In her photo book New Delta Rising photographer Magdalena Sole shares the stories of the people of the Mississippi Delta. So much about the Delta has focused on the land, the myth of place and its sordid past. New Delta Rising goes to the heart of what is happening now. The stories are rich and diverse and the photos are stunning.
A Q&A with photographer Magdalena Sole.
I understand that you went to the Delta and, like so many others, it grabbed ahold of you. There are a lot of books about the Delta including an abundance of photo books – so how did this particular book come about?
The Delta did grab ahold of me. I was invited by the Dreyfus Health Foundation to attend a rally in Cleveland, and so I went. What I found was an amazing culture. Delta people allowed me to slip into their midst as if they had known me forever; we could swap stories and laughter, sorrow and silence. In the most unexpected places I found kinship. Sometimes as a photographer you are lucky and make a friend here or there, but most often you arrive as an outsider, and that is how you leave. The Delta refused to go along. I arrived as an outsider, but I was gradually absorbed into the fabric of life so I felt not like an outsider, but rather like a family member who happened to have the camera
There are many books about the Delta, but I did not see one that specifically focused on the people. What I most loved about the Delta were the people. Not the famous ones, but the everyday person who struggles and has hardships, and finds ways to overcome them.
Being that there was a 3rd party – the Rogosin Institute – involved, did that color your project in ways? Was there an agenda at the outset that they hoped you’d support?
The Dreyfus Health Foundation, which is a subsidiary of The Rogosin Institute, had done much grassroots work in the Mississippi Delta. We shared a common love for the people of the Delta. We wanted to create a book that expressed the beauty and strength of the people. They gave me great creative freedom to make a book that did the beauty of the Delta justice.
What is their interest in having you document the people on the Delta on their behalf?
The foundation views the Delta as a place of strength and immense human potential. They wanted this strength and potential documented.
How did you decide who would make it into the book?
It evolved organically, I wanted people who usually are not given a voice but have a voice, to be heard.
Did you go in with any preconceived notions and the seek out images that would support that hypothesis?
I was born in Europe and came to this country when I was in my 20’s. I was ignorant of the South and so had not one preconceived notion about the Delta. With purpose I did not want to do much research before starting the project. I love the feeling of arriving in an unknown place for the first time. The first impressions and explorations let me see the beauty of a place no matter how forlorn. I just look, to hopefully see behind the surface.
How much research did you do before going down? Did you see “Lalee’s Kin” or the Morgan Freeman documentary about the white/black prom, “Prom Night In Mississippi?” Did you read “The Most Southern Place on Earth? Or maybe just see films like ‘Mississippi Burning?”
I didn’t see any films, or read any books about the Delta until I was almost finished project. I didn’t want my pictures to be tainted by anyone else’s interpretations of the Delta. I learned about the Delta by listening to the stories of the people I met. I think I am a good listener, which helps.
The overarching stereotype or reality is that the Delta is very poor and that’s all it’s ever going to be. Did you find that there? Was there another narrative to explore?
Yes, most know that the Delta is one of the poorest places in the United States with the saddest infant mortality rate, and rampant unemployment. But behind the statistics I found a vibrant, resilient community with a strong family cohesiveness at its core. The texture of the Delta is unique. What interested me more then the fact that people in the Delta have less money, was the beauty, dignity, and the richness of their lives.
What did you leave out?
I left out dozens of worthy stories and images that could have filled another book. Space was my worst enemy.
Being from NYC, we have a sense of entitled and a belief that we can do whatever we want. And for the most part we sort of can. For the very poor of the Delta – what is the hope? What’s the most/best they can expect?
A certain class of New Yorker is entitled and can do most of what they want. Then again, for other classes in the city choices and hope remain much more limited. In both places the hope is for education and a decent job. I am not really from New York City, I was born in Spain, then moved to Switzerland in the 1960s as a daughter of immigrants. I am no foreigner to hardship and in fact feel most at home among people with that experience.
If you could do this project again, what would you have done differently?
That’s such a difficult question, since I now know so much more about the area and its people then when I started. But in truth I think I would do it all the same. I would still want to be a blank slate and without guile. I would still want the surprise of first discovery at the core of my work. But most of all I would want to again be mesmerized by the kindness and generosity of the people I found.
Is there a Part Two expected in the future?
One never knows.
What types of promotion did you do when the book was released? Did you exhibit in MS and NY?
The first promotion I did with the book was both a series of book signing events and talks throughout the bookstores of Mississippi. I was also invited to show the pictures in the Clarksdale Courthouse, in an exhibit titled “Southern Expressions”. It was a great for the people that were depicted in the book to come to the courthouse, take center stage and participate in the joy of the coming out of the book. I will never forget everyone’s smiling faces and pride when they saw themselves in the book. It made all the hard work worthwhile.
My next exhibit in the Delta was in Cleveland, MS. The opening was on August 23rd at The Gallery at Wiljax at 347 Cotton Row, a preserved old part of town. The pictures will also be on display at Sous Les Étoiles Gallery in Soho, NY on September 27, and in January 2013 at the Leica Gallery in New York City.
What does it mean for the people of the Delta to be in a book?
I can’t speak for the people of the Delta but what I hope is that opening this book brings a smile of recognition at lives well lived, or redeemed through courage and hard work.
Did you have hopes for this book/project – that perhaps it would serve as a catalyst for change and awareness?
Perhaps the stories and pictures will provide some heart and courage and that would be wonderful.
Do people in NY and other parts of the country still have the wrong idea about Mississippi. What do we think and then what would be the truth that you’d like people to know?
People are really surprised when they see the book. No one seemed to know that the Mississippi portrayed in the pictures even existed. May people have expressed that they want to visit the Delta, bacause they like what thet saw.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just a heartfelt thanks to the people I met in the Delta for their kindness, hospitality and willingness to take me into their lives. I hope my book is some evidence of my deep gratitude.
Sous Les Etoiles gallery will exhibit Sole’s Delta photos from Sept 27 thru Nov 10.
Also, you can join Sole for a photo workshop in the Delta from Oct 10 – 24.