Review: The Life That Remains – Photographing America’s Rural Spaces

Written on September 19, 2019, posted in Review

From the photoessay, "México to Mexico," a project by Hector Guerrero. ©Hector Guerrero

June 15 – 21, 2019
Mexico, Missouri
Instructor: Danny Wilcox Frazier

The VII Academy invit­ed eight pho­tog­ra­phers with strong con­nec­tions and com­mit­ment to rur­al issues, both in and out­side of the United States, to join Danny Wilcox Frazier for a doc­u­men­tary work­shop in small-town America. The week­long pro­gram was tuition-free and fund­ed by the VII Academy to sup­port pho­tog­ra­phers from low-income com­mu­ni­ties as well as those work­ing on issues about under­rep­re­sent­ed pop­u­la­tions. The work­shop was lim­it­ed to eight pho­tog­ra­phers.

Mexico, Missouri (pop. 11,500), like many cities in the Midwest, is a town built on a small indus­try that no longer exists there. Two brick man­u­fac­tur­ers employed sev­er­al thou­sand work­ers, but now, long after both busi­ness­es closed, the com­mu­ni­ty is eco­nom­i­cal­ly depressed. Over 22% of the pop­u­la­tion lives below the pover­ty line, along with near­ly 29% of chil­dren and 70% of mixed-race res­i­dents. The work­shop did not shy away from the strug­gles many res­i­dents in Mexico face, but also empha­sized the per­se­ver­ance and strength that the town’s res­i­dents have long shown. Small-town America is full of life, a per­spec­tive often lost in over­sim­pli­fied views from the out­side.

This was an intense, immer­sive shoot­ing work­shop in which stu­dents pro­duced an in-depth pho­to essay over the course of the week. The work­shop helps each stu­dent to bring a unique per­son­al voice to their project, and to take home a new way of see­ing not only in their own work but also in the world of doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy. Danny led stu­dents through the nec­es­sary and rig­or­ous steps of research, pre-planning, build­ing rela­tion­ships, eth­i­cal issues, and visu­al approach­es. The expe­ri­ence instilled strong tech­ni­cal skills to trans­form pho­tographs from sin­gle images into pho­to­graph­ic series. The work­shop also taught the fun­da­men­tals of visu­al lit­er­a­cy and how to use pho­tog­ra­phy as a tool for social jus­tice.

View some of the work that stu­dents pro­duced dur­ing this work­shop:

Bronte Wittpenn

The land­scape of Missouri farm­ing is chang­ing, and 26-year-old Clarissa Cauthorn is a part of that. Although many young peo­ple leave rur­al areas, Cauthorn decid­ed to return to Audrain County and add to the long fam­i­ly lega­cy of farm­ing with her hus­band Andrew. But lega­cy isn’t just in the fam­i­ly, it’s in her efforts to chal­lenge norms for women in agri­cul­ture and her hard work to sup­port farm­ers as they fight against the rains and a ris­ing Missouri River. Most impor­tant­ly, Clarissa’s lega­cy is in the com­mu­ni­ty she is build­ing for her eight-month-old son and for young farm­ers as they get involved in agri­cul­ture. “To have that com­mu­ni­ty you have to be that com­mu­ni­ty,” she said.

Luke E. Montavon

Brennan “B” Wilson, 16, was diag­nosed with Cardiofaciocutaneous syn­drome (CFC) when he was born. The rare genet­ic dis­or­der affects about 300 peo­ple world­wide and presents a range of health prob­lems includ­ing heart and growth defects, skin and facial abnor­mal­i­ties, and weak mus­cle tone. “Being ‘B:’ Living with Disabilities in Rural America” is a sto­ry that focus­es less on Brennan’s dis­abil­i­ty and the chal­lenges it presents to his fam­i­ly, and more on his abil­i­ties and his unique role in his com­mu­ni­ty. His sto­ry is an exam­ple of how fam­i­lies endure and over­come hard­ship because of the val­ues and com­mu­ni­ty of small town rur­al America.

Erin Kirkland

“Not Bad for a Country Girl” is a project about King’s Daughters, a Christian non-profit nurs­ing home, the old­est, single-owner nurs­ing home in Missouri—and it’s only for women. The halls of King’s Daughters, which was found­ed in 1905 in the town of Mexico, are filled with res­i­dents’ gold­en glam­our shots from what seems like dif­fer­ent lives. Although these women are in their win­ter stages, there’s still life with­in them, and they share a sense of sis­ter­hood and com­mu­ni­ty.

Hector Guerrero

“México to Mexico” is a project by VII Photo mentee Hector Guerrero show­cas­ing life for the Hispanic immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty in this part of the coun­try. It is a big com­mu­ni­ty, and very quiet—most peo­ple usu­al­ly go from work to their home and rarely par­tic­i­pate in pub­lic activ­i­ties.

Liz Moughon

Like many young peo­ple from small town America who long to even­tu­al­ly move on to a big city, Jenna Frazier once dreamed of leav­ing Mexico, MO. But dur­ing her time away at col­lege, she missed the place that knew her best and chose to go against the com­mon trend of mov­ing to an urban area. Instead, she returned to her roots in Mexico, MO, where she start­ed her own day­care and fam­i­ly.