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Books: A Saga of Love and Family in the Mississippi Delta

By David Schonauer   Tuesday April 25, 2017


Phyllis Dooney didn’t set out to photograph Greenville, Mississippi.

In 2011, Dooney, a photographer then based in New York City who calls herself “a Yankee from New England,” decided to journey to river towns along the Mississippi River as a way of discovering a part of the country she didn't know.  “I wanted to see more of my country,” she says. “And, I was looking to get a broader view of the ‘American Way of Life.’ Who are we?”

Her goals, vague as they were, were flavored by literature. “I wanted to see Cobb’s The Most Southern Place on Earth. Or as Nina Simone says, ‘Mississippi Goddamn,’” Dooney says.

It was in a karaoke bar in Greenville one night that she met an 18-year-old girl who called herself “$uperdike” enthusiastically covering Eminem. Dooney says she sensed that the girl had a story worth telling, so she followed her out of the bar and asked if she could come by her house the next day.

“That did not come naturally to me,” Dooney told Huck  magazine recently. “I had to work on this skill. I am a very private and respectful person.”

The young woman, whose name is Halea Brown, said yes, and the next day she introduced Dooney to her family. That meeting put Dooney on a path that has resulted in an extraordinary book, Gravity Is Stronger Here  — a saga that Dooney calls “a creative nonfiction montage” about an American family emblematic of American life in all its contradictions —its warmth and loneliness, despair and hope.

“Greenville was a critical epicenter of the Delta, a genuine destination, and since the 1980s has been in a steep economic decline. I wanted to see an American town — really, it’s a city — that had experienced this arc and was looking for it’s second coming,” Dooney says. She met with local non-profits, including the Mississippi Action for Community Education and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, to learn about racial and economic disparity in the area. But, she says, her real research was done on the streets “and talking to people.”

“I recently read Robert Frank’s grant proposal for The Americans, and it astonishes me how vague he was,” Dooney says. “His notion essentially was to drive around and figure it out on the road. I think I am made of that cloth when it comes to storytelling. Inside, I reject the idea that I can create a narrative before I experience it.”

Dooney’s portrait of Halea Brown and her family is intimate and complex. “The Browns are talented in music and athletics; they’re survivors; they project a life for themselves beyond Greenville, beyond poor, and beyond ordinary,” Dooney wrote in 2015. “But a vacuum is created between those positives and these negatives: addiction (crystal methamphetamine and even love, for example), domestic abuse, indictments, and educational underachievement.”

Her images, shot with a Canon 5D Mark II, are cinematic, while the literary sense that pushed Dooney to the South informs the narrative. In the book, Dooney’s images are accompanied by “docu-poems” from writer Jardine Libaire.

“Greenville has its own rich history with Walker Percy,” Dooney notes. Like a novelist, Dooney reveals secrets with her storytelling.

Now based in Durham, North Carolina, Dooney recently began studying in Duke’s MFA|EDA program. “I have become more and more interested in filmmaking, folklore, and Southern Studies probably as a result of making this work,” she says. “The project taught me that ‘The South,’ for a Yankee like me, is an idea in my head. I suppose I am now addicted to deconstructing not only “The South” (by extension, America) by learning it’s history more critically, but more importantly, by learning about these ideas in our heads — cultural norms and stereotypes that we internalize and in turn project."

Dooney’s work will also be on view at the 2017 LightField Festival of Multimedia Visual Art  in Hudson, New York, from August 5 to September 30.

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