We chatted with one of Southbound‘s artists, Jeff Rich, ahead of the Halsey’s exhibit, which opens tomorrow, Fri. Oct. 19. Rich is a photographer and educator who explores water-related issues via long-term documentary projects about specific regions of the country.
City Paper: Where are you currently based?
Jeff Rich: So I’m in South Carolina. Based in Pawley’s Island. And I teach at Coastal Carolina University.
CP: What is your background? Where are you from and what is your connection to the South?
JR: I grew up in Florida, near Cocoa beach, close to where the shuttle used to launch. I went to undergrad and grad school in Savannah, Ga. at SCAD. I grew up around water, which is kind of the impetus of my project, Watershed. My life’s work is about water.
CP: What was your path to photography?
JR: My undergrad was in film, so I thought I wanted to be a filmmaker. And I found myself working in the film industry in Atlanta, L.A., and Boston for a while. But I was always wanting to do photography and was always doing it on the side. I gravitated back to that, and it sort of made sense to me as a person who likes to work on their own.
Then I moved to Asheville for a while, which is where the Watershed project started. These two big tropical storms hit Asheville within a week of each other. And there was historic flooding. I grew up near the ocean so it’s pretty predictable. So having it be this massive flood event was something I’d never really thought about before. And definitely not as the focus of a photo project. That started me down this road of investigating how rivers work and how flooding like that can happen. I started educating myself about watersheds and rivers and how they all work.
So, for example, the French Broad River flows through Asheville and I always assumed it went to the Atlantic Ocean, but it actually ends up going to the Gulf of Mexico, so that actually kind of blew my mind. I felt like I had so little of an understanding of how these systems themselves worked.
CP: That project also seems to touch on conservation and the consequences of pollution.
JR: Yeah. So I started out with flooding stuff and then I really started realizing when I was doing all of this online research that there’s a lot of pollution happening, even in Asheville, which seems like such a green place. What I found is these superfund sites and big polluters consistently break the rules. They all have permits on how much they can pollute, but they consistently pollute more than they’re supposed to or they don’t report it to anybody when they have big spills.
CP: How do you feel like your work fits into the survey and perspectives on the American South?
JR: I think it is unique in that it is a social show. It explores narratives throughout the South. I think my work has always been about how we as southerners are affecting the rivers that sort of give us our landscape in the South. Like any place you live in the South, any of the states are … you can’t throw a rock and not hit a body of water.
Where we live right now, the Waccamaw River is flooding. Every time you turn around there’s a flood or some kind of pollution issue.
Also people are out there enjoying the rivers recreationally. And that’s another big part of my work, is showing how people use the rivers recreationally. It’s not all the negative side of it. I do want to show some of the positive ways we use the rivers as well.
Florence happened just a couple weeks ago. And people keep talking about how big these storms are becoming and how the rainfall is exponentially more than it used to be. Half of North Carolina was under water.
I’ve been working on this project since 2005, and in 2005 people were basically just ignoring rivers. They just drove over their bridges and they occasionally thought about them if their friend was a fisherman. Most people didn’t really think about rivers very much. And now it’s a part of daily conversation, especially down here.
CP: What does the “New South” mean to you?
JR: I think I’ve always been sort of a Southerner, but I grew up in Florida, which doesn’t really feel like the South to me. I don’t think a lot of people think of Florida as the South because it is full of transplants. The New South to me means this sort of like second wave that isn’t all the stereotypes that people from up North and people from out West or the Midwest kind of consider the South. The fact that people down here are thinking and participating the same way that everyone else is in this country, in the context of this country. And I think a lot of Southerners have a sort of pride surrounding that, the idea that we’re not just this backwards place anymore that people try not to think about.
CP: What about your project on Steve Harris?
JR: That project came about through research. Someone I know was doing some volunteer work for Steve, helping him with his legal costs. They were testing water on his property and found out he had all of this radiation pollution from the nearby nuclear processing plant. His house is on this big piece of land right across the river from this plant. It stands in the woods by itself. He had built that house up himself. It was in a floodplain, so he actually had to raise the house and his story was that he did it by himself using jacks. He basically put his heart and soul into this house only to realize it was severely polluted by this nearby plant.
When I was documenting his story, he was severely depressed. And this is a person that is probably one of the biggest hippies — just an awesome hippie. He was a part of an organization called The Gathering. On the land he owned he would host a lot of festivals. And when I met him he was really downtrodden. It was an interesting story, but also a really hard one to document. To get so close to somebody going through such a hard time in their life.
CP: What do you think is distinct to the Southern experience? What do you think people get wrong about the South?
JR: I don’t think this is true of every place in the South, but to me I think there’s this sort of shared joy for the outdoors. People really just want to spend a lot of time outdoors in the South. In the midwest I would drive around the towns and they would just seem like ghost towns all day long. Just nobody outside.
[As for] misunderstandings … that list is so long it is really hard to say. I think a lot of people think that people in the South are totally bigoted and totally racist. It’s this perception that you get south of Ohio and everybody is a racist. That is something I experienced living in Iowa. One of my black students was afraid to go to see about grad school in the South. “Am I gonna be safe driving around by myself?” I said ‘yes.’ It just seemed like such a silly question to me.
CP: What role do you see photography playing as a tool to disabuse people of those ideas?
JR: I curate a series called Eyes on the South for Oxford American magazine. It is all photography about the South. What I try to do is feature photography that breaks some of those stereotypes. I think photography can raise people’s awareness in a way the CNN news cycle won’t. Or any random media agency. They get in front of your face and show you the same image over and over again.
You become sort of numb to it. Going to a photo exhibition like Southbound breaks you out of these cliché news stories. Having a photograph of an abandoned nuclear plant with an abandoned house in front of it does something different than the old cliches of a broken down truck in front of a broken down barn. The South isn’t just some place from the 1930s that is still downtrodden and rural. There’s a lot of high tech industry around here. It’s different then seeing a photo on TV where they are just using the image to support a news story.