Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up in Nebraska on a farm, near a small town and had a very conservative and religious upbringing. But I was always reading, loved maps and looking at photo and art books. I also always knew I wanted to travel. So once I got to university and on my own I was eager, and ready to explore and experience the world.
How did you get started in photography?
Though always interested in photography it is not something that I studied professionally beyond a few courses here and there. I came into the profession mid-career when my journalist husband was sent on assignment to Africa in 1987. Before that we already had a love affair with Africa.
After my husband quit his first job with USAID while we were in Tanzania, we hitchhiked for eight months across Africa, moving thru the Congo, central Africa, into Nigeria along the west coast to the Ivory Coast and then turned north to cross the desert to Algeria, west to Morocco and finally ending up in Europe. I can’t believe I wasn’t a photographer at the time though there are still a lot of visual images imprinted on my mind from that trip. In 1985 my husband received a Knight Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I spent that year at the Art School auditing courses in photography.
In 1987 when we were assigned to Africa I was ready to start my photographic career as a freelance photographer. We lived in Kenya for eight years, traveling all over East and West Africa. My photographs were published in most major magazines and newspapers. I worked on assignment for many NGO’s plus UNICEF and UNHCR. I dedicated my second camera to my B&W personal work. I started exhibiting this work in 1992 and have been showing it ever since. It has been widely published and collected.
In 2011, I finally realized my dream of self-publishing my African images in a book titled I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb. Over 2000 copies were printed and it sold out in less than three years. The University Press of Mississippi later picked it up for distribution.
Which photographers and other artists’ work do you admire?
There are so many. During my years as a photojournalist in Africa I tended to mainly look at other journalists’ work, e.g. Sebastião Salgado and master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. As I moved away from strictly journalistic work and more into documentary work I looked at Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. Once I came to Mississippi, I began to look at the photos of Eudora Welty. She inspired me with her understanding of place. She wrote: “Place never really stops informing us for it is forever astir, alive, changing, reflecting, like the mind of man itself. One place comprehended can make us understand other places better.”
Did you have a mentor?
I did not have a mentor but I got a lot of help along the way, especially since I didn’t have much formal training. In Africa John Isaac, who was a UN Photographer at the time, helped me a lot. This led to many incredible assignments with UNICEF and UNHCR. Among the most memorable was being the UNICEF photographer for Audrey Hepburn on her Goodwill Ambassador trip to war-torn and famine-stricken Somalia in 1992. Those photos have been featured in many books later published about her life. I also photographed Harry Belafonte on his UNICEF trip to Rwanda in 1994.
Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time?
This image by Mirella Ricciardi, from Vanishing Africa that I saw before going to Africa and which left me with a desire to go there and take photographs. I loved the silhouette, the gesture, and smoky atmosphere of the cattle camp. The fact that this dream came true never ceases to amaze me.
Another photo that I appreciate and which became more important to me after we moved back to the States in 1995 is this one by Robert Frank. He captured a trolley car scene which looks like a filmstrip showing civil rights history in one photograph. Robert Frank’s, Trolley New Orleans.
I have always been an observer in my photo taking. So being a street photographer like Gary Winogrand or on a road trip with Robert Frank has always appealed to me. As Elliott Erwitt so succinctly said, “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place . . . I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
If you could spend the day with another photographer living or passed who would it be?
I think it would be with Robert Frank. I would like to tag along on his photo trips across America and see how he got those amazing photographs that still inform us about our American culture.
Tell us about Mississippi: The Place I Live.
I never expected to live in Mississippi, the Deep South. And I think after having spent so much time in Africa and continuing to visit there almost on a yearly basis I had some trepidation to how I would adjust to living in the South. Both my husband and I felt so much at home with the African way of life that we tried to recreate it here in the States.
We were outsiders in Africa being Americans but in Mississippi we felt even more like outsiders though this is part of our country. It’s a weird and uncomfortable feeling.White and black communities are very segregated here and we float between the two feeling somewhat uncomfortable in both. Fortunately the university community is a bridge that brings the communities together somewhat.
I decided one way to be more at ease with living in Mississippi would be to explore the state by taking road trips around Mississippi. It’s a large state, mostly rural and agricultural. We found this road atlas with all the small towns listed on it, even ones where nothing much is left except for a church, some abandoned stores or a filling station and a few homes. We started visiting towns with unusual names such as Love, Darling, Expose, Compromise, Free Trade, etc.
Sometimes my husband came with me and sometimes I went alone. I had a Obama bumper sticker on my car, which made me kind of nervous, but I didn’t want to take it off. When we found people working in their gardens or sitting on their porches we would stop to talk. People tend to be very friendly and hospitable in the South so usually it was easy to get a conversation started. My husband collected stories and I took photos. Due to my interest in Civil Rights I have been mainly interested in the black/white relationships. Though the two live very separate lives they tend to get along pretty well, at least, on the surface. The sad part is that they are very polarized politically. And since whites tend to vote in greater numbers and are in the majority, blacks have less political power and their needs are not as well addressed. Mississippi rates last in the nation with poor education and health care.
Another thing I have tried to do is understand the past, which I find still affects most people here. Again whites and blacks see it quite differently. Whites say that society has moved beyond the Jim Crow past and the blacks say not far enough. Exploring and photographing is a personal journey for me – to better understand the past and present of the place where I now live and to shed some light on this misunderstood state.
If no one saw your work, would you still create it?
I would continue to take photos, as it is a real passion of mine. Also I love to tell stories. Even when I am traveling for pleasure and not working on a project I love taking photos. In my mind I am always observing and composing photos. Today I love the fact that I can take photos with my ever-available (as long as I have battery power) IPhone and share them with friends and Instagram followers.
Please tell us about your process and the perfect day for you.
As a photojournalist I was trained that photographs should be sharp, in focus, and well exposed. But now, having experienced more of life, this seems less important. Thus I work a lot with medium format plastic cameras and old cameras such as the Holga, twin lens reflex, and Hasselblad, to capture evidence of the past in the present with cameras used in the past. The resulting imperfections, the soft focus and light leaks serve as metaphors for how landscape, race and religion have played a part in the complicated history of Mississippi and still affect lives today.
A perfect day would always include seeing and experiencing art, as well as getting a good cup of coffee and food. For example when we were recently in The Hague, Netherlands we visited the Escher Museum, then the FotoMuseum for an exhibition by Dutch Photographer Anton Corbijn, who took B&W photos of all the major musical groups (except the Beatles), including the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Depeche Mode, Tom Waits, etc. There we had coffee in a very modern, contemporary café setting. It was a great place to talk about what we had just seen and maybe catch up on WiFi. Then we hurried off to an art movie at the Den Haag Filmhuis where we saw a strange but fun movie called “Frank”, definitely one we would not see in our small town. We ended the day with a gourmet dinner. The only thing that wasn’t included was listening to some live music which in a perfect day I would have included. But you can only do so much in one day. Living in a small town I miss the things you can do in an urban environment but I am happy to live in a quieter place with a garden I can putter around in.
What challenges do you face as an artist?
Now living in a small city I miss some of the benefits one would get from living in an urban environment with greater opportunities to show and share my photographs. I often feel that I am working in a vacuum. Keeping in touch with other artists and showing work on-line has become very important to me. Also going to photo conferences and portfolio reviews help.
What is next?
That is another hard question. Since I was very successful in publishing a photo book of my African images I would like to publish my Mississippi work in book form. I would also like to continue to get that work shown. In addition, I have several other older projects that I am still working on and would like to do something with. One is called Young Rising: Cultural Findings in African Cities. Another is La Dolce Vista, a photo book of images taken in Umbria, Italy which I made with my former photo student Philippa Stannard. It is currently a Blurb book on demand. It attracted hundreds of viewers in an exhibition in a 15th century church turned into gallery in Perugia, Italy in 2014. We often spend summers there studying Italian and reconnecting with Italian friends.
Also I like experimenting with different types of photography. I really liked working with Polaroid film and was upset when they stopped making it. For years I made small Polaroid transfers of my best color work. They are little art pieces and have been quite popular with friends and private collectors. Now I have started taking instant photographs with old Polaroid cameras using film made by the Impossible Project.
Thank you Betty for sharing your work with us. To learn more about the work of Betty Press please visit her site at Betty Press.