On my last day at the White House, President Obama invited me for a farewell meeting. We stood in the Oval Office, and as he leaned up against the Resolute Desk we joked and talked about books and our mutual love for the writing of Walker Percy. He asked what was coming up next, and I told him about the vintage RV waiting for me back home in Alabama and how I planned to crisscross the state and make photographs. He loved the idea – in fact he began finishing my sentences as I told him my plan. “...And you’re going to drive around Alabama!?! ...And you’re going to take pictures!?!” For a moment I thought he might walk out of the Oval and come along with me. He gave an especially hearty laugh when I asked him to help me out and do something about gas prices. And with a big pat on the back, the president sent me on my way.

But before I ever got home to Alabama, the RV blew up. And when I say blew up, I mean that literally – explosive flames, fire department, complete and utter meltdown. While the journey I’d hope to take in the RV wouldn’t come to fruition, my departure from the White House in 2013 still marks the embarkation of my artistic journey – a journey that has led me to building creative, collaborative partnerships across my home state while pursuing a studio practice that critically explores Southern identity, marginalized communities, and the history of place.

Author and native Alabamian Rick Bragg has called the state the “crossroads of history.” Indeed, Alabama has known a deep and complex history – from Native American genocide to slavery and secession, and from the fight for civil rights to the championing of Trumpist ideology, Alabama has stood at the nexus of American identity.

In many ways, the state has also played a pivotal role in the history of photography.  At the turn of the 20th century, Lewis Hine photographed child labor across Alabama. Through the 1930’s WPA photographers Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, and Jack Delano chronicled rural poverty during the Great Depression; in the 1950’s Gordon Parks made his “Segregation Story” outside of Mobile; the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama was documented by Danny Lyon, Bruce Davidson, Bob Adelman, and Ernest Withers; and in more recent years artists RaMell Ross, Andrew Moore, Matt Black, and former Do Good Fund resident Lauren Henkin have created compelling photographic projects.

While images of Alabama form a kind of backbone of American documentary photography, they also lay open issues of perspective, privilege, subjectivity, and bias. “For more than a century, travel writers, folklorists, journalists, photographers, and filmmakers attempted to reveal the realities of life in rural Alabama, and, by extension, the South, through documentary forms of expression,” writes Scott Matthews. “Their portrayal of (the place) and its people, however, contributed to a broader twentieth-century romance of the rural South that transformed the faces, landscapes, and architecture of the poor into art that resonated with educated, middle-class audiences eager to see and experience islands of vernacular beauty and authenticity in a sea of standardization. As their work circulated in books, magazines, films, and galleries, (it) became a place defined by documentarians rather than local residents.”1

Conversely, Alabamian photographers such as P.H. Polk, Lois Slosson Sundberg, William Christenberry, Spider Martin, Charles Moore, Melissa Springer, Jerry Siegel, Celestia Morgan, and Jenny Fine have pursued their work in collaboration with their families, neighbors, and communities and with deep connection to the landscape, revealing life in Alabama through their intimate knowledge of–and often complex relationship with–their home. “This is and always will be where my heart is,” William Christenberry once said. “It is what I care about. Everything I want to say through my work comes out of my feelings about that place–its positive aspects and its negative aspects.”

Like Christenberry, and akin with my fellow Alabama photographers, I too aim to photograph my native home in a heartfelt spirit of authenticity, honesty, and careful sensitivity. Following the state’s recent bicentennial celebration – and now in a time of pandemic and protest, looming economic depression, and a generation-defining national election – my goal is to create an ambitious photographic project to document this consequential moment.

In collaboration with local residents and community stakeholders and combining photographs with historical images, documents, and ephemera, the multifaceted project will compassionately and critically address the complex history and identity of Alabama through thoughtful consideration of the state’s people and landscape. With sponsorship by The Do Good Fund to execute the project and potential support from a network of museums, galleries, and university programs to produce and exhibit the work, I am excited for the opportunity to make good on that plan I shared with President Obama: to journey across my home state and make pictures of the place that holds my heart and imagination.
1 Scott Matthews. Capturing the SouthImagining America's Most Documented Region. UNC Press, 2018.