2011 Carol Crow Honorable Mention: Bill Walterman
These images are part of an ongoing attempt to tell a story. The story is not necessarily about African Americans or about religion and it’s not just a cultural snapshot. It is about the collective spirit of a group of people – the congregations of several small black churches in rural East Texas – who come together in their faith to support each other in their struggle through life.
This journey began in a fit of nostalgia as I set out to photograph Frank and Annie’s church. Both long gone now, Frank and Annie Houston were friends of my grandparents. Their church, St Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church, is deep in East Texas and sits, about three miles south of my family’s place, along the same railroad track. Over the past three and a half years, I’ve spent Sundays photographing St Mary’s, it’s sister, Gospel Hill Primitive Baptist Church, , Pine Valley Baptist and others.
At first I saw myself as white bread in a very black population. The novelist Richard Ford wrote in a forward to Birney Imes’ book, “Juke Joints.” “... the exotic I feel arises not surprisingly from the fact that I am white and everything – people, culture, ambiance, the stake in life itself – everything within each frame is black.... Ultimately I believe –naively and democratically - that anyone, white or black, will sense the same thrilling otherness I sense in the pictures and will like them for it.”
In addition I felt was exploiting - using the congregations for my own purpose. Over time, however, I evolved from visitor to church member - from observer to participant - and in the process left behind any notion of journalist distance. No longer the interested observer, I am now part of the congregation and that has made a difference in what I see.
There is precedent in this. Both Danny Lyon and Larry Clark were participates rather than observers. Lyon talks about advocacy journalism, as the attempt to photograph people who are generally unseen and perhaps unwanted. Both Lyon’s and Clark’s photographs present a view of the struggle of the American underclass – the outskirts of mainstream society. Clearly, these two congregations are outside the boundaries of mainstream America.
The goal of these photographs is to communicate the exotic in the sense of spirit, emotion and community found in these congregations.