This is Why You Should Always Carry a Camera With You

aRTEE jAMES

Artee James, Midnight, Mississippi, 2008, Leica M4 and HP5

Driving through the Mississippi Delta in 2008, I passed through the tiny town of Midnight, Mississippi. Midnight used to be a plantation town, railroad running through the center of it, cotton fields stretching out to the horizons beyond, a few prosperous white cotton farmers living surrounded by dozens of abysmally poor black families. The town had been given its name in the reconstruction era, its land won by a local planter in a midnight poker game.

Up through the 1960′s, Midnight functioned essentially in a manner not much different than it did in slave times. White folks owned the land, poor black folks worked it for them. Today, the farms have been bought up by large agricultural concerns, farmed with machines, and the black folks have no work and hang on as best they can. The poverty in which they live is sad; it makes me ashamed to say I’m an American.

But anyway, back to the story: I passed through Midnight twice, and both times I saw this elderly man sitting under a tree across the street from the only commercial establishment in the area, a sad little market run by a local black family. Second time around, I stopped, got out of my car, and said hello. He greeted me and invited me to sit down. I asked if I might take a few photos of him sitting there under the tree. While doing so we got 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 would occasionally kick up dust as they ambled past. And then we talked some more,  and he was gracious enough to tell me about himself and his life.

He was “retired” now, but he had worked the cotton fields since he was a child. He had seen more than he cared to tell me, cruel things that no human should have to endure, including seeing a fellow worker and neighbor lynched in the mid-60′s (Later I followed up on his story and found out, yes, it had happened, just like he said). He also told me about Dr. King’s Freedom March  through Midnight in 1964. He only saw Dr. King from the fields, because all the workers of the town were told they’d be set off their land if they joined the march.

As I was talking to Mr. James, other folks came out to see what was going on. Who was this white guy out talking to “Mr. Artee?” In the course of the afternoon, I think I met half the population of Midnight. Of course, they invited me back, and I subsequently spent a week in their homes and churches, and they treated me like family.

A year or two 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. Some guy had compiled odd and interesting photos gathered from Google Street views. 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.