The Dismantling of Southern Photography

Originally Published in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s Catalog for New Southern Photography

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There are no separate bathrooms or entrances, and you won’t see “whites only” signs in museums or galleries. Yet, the genre of Southern photography remains segregated. Image makers who are not white men have been suppressed as it relates to recognition and opportunities for their visual contributions to the category. It’s time out for that. There’s a need for an André Benjamin moment, to disrupt the industry.

At the 1995 Source Music Awards in Madison Square Garden in New York, Benjamin strode to the stage, as a confetti of boos fell about his ears. He was draped in a purple dashiki and dark jeans, and the neglect of Southerners of the black diaspora was on his heart. The civil war between the east and west coast, for hip-hop supremacy, was at its apex — everywhere else was overlooked. Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, the hip-hop duo Outkast, were named Best New Rap Group. As Outkast, proud lyrical ethnographers of black life in East Point, a suburb of Atlanta, and beyond, reached the stage, the debris of boos fell on their backs.

Benjamin paced and clapped with conviction, replete with frustration. Then he took the mic. “But it’s like this, though, I’m tired of folks, you know what I’m saying. Closed-minded folks, you know what I’m saying,” Benjamin said slowly and swayed side-to-side. His speech accelerated and became more emboldened. “It’s like we got a demo tape and don’t nobody want to listen,” he declared. “But it’s like this, the South got something to say. And that’s all I got to say.” He and the cadre of Southern creatives exited the stage. That moment changed the demographics of rap forever.

Southern photography hasn’t been ignored in decades. From Walker Evans, William Christenberry, and Clarence John Laughlin to William Eggleston, the visual aesthetic of the South is globally recognized. But the majority of the promoters of the genre, such as curators, gallerists, publishers, collectors, and editors — fields dominated by white men — have exclusively uplifted the photography of white men. (The exceptions have been Eudora Welty, Sally Mann, and Debra Luster.) These gatekeepers were tasked with the responsibility of telling this region’s story, but conversely, they disrupted our story by presenting incomplete narratives.