The Gift of Access



Throughout my career I've been invited to share the lives of many people. Sometimes those relationships have been brief – lasting long enough for a brief conversation or a photograph or two. Others have lasted a lifetime. I was asked recently why people would let me photograph or write about them in an intimate manner? Why would they let me into the day-to-day of their lives? Partly, this has to do with my ability to find common ground and gain trust with most people; not all. In the mountains people would say about me that “he's never known a stranger.” It's a trait I inherited from my Chicago-born father, and he from his. My children and siblings are much the same way. For me, given what I do, it's meant that people ultimately trust I will represent them, their families, and their communities in a way that's open, honest, and believable. But beyond “being natured that way,” as Dellie would have said, people have come into my life through the gift of access.

I was thinking about this last week as I wrote about Tanese – how did I get there? How could I have possibly found the Wilson family and been in the position to make that portrait of Tanese? It was through Jean Wynot who, with her husband Ralph, owned a dairy in a neighboring county. Jean was also a farm activist who regularly re-structured farm plans for farmers facing foreclosure, working through the same organization I freelanced with. One of the farm families Jean worked with was the Wilsons. She spoke with Tanese's father, Doug, about me and soon asked me to join her for a visit. I could never have gotten there on my own. It happens this way for most documentary-type photographers and writers. In almost all cases, someone – a mutual friend, an organization, a neighbor who “knows this guy” – brought us into these new worlds and made it possible for us to tell their stories.

We've all received help along our diverse life paths – access to a photo shoot, a student loan or government grant, land willed to us by our parents, a recommendation for a job, or an idea from a friend. Perhaps, it's simply the good roads and communication networks provided us that help us run our businesses or sell our products. It's rare, near impossible, for any of us to make it entirely by ourselves. For Doug Wilson, his gift was a prothesis and physical therapy that allowed him to continue farming with his family. Understanding, and accepting, our interdependency doesn't diminish our accomplishments. It doesn't say I didn't make my photographs or create my books. It doesn't say you didn't do the work to get that degree, or farm that land, or build that business. It doesn't mean “You didn't build that.” What it means is we recognize we've all had help along the way. And perhaps we would function better as a society if we remained humbled by and thankful for living in a place where help is available when each of us needs it.  



I think often about Tanese Wilson. I met her about twenty-five years ago on a visit to her parent’s dairy in the small community of Waco, North Carolina. At that time Doug Wilson, Tanese’s father, was one of three remaining black dairymen in the state. It was a small farm, milking fewer than 100 cows, with adjoining fields for hay, corn for silage, and a large garden. It was a family operation and, more than most small farmers, Doug depended on his family for help. His wife had developed multiple sclerosis some years earlier that left her unable to do any of the hard work of farming and then Doug lost his left arm to the PTO shaft on his tractor. Tanese, though still in high school, became his right-hand person, getting up long before daylight to help Doug milk, going to school, and then going back to the barn long after dark for the evening milking. She spoke to me about wanting to join the service after high school so she could learn a trade and help provide for the family she wanted to have.  

She got pregnant her senior year. As determined as her father, she finished school and got a job as a secretary with a local business. After her child was born, the child’s father refused to provide any support and Tanese made it clear he would not see his child until he did. She continued living with her parents and went back to work, her mother and grandmother caring for her baby while she was on the job. One day, sitting behind her desk, surely with a photograph of her young daughter in front of her, he walked into the office, pulled out a handgun, and shot her. She died before the ambulance arrived.

I visited the Wilsons some months later. It had not been an easy time and it was difficult for Doug to talk about any of it. The man would be in jail for a long time, but Doug and Genevieve had had to fight his family for custody of the baby – a fight they won, but left them emotionally and financially drained. Despite all of this - his injury, his wife’s illness, his daughter’s death, their financial struggles – Doug remained humble, thankful for his granddaughter’s presence in their lives, and the memory she provided them of Tanese.