Lonnie and Johnny
"We worry Tamina won't be here another ten years. . . . We are scared to make the agreement allowing neighboring towns to provide us with utilities, because it may give them a way to take our land."
— Lonnie Pitts
The portrait, "Johnny" (r) was added to the permanent collect of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2014. It is a semifinalist for The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
"Times sure could be real hard, and we had many hungry days."
— Joe Rhodes
Faces of Tamina
"My family did not discuss racism. They did not have to. We felt it."
Jaren and Jada
"It doesn't matter if you're related or not, you're still thought of as family."
— Jaren Chevalier
Reverend Elvin Ginns
Reverend Ginns built the steeple of the Falvey Memorial Baptist Church and was the pastor there from 1976 until shortly before his death in 2014.
Tegucigalpa and its surrounding villages
Hurricane Mitch stormed its way through Central America in 1998, devastating the human and social condition in Honduras. Close to 6,000 were killed with 8,000 missing, 1.5 million found their homes washed away, and one-third of the road structures were destroyed, crippling the economy and isolating villages from access to food, work, and medical services, leaving many on the brink of starvation.
A group of volunteers and doctors climbed into a Hummer, and traversed the deep-rutted mud trails through oppressive jungle for two hours to make our way to villages barely ten miles outside of town. Even though it is nine years since Hurricane Mitch devasted this country, I witness little improvement.
Many still struggle to survive, and the years of turmoil show on the people’s faces. A woman sits outside the make-shift clinic. Her face is a diary of her difficult life. I discover she is fifty though she appears twenty years older. One woman arrives with her year-old son. She could neither find a way into town to see a doctor when he first became sick or afford the needed antibiotics. She discovers he is now permanently deaf as a result. Another has cancer. The only treatment she can get is out-dated aspirin and vitamins.
Toddlers make a game of chase with one another oblivious to their conditions while their parents select one pair of shoes for each family member which will have to last a year or more. Young people play on the soccer field, a relatively flat space with clouds rising around their feet from the dry dirt. Only those who have joined the church are allowed on the field.
As I travel to poverty-stricken areas around the world, I continue to observe there is a profound depth and beauty in their strength, courage, and determination to withstand their dire circumstances.
A Freedmen’s Town
Tamina, Texas, is one of the few remaining emancipation communities in the United States, perhaps the oldest freedmen’s town in Texas. Traveling from as far away as the Carolinas and Georgia, freed slaves found work more than one hundred and forty years ago in the lumber industry of Montgomery County. They created the community, Tamina, in 1871, building their own churches and schools and buying their own land to farm.
I interviewed and photographed represent different aspects of this community—young and old, black cowboys, ministers, those who have created non-profits to help their neighbors, folks whose families have lived in Tamina for seven generations, and those who are first-generation Tamina citizens.
Their stories tell of a deep-rooted kinship with one another, with their values resting on family and community. No matter what happens, these neighbors are there to care for one another. When someoneis ill, the community comes together to help in any way they can. Over and over again, people recount opening their doors to anyone who knocks and might be hungry. Without question, an extra place is set, and they all share a meal around the kitchen table. Regardless of the challenges these people have faced, their faith, gratitude, and humor always thread their tales.
This body of work was initially exhibited at Rice University during Houston’s 2014 International FotoFest and a book of the entire collection of images and oral histories is being published by Texas A&M Press. Harris County schools and Conroe Independent School District are now including the story of Tamina in their social studies program Kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Salzwedel is a bustling town of 20,000 residents. It is charming with cobble stone streets winding between centuries-old stone buildings. A river flows through the city, and there are scarred remnants of the wall which divided East and West Germany until 1989. More than ten percent of the population are artists.
In the center of town, there is an abandoned four-story building that covers most of a medieval block with soaring ceilings, arching windows, and a clock tower. In the early 20th century, it was a private girl’s school. During World War II, it became a hospital, and for many years thereafter, it became a school for the Young Pioneers, part of The Free German Youth founded within the Soviet occupation zone of Germany.
While on an artist’s residency, I was introduced to a group of residents who are reclaiming this building, establishing Kunsthaus, an art house that will have both a permanent collection, visiting exhibits as well as a floor dedicated to artists-in-residence and art courses. I made portraits of residents who support the arts to help promote Kunsthaus.
In the midst of their fundraising, they asked that I make portraits not only of board members but also residents who support the arts. Press conferences were held and articles were written in Salzwedel’s two newspapers. More than 50 people accepted the invitation to participate over a three-day period. We met and talked in the courtyard of a pub that had been built in the 1600s just behind Kunsthaus. Through a translator — though there were several who spoke English fluently — each was asked why art is important to them, how art affects their lives, and which art medium they would like to explore. These details were used to develop the campaign.
We then stepped into Kunsthaus amidst the dust and construction and made portraits using the natural light pouring in through the arched windows. Some brought their children, some came with their instruments, all came with enthusiasm and excitement to be a part of the project.
Kibera and Gem
Kibera is one of Africa’s largest slums located on the outskirts of Nairobi. It is a labyrinth of mud-walled structures capped with corrugated tin roofs, each divided by narrow alleys that serve as walkways, toilets, and garbage disposals. Depending on which study you read the population varies, but those in Kibera believe it is more than one million.
Basic human rights are denied. These people exist without clean water, sewerage systems, garbage collection, or security. The Kenyan government has refused them these services.
Entering Kibera, the road is wide and all those I see have purpose in their movements. Children dressed in tattered uniforms crowd into worn buses heading into the city for school. There are those walking into town for work with quick strides, sweat-browed men push wheel barrows laden with rocks, women carry barrels of water on their backs. Street vendors, crowded on either side, sell anything from second-hand shoes to charcoal to eggs. Even fish bones are sold to flavor a gravy that will be eaten with ugali, a cornmeal porridge — the only meal most people can afford.
The faces I look into tell me I am not the only one who recognizes the deplorable conditions. Yet, I see proud, determined, and even smiling faces. When I talk with these women, their grace and tenacity emerge. They express their gratitude for the micro-lending program and share ideas for growing their business. All are
business-savvy women only needing more tools to meet their goals.
Because someone believes in them and offers them a chance, these women no longer agonize over their poverty. Instead, they focus on providing their children with a better life and find there is no use in sorrow.