In 2016 I received a commission from the High Museum in Atlanta to photograph in the South.
Nearly a decade earlier, having published The Idea of Cuba, I was asked to photograph on the set of Steven Soderbergh’s film CHE. At the time, I imagined that photographing on Soderbergh’s movie set would be fundamentally different from my experience photographing in Cuba itself. In actuality, I saw that for the actors, extras, and townspeople of Campeche, Mexico where CHE was filmed – and for me as a photographer – these reenactments came alive. When Benecio Del Toro walked on set, it was as if Che himself were there among us. What was striking and different about being on set was that in a short amount of time I had extraordinary access to photograph emotionally charged events and visually compelling people and settings.
So in 2017, I decided to explore cinematic representations of the South by visiting and photographing the making of independent fiction films across the region. Since that time I have photographed on more than forty-five different Southern movie sets.
For most of my working life as a photographer I have been, by choice and necessity, a loner working independently with individuals and communities around the world. On the set of CHE, and later with filmmakers in the South, I have had the pleasure of being part of a cast and crew, working in coordination with creative and talented individuals, some with years of training and experience, as well as extras participating on their first film project.
My intention and approach has been quite different than a behind-the-scenes photographer hired by a production to capture the films stills for publicity. I give stills to each production to use as they want, and in return have been free to respond in my own way to whatever unfolds on or around the set. I have approached these dramas in the same way I might take on a more traditional documentary project, following my own instincts with a camera, and later editing my photographs, not to tell a particular story but to discover the story my photographs have to tell.
Our idea of the South has been formed largely by our greatest storytellers. I began this project believing that by photographing on the sets of numerous contemporary Southern filmmakers, I might show the South in a new light. Perhaps my photographs will achieve this. But I believe this body of work also hints at aspects of life beyond this region. Looking at my photographs, it is sometimes difficult to tell who is an actor and who is crew, who is an extra, and who happens to be from the community surrounding the set at the time the film is being made. In my photographs I see an idea that has long been celebrated in literature and conveyed by philosophers and psychologists – that is, the ways in which we are all actors in our own lives, creating our sets, practicing our lines, refining our characters, playing ourselves. At the same time my photographs tell a story about our increasingly visual culture, explore the rapidly evolving world of independent filmmaking, one that is little known to audiences outside the film festival circuit.
This project is ongoing. I am especially interested, as in this brief series, in seeing how my photographs from different film productions resonate with each other. In 2020, I will be working with curators at the High Museum to create both an exhibition as well as a multi-screen cinematic presentation of a larger range of photographs I have made on Southern movie sets.
To see more photographs from this project, visit Instagram at OURSTRANGENEWLAND