Viewfinder: ‘Sidetracked’ Creates a New Sense of Place in the South

Photographer Eric Dusenbery gives us a “local’s view” of small towns and rural places in the South. With an unhurried approach that comes naturally with a large-format camera, Burkes practices “slow-cooker journalism.”

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“I don’t think history should be hoarded,” says a resident of the small community of Richloam, Florida. “What good is it if it gets lost and forgotten?” 

Photographer Eric Dusenbery couldn’t agree more. So he’s including the Central Florida resident, Eric Burkes, in “Sidetracked,” a photography and story project that reveals the quiet stories that lie just below the surface – the ones that define communities for the people who know them best. 

“Sidetracked” focuses on the rural South and adds to Dusenbery’s body of work documenting rural and small-town settings. 

In this Viewfinder (the Daily Yonder’s photography series), Burkes shares some of the images he’s created for “Sidetracked.” The final product will include interview transcripts (samples are available via his blog, “A Curious Life”) that reveal the nature of the people and their places.  

This is not an “off-the-beaten-track” project to help tourists find the next quaint town or antique mall. Dusenbury provides a much richer view – one that blurs the line between public and personal history, in a fashion that anyone who knows a community well will recognize. Dig deep enough into a community, and family history becomes community history. 

The photos examine that same intersection between public and private. Subjects are shot in portrait style, so they have a large measure of control over how they present themselves. But the personal settings in which they pose hint at the rich stories that lie beneath the surface. Like a guest in a home, we are in a private space, by invitation and design. 

We asked Burkes to tell us more about his work, and he sent the following response, which he wrote in the style of a question-and-answer interview. 

— Ed.

  • Artist Al Garnto, photographed with the 4 x 5 large- format film camera in Blairsville, Georgia
What is “Sidetracked: Travels Across the Undiscovered South? 

It is a documentary project to produce a new body of work by traveling through the rural and small town South. While the definition of “rural” and “small town” may seem obvious, the project is refocusing what they mean through the words and imagery of those who live it and new places discovered. This is not another look at the small towns of the South espoused in guidebooks — but, rather, a body of work that dives beneath the surface giving the South its distinctive character. My objective is to explore the people and communities that are known only by the locals — to create a new sense of place. 

This new sense of place is revealed through conversations covering a wide range of topics from history, food, art and culture to business, travel and human/social justice. By showcasing people of all ages, demographics and livelihoods, and places that are undiscovered, this documentary project creates identity and character. 

How long have you been working on the project ? 

About two years, while working on other projects simultaneously. 

What led you to begin this project ? 

I was raised in the Midwest — Illinois — and I was surrounded by corn fields and soybean fields.  We weren’t farmers, but I knew a lot of people who were and learned to appreciate their work ethic and especially, their stories. That has stayed with me a long time. In college, I completed a semester-long project of making environmental portraits of farmers. 

I’m not from the South, but since living here and marrying a girl from South (she says, “Born in the great state of Alabama and reared in the great state of Georgia”), I began hearing fascinating stories. Tales about monkey fishing, worm grunting and other practices from yesteryear that kept popping up. My curiosity was definitely piqued.  

I heard about a rural school that was the oldest still operating in the county. So, I looked into it and began a project of photographing and having conversations with former students. There were some interesting stories about the food production of the rural residents. So, that led me to a three-year project of looking at old Florida cooking and food traditions that I titled Florida Soup — Putting History on the Table. 

Once that project was completed, I decided I wanted to hear even more stories from the folks living in rural and small towns — beyond just discussions about food. I decided to expand the geographic reach, too. 

What is your photographic approach? 

I’m working with film, primarily the 4 x 5 large-format camera with black-and-white materials. I enjoy keeping my hands wet in darkroom chemicals and keeping the history of traditional photography alive. In the field, using the 4 x 5 camera requires patience, self-discipline and control. But, it can be the ultimate tool for capturing details and aspects of people in their environments. 

Because it’s a slow process, I think more about the composition, putting careful thought and consideration into making the image. Also, subjects who are photographed with the large format realize this is an important project — it isn’t just a candid approach. They realize the significance. 

I practice what I call slow-cooker journalism. I slow WAY down. It allows me to interact with subjects. And, the 4 x 5 establishes a certain aesthetic. 

Exploring the back roads of the South — that’s a lot of ground to cover. How do you complete your work? 

“Sidetracked” is not an attempt to present a comprehensive look at rural populations. I’m looking for diversity and sharing a different angle — giving a voice to rural populations, ordinary people, to find out their perspectives. Everyone has a story. 

I spend four-to-seven days in an area. I find a very small town as a base and then explore the area. Fieldwork sessions involve spontaneous discoveries as well as pre-arranged visits with individuals who have been referred to me. 

 

 
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