Mark Sloan was tired of the stereotypes, of how people thought of Southerners as slow-talking, slow-thinking bumpkins.
So he set out to change those perceptions.
The result of his efforts is the photo exhibit "Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South," now showing at the LSU Museum of Art.
Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of the College of Charleston, and the institute’s curator-at-large Mark Long began working on the project six years ago.
What started with a search for images developed in one of the most comprehensive projects about the American South ever assembled.
“I think what we learned is that the South is so nuanced and complicated, and it can’t be reduced to a quick one-paragraph description,” Sloan said. “We knew it would be big, and we hoped it would be an important show, and we hoped it would be a landmark show, a kind of a channel marker for the future.”
"Southbound" premiered at the Halsey Institute in 2018 and has since been traveling to art museums throughout the country. It will run through March 14 at the LSU Museum of Art.
"It's a museum scale project that happened out of a small university museum," Sloan said. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art hasn't even put time into doing a project like this because it's so enormous. It pretty much required that my staff run the Halsey for the time I was doing this, and my family rarely saw me. It was four years of intense work on our part to make it as complete as possible."
But, even with its 550 online images, 220 of which are in the museum show, Sloan admitted the show will never be complete.
The exhibit photos are complemented by some extras, including a commissioned video, digital mapping and a comprehensive exhibition catalog that draws on expertise from disciplines in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
There's also a website, southboundproject.org, filled with photographs, essays and poems by Southern writers, along with a soundtrack of contemporary Southern music.
“Southbound” also features the Halsey Institute’s interactive map of the South by Rick Bunch, a geographic-information-science and spatial-cognition specialist. The map represents everything from street name maps to data collected on prison populations and churchgoers and is available on interactive technology inside the exhibition space.
“Southbound’s” photographs also are included in the LSU Museum of Art’s “Art in Louisiana” permanent galleries, adding a new lens through which to view the collection. This part of the project was guest curated by artist Letitia Huckaby, whose own photographic works are on view in the museum’s show, “This Same Dusty Road.”
Once the exhibit is finished traveling, all photos will be returned to its 56 photographers. The website will continue in perpetuity.
But even with all this material, there are still Southern stories to be told.
"We came up with an index of Southerness, and so the fact that we did all of that, there were still things we would have liked to have had photographs of," Sloan said, "but no photographers were taking them."
Sloan said he started thinking about putting the show together after he saw how others perceived the South.
“I, myself, am a native Southerner,” he said. “I have lived all over the country and have had the fortune of traveling all over the world. But when I would tell people where I'm from, I realized there's a certain assumption about everyone from the South, and that so much of that stereotype is defined by the imagery.”
Sloan points to the iconography of the South perpetrated through the Farm Security Administration’s photographs of the 1930s. The agency sent Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks throughout the South, where they captured life in rural communities.
“And when people see them, they think about the downtrodden rural agrarian and slow-talking, slow-thinking, racist, backwoods, backwater-thinking people,” Sloan said. “And those are some of the unfortunate stereotypes that are perpetuated into the world. They're endemic in a certain way.”
Sloan set out to create his counternarrative.
“Mark Long, who’s also a transnational political geographer, and I were interested in exploring this idea that would complicate narratives and offer a new set of associational possibilities for the American South through photography,” Sloan said.
The duo began seeking photographers’ work on the internet, then put out a call to curators, writers, publications and others who worked with photographers. All photos had to be taken no earlier than 2000.
“We just decided to focus on the 21st century as a kind of a line in the sand,” Sloan said. “We could have gone back further, but we said, ‘Let's look at the South, let's create a snapshot, although an idiosyncratic one, but one that looks at the South in the 21st century.’”
The photographers didn’t necessarily have to live in the South, but their body of work had to be engaged in it. And though some photographers live in other parts of the country and the world, many live in the South, where they have access to places, people and subjects that outsiders don’t.
These photographers offered up some surprises along the way.
“Oh, we discovered so much like, well, zebra racing in New Orleans,” Sloan said. “That's pretty good, right? And we discovered the Redneck Games in Georgia. Who knew? And we discovered all kinds of things about changing demographics, the influx of the Latino-Hispanic population and some of the challenges they face, and the migrant workers who are apple pickers in western North Carolina.”
A set of migrant women are featured in one set of photographs. They return to the same area each year, picking fruit as they move from farm to farm.
“That's not a new story, but it was interesting that there were all these women from Guatemala who traveled together and did this work together in the United States,” Sloan said. “They lived together and sent their money back home. So I guess, in a way, the photos put faces on to a story we knew about, but we didn't quite understand the dynamics of.”
Sloan calls the show the capstone of his career. The exhibit's catalog won the Alice Award, beating out the Getty Museum for the top spot in museum publications.
Now he’s looking forward to retirement at the end of the year.