Based on some fifty years of photography, this exhibition could be structured chronologically, from my very first photographic stories in the American South in 1969 till I returned to the Arkansas Delta in 2019. On the other hand, it could be structured thematically: American poverty, the plight of the mentally disabled, the human cost of drugs, of war, a woman’s cancer. Either approach would make it seem that from the outset I had a part in planning this exhibition. Not true.
I began searching out these photographs long months ago at my son Sam’s suggestion. He witnessed my feeling especially down, frozen in place. The deadly spread of Covid was on my mind, as were Afghanistan and Iraq and the realization that other wars were looming. I was also struggling to come to terms with the societal divisions and in turn journalistic changes in America. There were increasing numbers of promoters of identity politics suggesting that some of us are more worthy of support doing stories than others. That the age, race, class, gender of journalists are factors to be considered before sending us out into the world. Additionally it appeared to me that, with the possible exception of photos of war, the pictures being published in books and news magazines were less and less of the moment, more often set up, constructed, in collaboration with the subjects. “Collaborative” being a kind of buzzword of our time.
As happened, it was my son who directed me toward an alternate way of publishing and speaking out. “There’s pretty much no support right now for what you feel you should be doing,” Sam observed, “so put your pictures on Instagram.” “Instagram,” I said incredulously. Then as if on auto-pilot I began to flip through the warped, cracked binders of contact sheets that take up seven or eight shelves in a back room of our house. Leafing through the pages, I went looking for pictures I hadn’t shown or published before, sifting through hundreds of moments in the lives of others, awash in memories.
Then, much to my surprise, Jean-Francois* phoned. This is a man who doesn’t care who you are, what age you are, where you are from, what your gender identification is, as long as you are attempting to tell the truth. His interest in my pictures, along with Sam’s and my wife Janine’s tender treatment of me, got me back to work.
*Jean-François Leroy, Director-General, Visa pour l’Image