Point and Periphery:
Photographs From Small Missouri Towns
While I was born and raised in Springfield, the third largest city in the state of Missouri, both of my parents were born and raised in small-town communities about an hour south of Springfield. My parents left their hometowns because they saw no future for themselves there. They often told me stories of the difficulties they experienced living there, whether it was finding good paying work or just fighting off boredom because there wasn’t much to do. Perhaps this is a sentiment shared by many as Missouri’s rural communities have continued to decline in population over the years.
My own understanding of small-town life was shaped by time spent with my grandma over many summers in Ava, Missouri. Grandma had never bothered to learn how to drive a car and as a result, we would walk everywhere. On these walks, it seemed to me that my grandma knew everyone we passed, and the people seemed very welcoming. Often, our destination was the Rexall drugstore where we would sit at the counter and order a cherry coke from the soda jerk. Other times, we would walk to the local eatery, His and Her’s, where we would often encounter farmers and ranchers talking to one another not only about their crops or livestock, but also politics, predictions of the final outcome of the upcoming high school game, or just gossiping in general. The town square in Ava suffered from neglect and was not the gathering place it once was. Cruising on the square, a favorite of the town’s teenagers, had been banned by the town’s council. That decision forced the teenagers out resulting in businesses closing and leaving the unoccupied buildings to decay. Walking around Ava, it was easy to see that there had been this sort of downturn for some time. The old and faded Levi’s and Coca-Cola advertisements painted on the sides of some of the buildings, the shuttered Rawlings plant, and the boarded-up Hillbilly Hangout, all served as a reminder of a time when the town was more prosperous. These firsthand experiences of small-town America were radically different from the polished version of Mayberry, the fictional town I saw on the Andy Griffith Show.
Inspired by my time in Ava, I began photographing small towns in the Southwest region of the state in 2012. As I reflected on the photographs I had made, I became interested in the effects the population exodus had on other small communities around the state. While some communities seemed to be thriving and reinvesting in their business districts, it seemed that most were struggling economically. In 2014 I also began to examine the demographics of the state after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old black man, in the city of Ferguson, Missouri. The civil unrest that followed brought worldwide attention to racial injustice happening not only in Missouri but across the country. Nearly 83% of Missouri’s population identified as white during the 2010 census while in small communities around the state, that number can often hover around 95%. In 2016, rural white voters, including those in Missouri, overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in the United States presidential election. Realizing that this was a pivotal time in American history, I expanded my project with a mission to photograph at least one small town in each of Missouri's 114 counties. Through my photographic work, I endeavor to reveal a contemporary sense of place and culture as well as signs and clues that show the impact which politics, economics, education, race, and religion have on the people that live in these small communities.