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[ VOL 003; ISS 004 ] in conversation with Whitten Sabbatini; On Southern Photography, Community, and Color

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Whitten Sabbatini’s project There’s Worse Things Than Being Alone is a project that explores Memphis, TN. After graduation from Mississippi State University, the Mississippi native resided in Memphis and explored the black community of the city. Sabbatini’s work is perhaps a bit more demographically accurate for 2013-2014 say in comparison to the iconic work of Memphis native William Eggleston. For Sabbatini, he is not so much interested in preserving southern culture, as I am interested in creating some sort of visual narrative that people can identify with. I think it’s only after the fact (after many years, presumably) that my photographs may serve as some sort of document that preserves how things were then. Even then, though, they will only reveal where I was and whom I met. My work is very much about place, and right now that’s the American South.” 

SM: There is precedence in photography, especially photography of southern and black communities, to depict the subjects as poor and destitute out of perhaps a concern of racial inequality. Although in some of your photographs the wealth of your subjects can be inferred, There are Worse Things than Being Alone doesn’t seem to follow that tradition. Rather your work seems to if anything celebrates the aesthetic beauty, especially in how you depict architecture and other vernacular, of the places within Memphis you elect to photograph. There are vivid colors and a feeling of recognizing the beauty of things like old cars and homemade signs. Nor is there a depiction of any apparent struggle with such things as poverty.

WS: I certainly hope my work doesn’t fit into, or extend that tradition of depicting the black male as poor or destitute. I don’t believe that doing so would be beneficial for anyone. With that being said, I do believe that the way in which I portray the people I photograph, and the way in which I talk about it, can be a sensitive situation. I hope to do both cautiously and respectfully. I’m not interested in photographing the extremely poor or less educated people of the South. I believe that to be too easy (to make an interesting photograph) based on their otherness qualities. 

A lot of my work, I believe, is about relationships and community. It’s about this universal longing and desire to relate to another human being – to love and to be loved. I’m attracted to these people because of their passion, and their pride in each other. The people I meet and photograph are generally quite warm, enthusiastic, and accepting of me – which is terrific to experience! I believe them to be radiant, and most times I walk away telling them their spirit is beautiful. I find so often that there is this overwhelming kindness and support within the African American community that I absolutely want for myself. It’s nice and refreshing to be a part of something like that. I hope that my photographs show that!

To be honest, I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately – I’m tired of seeing photographs of African Americans and the South rendered in black and white. I believe working in that manner points directly to the past, and I don’t feel people need black and white photographs to be reminded of the long and controversial history. A lot of my work is driven by color. Part of that, is too show how colorful and vibrant this place is! But also, (and just as importantly) it’s a response to Eggleston.

SM: Why are the ways in which you portray the people you photograph, and the ways in which you talk about it, sometimes a sensitive situation?

WS: I believe the fact that I’m an outsider in these situations and environments is important to consider. Not only am I an outsider, but I’m a privileged outsider – one who can afford a camera and has a personal vehicle for transportation. I’m appropriating each person’s image and the way in which they live and work for my own narrative. Once I’ve presented these images (typically on the internet) I can’t control how they will be read, as people bring their own prejudices to each photograph. With this being said, I believe it’s important that I do my best to present my work and discuss it with a certain seriousness and sensitivity to the subject so as not to have it be confused with anything else. 

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SM: Is color photography more honest?

WS: (I feel a bit remorseful for my overtly opinionated idea about black and white photography in the South.) The idea of looking for truth or believing what you see in photographs can be dangerous. When looking at photographs, I believe it’s important (and necessary) to consider the artist’s intentions over anything else. The photographer chooses what to (or not to) include within the frame. So, I don’t believe color to be any more honest than black and white. However, color photographs may do a better job at representing the real world.

SM: Eggleston is notoriously hush-hush about intent, speaking of his photography humbly but almost flippantly. By that I mean he seems slightly dismissive that we can even talk about photography, or at least not his own photography. In the documentary William Eggleston in the Real World he says, “art – or what we call that – you can love it and appreciate it but you can’t really talk about it. Doesn’t make any sense.” He seems to suggest that all he is doing is going out and intuitively tripping the shutter. That it just happens. Now that may be the case, but I think he is being slightly demure, intuition is only half of what is happening, and he is more intent than he leads us to believe and that perhaps as an artist it is better to remain aloof than to be pinned down. I don’t think artists deal well with obligation even if that obligation is to themselves. And all this isn’t to say that Eggleston is not a thoughtful photographer. On the contrary I think he is very thoughtful and has a good understanding of the creative process. But he is also conscientious of his public persona. Too often though photographers, especially young photographers misunderstand creativity, which for most is harmful to their own work. We latch on to the notion that an artist cannot express themselves in any other way but the medium of their choice. And that artists are aloof and quirky and can’t balance a checkbook or be on time, comb their hair, and have a hard time functioning as a normal person. Or that if we could express ourselves in words we would. I’ve heard too many photographers belie writing or speaking about their work. But the creative process is just as much analytical as it is intuitive. And I think it takes dialogue to make good art. While these processes, the intuitive and the analytical, should occur independently of one another, often we rely too much on intuition and never ask ourselves what it is we are doing. Eggleston starting his career shooting in black-and-white and then switched to color. That was a conscientious, analytical decision.

WS: It’s very difficult for me to write about my work and be confident in it. It’s actually very daunting. The written word, for me, is so absolute and unforgiving. It feels like once something is written down, it can no longer be questioned and leaves no room for interpretation. In my work, I’m clearly photographing within African American communities, but it’s hard for me to say what I’m actually doing. I have these passionate ideas about this experience of being alive that we all share, and I believe those directly (and greatly) influence my photographs. Those are the ideas and feelings that I’m not quite sure I can articulate, but hope they (visibly) carry over into my photographs.

SM: I am unaware of any other subset of photography that defines itself by geographical culture, at least within American photography, more so than southern photography. And the attempt to preserve southern culture extends beyond just photography. Most any art has a fairly defined subset labeled southern. I came across your work via the Oxford American, which also makes an intentional effort to promote southern literary and photographic work. Why do you think there is such efforts to preserve southern culture and do you consider yourself to specifically be a southern photographer?

WS: Well, I feel the South is a very loaded topic. People immediately bring their own views and expectations of the subject based on their previous knowledge and understanding of the region, whether through photographs or literature. Looking back at Birney Imes’ series, Juke Joint, I don’t imagine he set out with the mindset of preserving every juke joint in the Mississippi Delta. Instead, I believe he was more interested and fascinated by the people that inhabited these colorful spaces and the way in which they lived. 

I would say that I’m not so much interested in preserving southern culture, as I am interested in creating some sort of visual narrative that people can identify with. I think it’s only after the fact (after many years, presumably) that my photographs may serve as some sort of document that preserves how things were then. Even then, though, they will only reveal where I was and whom I met. 

My work is very much about place, and right now that’s the American South. I grew up here, and I think because of that, I feel a great deal of responsibility towards this region. It’s a common tradition in American Photography to make photographs on the road while traveling. A lot of my heroes made / make work this way – Shore, Sternfeld, Soth. I believe that it may be much easier for me to make photographs elsewhere, but I’m not interested in that right now. I feel that the South is very fertile in material, and is begging for someone to do something. With all that being said, though, I believe that same thing can probably be said for any place.

SM: Is the community you photograph your own or if it isn’t, why have you chosen to photograph the people and places of Memphis you did?

WS: I feel that attempting to make great photographs is the toughest thing I’ve ever tried to do. I absolutely love that challenge though, and I’m positive that’s why making photographs still intrigues me. This is not my community that I’ve depicted, but I don’t believe it to be any different than my own. The environments I place myself in are foreign and difficult. Every time I go out to make photographs, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done (and I mean that!) It is an amazing thing, though, when the sitter and myself get past the initial skepticism and fear that we each have for one another. It’s as close to magic as one can get, maybe, when that happens. I look at these people the same way I look at everyone, and appreciate them just as much. I know I have something to learn from each person I encounter, and I look and listen intently. I see myself in all of these people and I try to show or express the way that I feel about this world through them.

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SM: I cannot decide, and perhaps I don’t need to even know, but the title of your work implies that someone, rather it is you or your subjects, is lonely or struggles with some other torment. The title suggests a certain recognition of and coming to terms with some particular situation. If this is depicted in your work it is subtle, beneath the surface. There is the occasional desolate image but they are few. Amidst the beauty you’ve depicted in your work is there a struggle that one has to come to terms with and if so, is this your own personal struggle or is it something external?

WS: I find your take on the title to be extremely accurate, actually. When I started producing and thinking about the work, I knew I wanted it to be a bit more poetic or lyrical than my previous project, Of the South, and I wanted the title to reflect that. There’s Worse Things Than Being Alone is a bit ambiguous, I know, but I believe it to be something people can relate to. The phrase is actually borrowed from a Bright Eyes’ song, “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)” I think the feeling of being alone is a very universal experience. We can’t ever quite articulate exactly how we feel to each other. There’s this separation between all of us that is kind of frightening and awkward at times – the way that keeping eye contact with someone is difficult. For me, the title is definitely personal and it is about coming to terms with certain struggles and situations. It’s about accepting these inherent burdens that come with being alive, and hopefully doing something about it. I don’t know – It’s optimistic, I promise. 

SM: I am a Bright Eyes fan. That song is from the album LIFTED or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, which was released in 2002. I was twenty-three and was almost done with a stint in college that lasted way too long. It was a pretty perfect album capturing my early twenties angst tinged with a slight bit of optimism. Based on your CV, you would have been about twelve when that album came out. Now either you have been dealing with a lot since pre-teens or you discovered that album a few years after its release. Either way, I don’t know if you agree but that glint of hope amidst Conor Oberst’s slightly self-loathing manic depression was encouraging to me. I knew someone else was angry with me but that someone else also wanted something more out of life. So I think I get that for you the title is optimistic. Much like the title of the album suggest, if we were to keep attentive to all that we are and do, maybe we will be okay.

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WS: I first started listening to Conor Oberst a few years ago. I can identify so well with that entire album, whether positively or negatively. Through his lyrics, he seems to be someone who feels everything, and questions it all with hopes of somehow possibly improving himself and the world around him. He accepts his own fears and failures and it’s all quite lovely, really.

SM: What is worse than being alone?

WS: I’m not sure that’s for me to say.

www.whittensabbatini.com