tornado that touched down two days before we arrived in the area. Yet again, I was happy with the trip and some of the images I made.
Now this trip was going to be different. I picked Hardin KY because of its rural location, small population, and the small number of photos I could find on the internet. My goal on this trip was audacious. I wanted to capture the spirit and tone of Hardin; not just to make pretty pictures, but to really capture something real. Well, I went and came back with some really pretty pictures, but I don't feel like I made the most from the opportunity. Hardin was a nice little town with wonderful personality and a compelling, modern story. I failed to illustrate that and I know exactly why.
I walked around the town for a couple hours, camera on my shoulder and talked to the people I met. Everyone I met in town was very engaging, outgoing, and welcoming. The town had been forgotten by the highway and the only industry in town had packed up a couple years ago to move to a more populated area. Hardin was left with no employer in town (save the town goverment itself) and a rapidly decaying tax base. From what I gathered, most in the town have come to terms with their position and are doing well. There are no plans for any expansion of the town or its services and its populace is largely left to fend for themselves without the town's involvment. Most people are rather pleased with the arrangement.
Of course there's always another tale to be told and Hardin is no different. With the demise of the local
economy, dwindling of the population, and subsequent drop in property values the residents whomaintained Hardin as an example of Small Town, USA could no longer resist the countercoulture that came in. A few of the people I talked to mentioned the sharp increase in drug trafficking and use that has befallen the town over the last couple years. With no town police and a reliance on county sheriffs to patrol the town on an infrequent basis, most of the drug trade goes unchecked. Local residents are fed up and feel powerless about the descent of their town. More than once I was regaled with stories and warnings about the areas of town that used to be wonderful but were now snake pits, unsafe for wandering.
I don't know how accurate these descriptions were. This I one of the areas I failed on my mission. I didn't persue this story any further. On my trip to Mississippi a couple years ago, I found myself in just such a town in Crawford. There were two establishments in town, a package store and a seemingly unlicensed, party venue in an abandoned and partially demolished warehouse. The package store was open during my tour and, while I didn't go in or talk to anyone, cars drove in and out as it did brisk and swift business on an early Saturday afternoon. Did I avoid that area, even though I could feel my every move being watched? Of course not. Though my personal project on that trip was not necessarily storytelling, I feel I visually described that town better than I did Hardin.
I also failed to make the most of the people of Hardin. No project like this can be effective without showing some of the people immediately affected. I easily spoke with close to a dozen of the nearly 500 people in the town and let my camera hang safely by my side. Conversations ran long and varied and each of these people remained outside of my photo frame. Had I been thinking and been more forthcoming with my project idea, I would have made the most of the people I had at my disposal; they certainly weren't without character. There was the family of three I spoke with about how the town differs from others and their discomfort with travel outside of Hardin; their preteen son in repose on the riding lawnmower, shirtless husband and his wife trading curse words in Southern pidgin and offering me a (politely refused) beer. There were the town elders, giving me the 5¢ audio tour of the town standing outside the City Hall / shuttered church / former strip mall. And there was the gentleman, on his way to the post office, who suffered through his sinus infection to give us his version of the history and current state of the town in the middle of the street. Each one of these people has a story and each one deserves to have it told. Each one was left unsaid through my chosen medium.
Though I am really happy with several of the images I made on this trip through western Kentucky, I still feel as though my excursion was in vain. Not a single one of my pretty pictures tells the story I wanted to tell: the story of Hardin KY (2012).