One Artifact at a Time
My exploration of slave plantations began without a defined scope, or even a clear conscious understanding of what this investigation would mean for my work. Just as when I bought my house on the Long Calm stretch of the Gunpowder River, I did it because I felt it would be an important part of my artistic life. I began on intuition, upon hearing and answering the call of my work.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been back to Hampton, the slaveholder mansion closest to my home. I have spent hours wandering, observing, listening for the answer to why my intuition led me there.
Finally, as I continued to trust in my artistic process without fully understanding it, it seems that the answer has once again come to me through the camera lens. Through the art of photography, I can deeply explore and document material culture, not only re-framing the entire narrative in a new light of truth, but placing each individual artifact within that context.
It may be some time before we see a holistic rebuilding of all of our national historic sites in such a way that the invitation to admire the wealth of slave owners becomes instead an education in the truth of the crimes they perpetrated, and the resulting wounds that persist in America to this day.
For now, I am capturing my own re-education, one artifact at a time.
This isn’t the first time I’ve undergone a full, life-changing self re-education. My story of escaping from a cult and building a life is almost unbelievable, even to me, and I am the one who lived it.
I will take some credit for the fact that I now have this story to give to the world. I could have given up at any point on an extremely difficult journey, yet I persisted. But this is not a story to prove that anyone can make it in America, socio-economically speaking. Those of us who have been paying even a little attention to the way American society is constructed already know that’s not true.
I had false information impressed upon me from the cradle. But the brainwashing was not just the falsehoods I was told explicitly, but the way in which my environment—the things I saw around me, the way I was treated—was used to shape my psychology and cement my beliefs. The lies became my only reality. I was surrounded with them, trapped in a prison designed to hold me forever. That it is possible to escape such a prison is the most important part of this story.
So, as people living in America who have begun to accept that our perspective might be horribly incomplete, we have to ask: how does the narrative we’ve been given about the story of our country inform our reality? By what means has this narrative been given to us throughout our lives, and by what means is it still being given to us every day? How does it create our relationships with others? How does it create public policy, news, entertainment, workplaces?
My life story and my artistic work are really about shedding a false narrative and embracing the truth. We can find those first elements of truth, grab onto them and—if we persist—escape our prison constructed from lies. Now that is something I truly believe anyone can do.