[Editor’s Note: I’m currently enrolled in a graduate seminar on “Conflict Photography” at Harvard University. Our first assignment was to “tell your war story.” Here’s mine]
Driving through the Mississippi Delta in 2008, I passed through the little hamlet of Midnight, Mississippi, not so much a town as a few shacks clustered around a church hard against an abandoned rail line. Until mechanized farming destroyed the need for field labor, Midnight had been a thriving cotton town centered around a bustling cotton gin, connected to the larger world by a railroad bisecting cotton fields stretching as far as one could see. Now it was a forsaken spot where a dozen abysmally poor black families clung to each other in desperation, whatever work there had once been for them long gone. It was a sad place, slightly surreal in its seemingly static acceptance of the cruelties visited upon them amidst natural plenty. Even the name of the town – “Midnight” – bespoke a wry cynicism, having been bestowed on it by a local planter who won the entire town in a midnight poker game back in the day.
Up through the 1960′s, Midnight’s economic and social relations functioned in a manner not much different than they did during slavery. Whites owned the land while entire black families, from school age children to grandparents, worked it. The profits went into the pockets of the land-owner, the gin owner or off somewhere else. Today, large agricultural concerns farm the fields with machines. The remaining residents, descendants of those who worked the land since slavery, have no work and subsist on government aid. The poverty in which they live and attempt to maintain some semblance of dignity is appalling.
I passed through Midnight twice that day. Both times I saw an elderly black man sitting under a tree across the street from the only commercial establishment in the area, a dilapidated market selling beer and cheap wine. First time I waved; second time, I stopped, got out of the car and said hello. The old man introduced himself as ‘Artee James’ and invited me to sit. We got to talking, as people who’ve just met and are trying to be friendly do – about the weather and Mississippi and the pick-up trucks that kicked up dust when they rumbled past. At some point I retrieved my camera from the car, which, being honest, was the reason I stopped in the first place. To my eye, educated in American social history and documentary aesthetics, Mr. James, sitting serenely under a tree on a littered patch of dirt in a forgotten town in the Mississippi Delta, had the makings of a fascinating series of photos, sufficiently ‘exotic’ yet capable of serving the larger narrative of my choosing.
I hadn’t really considered the ethics of the interaction I’d initiated when I stopped and said hello. Specifically, I didn’t think what Artee James might think. Had you asked me, I’d tell you my motives were pure and reasonable. Educated both as a historian and a documentarian, I saw myself as ethically neutral, documenting something that deserved documentation. Mr. James, to the extent I considered him at all, was my entrée into a larger aesthetic and social subject. As for my prerogative in doing so, whatever reservations I felt I put aside as unproductive.
We talked while I photographed him, more a friendly interrogation than a dialogue of equals. Mr. James was gracious enough to tell me about himself and his life. Now in his late 70’s, he had worked the cotton fields since he was a child. Polite yet reticent, he had obviously seen more than he cared to tell. He told of a neighbor lynched in the early 60′s (I subsequently followed up on his story and found out, yes, it had happened, just like he said). Especially memorable for him had been Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Freedom March’ through Midnight in 1964. He only glimpsed Dr. King from the fields as King marched through town with a large group of activists; Mr. James and his fellow workers had been warned by their work supervisor they’d be set off their land if they joined the march. Midnight’s white land-owner cut off water to the town to encourage the marchers to pass through quickly; Mr. James mentioned this matter-of-factly, like it wasn’t something that needed further explanation. Even though he’d been prevented from greeting or marching with Dr. King, the presence of people marching through Midnight gave him hope. It was a feeling he remembered, a sense of pride that a famous man like Dr. King would care for him and his troubles. He shook his head, as if reliving a bittersweet memory, and then fell silent. Meanwhile, I walked around him taking photos.
Eventually, his friends and neighbors came out to see what was going on as we talked and I photographed. They stood around quietly, respectfully, but with the body language of people turned in on themselves. When I tried to engage them in conversation, they deferred to Mr. James to answer. I presumed at the time their reticence was shyness and not born of distrust or dislike. They certainly weren’t rude. I ended up staying awhile; someone eventually brought me a beer and then another, a neighbor woman brought me a poem she had written, and, in the course of the afternoon, I met Midnight’s residents, including a middle-aged woman, son attending Mississippi State University, who seemed to know everything about the town and its history and was grateful someone showed some interest, and who ultimately invited me to come back and spend some time with them.
I subsequently spent a week photographing their children, homes and church. They treated me with respect and kindness, even though what I was doing was trading on their pain and historical misery for my benefit, something I only realized in hindsight. One particular encounter – me with my camera, a resident doing yard work in the church cemetery – left me profoundly troubled by what I was doing in the name of ‘documenting’, by the assumptions I brought to the process by which I objectified their difficulties and pain.
My encounter with Midnight, Mississippi came to mind when I began to think about my ‘War Story.’ I don’t come from a ‘military family.’ Neither my siblings, father nor either grandfather fought in war; I never served in the military nor do I identify with military culture or the nationalism that glorifies it. I don’t have a ‘war story’ per se; I’ve never experienced war except as a passive consumer of its language and imagery, gleaned from various written historical sources and contemporary visual depictions. While I’ve read Herodotus and Thucydides and Homer’s Iliad, classical notions of warrior excellence and war as a maker of meaning strike me as irrational vestiges of dysfunctional cultural constructions. To my mind, there’s nothing good about war.
I’m not sure there’s anything good about photographing war either. I see the same ethical dilemmas in conflict photography as I eventually saw in my interactions with Mr. James and the residents of Midnight, the exploitation of another’s misery in service to individual ends. How do you ‘document’ the pain of others without exploiting the sufferer and leveling their experience to an aesthetic event?
A few years ago I was in Powell’s Books in Portland, a white upper-middle-class hipster place if I’ve ever seen one; looking through the photography section I picked up a book that had recently gotten a lot of interesting reviews in the art press. The author/artist had compiled odd and interesting photos gathered from Google Street views and made a book of it. It had won a few awards, and the author had made a name for himself in the proper circles, something he could leverage in the future. Paging through it, there was a Google Street view from Midnight Mississippi, a blurry capture of an old black man sitting in a lawn chair under a tree. It was Artee James.