In My Back Yard: Sin and Salvation in Baptist Town, Part II

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    It was a warm Friday afternoon when I strolled back into Baptist Town, Mississippi, unannounced. Walking down the street from where I park my car, the first person I see is Winky, with his shades and hat on, in front of Hoover’s store. “What up, Matt?” he asks, throwing up a BT sign, and slapping my hand. We shoot the shit for a minute and I wander down Stephens Avenue looking for El. I stumble across a few faces I don’t know as a man gets his hair cut on the porch of a run down house. Dash is there, we say whats up and I begin making pictures before I realize it is Jabari getting his hair cut. “Oh, shit man, I didn’t see that it was you”, I tell him. “Where’s your mom?” He tells me she is further down the road so after a few minutes I wander on to find El sitting on a neighbor’s low-lying concrete porch next to a mostly-empty bottle of gin and a brown-bagged tall can of beer. She and all of her friends are drunk at this point but she jumps up in excitement to give me a huge hug. “Matt, what you doin’ back here? I didn’t know you were coming” she says with a well-practiced dubious face. After a few minutes of catching up she goes back to drinking and joking with her friends and I do my best to blend in and just be there, the only white boy in the whole neighborhood. 

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    After having nearly a week in Baptist Town while on assignment in May, I decided to return on my own in early July so I could cement relationships and get to know the people I had been photographing without any time restrictions. It is wonderful just being able to sit on the porch with someone and not have to hurry off to make pictures elsewhere. So many images happen as a result of just being still. At the same time, I would beat a path around the entire neighborhood each day, wearing holes in my shoes, always trying to meet someone new while visiting other acquaintances. I figured the temperatures would be high but had no way of knowing how hot and muggy it would be on the weekend of July 4th, necessitating frequent breaks in whatever shade I could find. This visit I spent more time with Ellen (“El”) Wilson’s family, all of whom I genuinely enjoy being around. El wasn’t quite herself this trip, but we had some really good and honest conversations. It was a therapeutic several days.

    My neighbor-over-the-fence, Amanda Lucier and I frequently discuss that intangible trait that makes a place or a person something special to photograph. We call them magic people or magic places. They transcend the fleeting nature of a photograph because there is something more to them than a moment of nice light or an isolated individual who makes for a nice portrait. These are places and people that spawn images because of their openness, their disregard for you, the outsider, and the black box constantly raised in front of your face. In a journal from my first visit I wrote, “Mississippi is magic, Mississippi is hell.” Every time I return I am reminded of this because the images are there, but they don’t come without struggle, some tension or sense of heartbreak. In my mind it is a worthwhile exchange. 

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    Matt Eich is a photographer who is based in Norfolk, Virginia.  His column, “In My Back Yard” appears every other Wednesday.  He is a Founding Member of LUCEO Images.