The Power of Belief: An Interview with David Wharton
From time to time we’ll feature articles from our print newsletter, the Southern Register. Here, an interview of Dr. Wharton by Associate Director for Publications and Register Editor Jimmy Thomas.
Originally published in the Winter 2014 issue of the Southern Register. Learn more about the Register here.
As soon as people enter the Gammill Gallery in Barnard Observatory, they quickly come to understand that documentary photography is an integral component of the Center’s mission to “investigate, document, interpret, and teach about the American South.” The chief curator of the gallery is David Wharton, the Center’s Director for Documentary Studies and an assistant professor of Southern Studies. Last year, Wharton published his second book of photographs, Small Town South, which records rural townscapes from across the South—portraits of small Southern towns in the first decades of the 21st century and evidence of how residents of those towns express their distinct culture. The Center’s Gammill Gallery in the winter of 2014 hosted an exhibition of work from one of Wharton’s current projects, The Power of Belief: Spiritual Landscapes from the Rural South. Jimmy Thomas caught up with Wharton between projects to talk about teaching documentary studies, the craft of photography, and other ongoing projects.
Jimmy Thomas: So what initially drew you to the field of documentary photography?
David Wharton: Well, in 1974, my wife Marianne and I were tired of the mundane jobs we had. I was teaching high school English, and she was a college librarian. We lived in upstate New York and started saving money. We saved, what was for us at that point, a lot of money, and then we just quit our jobs and went to South America. We got on a plane and flew to Bogota, Colombia. We spent about six months traveling by bus and train between Bogota and La Paz, Bolivia. One of our interests was bird watching, but the thing that really caught my attention was the human world—things that were going on around us. I saw so many things that just amazed me in the social realm, the human realm. Things worth recording. But I didn’t have a camera. I had never used a camera at all. I told myself that once I got back to the States I would buy a camera and teach myself how to use it. And that’s basically what happened. I guess I bought that camera in late 1974, early 1975. By 1982 I’d started looking at graduate schools, and I ended up at the University of Texas in the fall of 1983. I finished my MFA in 1986 with an exhibition of work I had done on McDade, Texas, a small community about 40 miles east of Austin. I went on to enter the PhD program in American Studies at UT, and my first book, The Soul of a Small Texas Town: Photographs, Memories, and History from McDade, came from my dissertation. I came to the Center in January of 1999.
JT: You’re teaching documentary studies classes here, specifically Documentary Fieldwork and Documentary Photography. What do you want your students take away from your classes?
DW: That it’s worth paying attention to the world around them. Each place has its own physical manifestations, its own visible character, and I think the best documentary photography shows the relationship between the appearance of a place, which can be deceiving, and the realities out of which that appearance grows. In many instances, that’s an accumulation of things that have happened in the past. If we look at things long enough, and with the proper training, sometimes we begin to see them. Documentary photography makes us look at the world, something that very few of us do as we make our way through it.
JT: The technology of photography is rapidly changing, and it now seems that everyone is a quasi-documentarian—or at least a photographer. I mean, there are folks out there shooting any number of subjects with their iPhones and sharing them on Facebook and Tumblr and Flickr, in a sense documenting their world. Do you think that this technological revolution is in any way redefining or at least complicating the field of documentary photography, or is that sort of photography so far removed from the field as not to affect it?
DW: Making interesting images is not necessarily the same thing as engaging in documentary photography. There are many differences, but perhaps the most important one in this regard has to do with the photographer’s investment—in terms of time, thought, and energy—in the process. But there’s no question that the onset of easily performed digital photography has affected the field as a whole. At the risk of sounding like an old dog who doesn’t want to learn a new trick, I think that effect has largely been negative, especially on young photographers. The digital photographic process promotes the illusion that it’s easy to make a good photograph. While it may be true that it’s easier to make a technically competent—or even excellent—photograph with a present-day digital camera than with older film cameras, that has nothing to do with the heart of what documentary photography is about, which is content. Ultimately, the technical ease of digital leads to the illusion that photography is easy, whereas in actuality it’s still very difficult to make an image that speaks to an audience about other people’s lives. Digital photography makes it seem like there’s not much need for the photographer to invest much of himself or herself in the documentary process.
JT: Social documentary photography in America found a wide audience in the 1930s’ and ’40s’ Farm Security Administration photography program. Do you find that most students become comfortable enough behind the camera to try to make big statements about sensitive subjects?
DW: I don’t charge students with making big statements. Instead I charge them with making images that explore the world around them by showing small, but significant, truths. The world is a highly visual place, and human beings experience it primarily through their eyes. We take more “raw data” in through our eyes than any other of our senses, but we’re not as accustomed to consciously making meaning from it as we are from words, whether heard or read. I try to get students to “see” in meaningful ways and to demonstrate that sight by using a camera to record it. If nothing else, this makes them conscious of the connection between seeing and making meaning. And that is the first step in making meaningful photographs.
JT: How do you prepare students to interact with their human subjects?
DW: Students almost always blow their fears of such interactions way out of proportion, so I try to emphasize that making photographs of people is no big deal. You ask people in a friendly, polite manner if you can photograph them, and if they say no, you smile, say thanks, and move on. I repeatedly tell them that in my many years of photographing strangers that people are almost always flattered when you ask. I emphasize good manners, a friendly, calm demeanor, and genuine interest in the person you’re hoping to photograph.
JT: Photography does an efficient job of illustrating the effects of events, such as natural disasters or rural poverty, but where can we draw the line between documentary photography and exploitation?
DW: That’s a tough one, since many photographs can be used for either, depending on context. I suppose if the photograph is primarily for the photographer’s self-aggrandizement, through shock value, dangers inherent in making it, and so on, it’s exploitative. If it can add something new and meaningful to the understanding of an event, then perhaps it isn’t. I think back to the many photographic books that were made of New Orleans in the immediate wake of Katrina. One in particular was a huge, very expensive book of gorgeous abstract color photographs of the flood-wrecked city. Despite the beauty of the photographs, that struck me as exploitative.
JT: Your latest project deals with the religious landscape of the South. What inspires you to investigate that subject through photography?
DW: I’m not really sure. I’ve always been interested in spiritual matters, although I’m not a churchgoer. I’m curious, though, about people’s dealing with ultimate things. I think religion grows out of consciousness of death, a search for the reasons for why we die, which leads to a variety of beliefs. I’m interested in how those beliefs take form in the present-time physical world. Many of my pictures are of churches, from fancy ones to small, modest ones. I make images of signage and cemeteries. I think religious Southerners have distinct ways of expressing their beliefs in a public manner, in a manner that makes marks upon the landscapes. Religious belief makes people do things. People in the South live their religious beliefs in a public way, and I’m really interested in the mark that religion has made upon present-day Southern culture, whether that’s in the physical landscape or in the way people live their lives.
JT: Finally, tell me about your current Lafayette, Louisiana, project.
DW: Well,I’ve begun going down to Lafayette at Mardi Gras to photograph. I go with my colleague Jodi Skipper, who is originally from there. I find Mardi Gras in rural south Louisiana to be a cultural binding of a relatively small area. Not a whole lot of people outside of south Louisiana know about this culture. Most people think about Mardi Gras as being a crazy party in New Orleans, but there are all these other traditions in these smaller towns. Some have to do with ethnicity. Some Mardi Gras traditions are rural and white, some have their roots in Cajun culture, some are African American. But all are a creole-like mix of all the local cultures. Every town, every individual parade, every family celebrates Mardi Gras in their own way, and I think that’s worth looking into. I’ve yet to scratch the surface, though. There’s always more to see.