This is a Reflection: Participatory Documentary in Tutwiler, Mississippi

Stand Alone, by Jordan Nash.

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This is a Reflection: Participatory Documentary in Tutwiler, Mississippi

by Paige Prather
Southern Cultures, Vol. 22, No. 1: Documentary Arts

“‘This house is as old as my grandma. This house is like a junkyard. This house is like an animal in the woods. This house is as raggedy as an old car. This house is as ugly as an ugly tree.’”

Like many towns in the Mississippi Delta, Tutwiler, Mississippi, is a sparsely populated community that receives a disproportionate amount of documentary attention, a large portion of which is generated by people and entities from outside the region. During my time living in Tutwiler, residents I met frequently expressed their discontent with the role of documentary work in the area, which, in their view, tends to recycle certain negative images by accentuating conditions of poverty and racial inequality. As a graduate student in Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, I worked with my colleague and friend Kate Hudson and the Tutwiler Community Education Center (TCEC), developing documentary projects that aimed to engage with residents of Tutwiler and address their concerns. Building on an earlier project developed by former Southern Studies student Dan Sherman and former Southern Studies faculty member Tom Rankin, we initiated a documentary photography class with elementary aged students, providing cameras to the children and asking them to document their hometown. The students supplemented the photographs with stories and poems to create their own visual narrative about Tutwiler. Ultimately, each student selected the photographs and stories that they felt best represented their work in the program. These were placed in an exhibit at the TCEC and in a printed book to take home.