Road to Freedom: a photo documentary about slavery
Old 01-04-2019   #1
giganova
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Road to Freedom: a photo documentary about slavery

Hi all —

I am working on a new photography project that I call “Road to Freedom.” Road to Freedom is a photographic journey into American history, to the sites where American slaves struggled to escape slavery and fought their way to freedom. The DelMarVa peninsula was a hotbed for the fight to end slavery before and during the Civil War. It is a wetland region covered partially by Delaware, Maryland and Virginia that is bordered by the Chesapeake Bay on the West and by the Atlantic Ocean on the East, right at the border between the Confederate and Union States. It is a hot, humid and swampy place, with brackish waters, mosquitoes and snakes in unforgiving terrain, and has large areas of farmlands where slaves were tending the fields. Man of the plantations still exist and some are still owned by the same families that once held slaves.

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and Harriett Tubman (1822-1913) were both born into slavery in this relatively small area. Frederick Douglass was a slave, a social reformer, writer, and statesman later in his life. Harriett Tubman was a slave, an abolitionist and political activist. She is most famous for her efforts to help other slaves escape their masters on what is known as the “Underground Railroad” network of antislavery activists who harbored fugitive slaves in their safe houses.

I am rediscovering the places where all these dramatic historical events took place, and are documenting the sites (or what’s left of them) and the unforgiving and dramatic landscapes. During the last 12 months, I have taken 8 trips to the area. Here is my workflow:

This is not your typical digital photography; it is a slow, “hands-on” approach in an effort to make this project more tangible: I take photos with a Mamiya RZ 6x7 camera (mostly on tripod) on Ilford FP4, then develop the negatives in Ilford DD-X and scan them to have a backup of the original negatives. But there’s a twist: after I developed the negatives, I take a handful of soil, dirty earth & mud and water that I have collected at the same site where I took the photos, and rub the most soil onto the negatives. Then I take the dirty negatives, put them into the oven and burn the earth onto the negatives! After that I scan them with a flatbed scanner. Below are some examples. The negatives are in essence not only touched by the soil where the fugitive slaves fought their way into freedom, the negatives become one with the earth. I can tell you, it is quite an emotion to take technical perfect negatives with great effort, only to nearly destroy them later while I watch how smoke is rising from the mud-covered negatives in the oven!

Please let me know what you think and if you have any suggestions — thanks!

This is the exact location where the first slave ships arrived from Africa in 1742 at the shore in Easton Maryland:


Frederick Douglass was born into slavery only a few feet from this location at the muddy bank of the Tackahoe River:


This is the grand entrance to the Wye plantation where Frederick Douglass was held as a slave and brutally beaten by his master. At its peak, the Wye plantation had up to 1,000 slaves. Today, it is still is an active farm and now in the 11th generation of the Wye family property owners:



Right next to the plantation is this old tree that looks like a ghost from the past:


This damaged tree is also from the time when Douglass worked on these fields:
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Old 01-04-2019   #2
NickTrop
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Great photos and an interesting and (unique to me) concept. Undecided if it "works" or not but I bet it would help sell some prints.
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Old 01-04-2019   #3
giganova
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Not far from Douglass' birth place is the Brodess farm where Harriet Tubman was born into slavery:


Harriet Tubman was a deeply religious person and the Bazel church, within walking distance from the farm where she lived and worked, played a crucial role in her life. Tubman plotted her anti-slavery activism, her escape from her master and drafted plans to help fugitive slaves. As the leader of the Underground Railroad, she helped around 70 slaves to successfully escape to freedom:


James Webb, one of the first free African-American farmers, build this hand-hewn log cabin and lived here with his enslaved wife and four children. Today, it is one of the last surviving log cabins from that era. The cabin has a potato hole in the floor that was used to hide escaped slaves:


From 1810-1832, enslaved and free black people dug out the Stewart Canal in the marsh to float logs to nearby ships.


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Old 01-04-2019   #4
giganova
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Here is another plantation from that era of savery, the Ross Plantation, which has the only surviving log slave quarter in Delaware:


Magnificent trees everywhere! I waited for half an hour until he sun broke from behind the dense clouds for 5 seconds -- just enough time to press the shutter!


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Old 01-04-2019   #5
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Abandoned farm buildings everywhere:


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Old 01-05-2019   #6
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Thanks for the feedback, Nick!

Any other takers?
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Old 01-05-2019   #7
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A unique technical approach, and it is fascinating to read of your post processing. One wonders how this project might be viewed in a gallery in DC in a neighborhood not full of white lobbyist condos, or in Baltimore, or Norfolk. Maybe AME Zion churches would be a better testing ground for criticism and valuation.

The prints unmodified would be bucolic. Any negative charge they might have depends on 1/Commentary on their context, and 2/disfiguration of the negatives. If I imagine how they’d be appraised without any commentary or captioning, I see some difficulty in securing any sort of generally unified response from viewers. And the conditioning of viewers by means other than the image itself is, for me, always a problem, a challenge, a conundrum.

What if this were only part of the project? What if you apply the same technique or a similar approach to portraits of descendents of slaves, of slave owners, etc.? Rely more on juxtaposition of people and place, rather than on smudging landscape views that might otherwise risk being superficially bucolic, “Oh THAT is a nice tree”.

I do feel a significant piece is missing, yet to be filled in, and that portraiture—personal or environmental—is the piece I’d use. Just a few thoughts on the road.
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Old 01-05-2019   #8
giganova
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Quote:
Originally Posted by rhl-oregon View Post
What if this were only part of the project? What if you apply the same technique or a similar approach to portraits of descendents of slaves, of slave owners, etc.? Rely more on juxtaposition of people and place, rather than on smudging landscape views that might otherwise risk being superficially bucolic, “Oh THAT is a nice tree”.

I do feel a significant piece is missing, yet to be filled in, and that portraiture—personal or environmental—is the piece I’d use. Just a few thoughts on the road.
You are absolutely right, something is missing: the human element. I do have plans to reach out to descendants of slaves and take portraits. Or reach out to an African-American theater group and stage a photo shoot on location. But this needs a lot of planning and significant coordination. A perfect scenario would be to have a descendant of Frederick Douglass, for example, stand at the exact spot where Douglass was born. But I think I am reaching here and pulling this off is next to impossible.

However, there is one little town right next to one of the largest plantations that has an interesting history: that town previously housed the slaves of the nearby plantations. When they were freed, they were each given a piece of land. Some joined the Union Army and later returned to that town. What is amazing is while this region is predominantly white, this little town is completely black and virtually all of the people living there are descendants if slaves. So one way to address the "missing element" of my project would be to reach out to the people of this town and take portraits of them.

I love your idea to show the photos at churches and in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. That is exactly what I intend to do.
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Old 01-05-2019   #9
Sumarongi
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Quote:
Originally Posted by giganova View Post
Please let me know what you think and if you have any suggestions — thanks!
Very very interesting, indeed!

Two «snowflake» things come to mind:

a) You're a white male —— some people (who not necessarily have slaves among their ancestors!) will feel offended —— and find that your work is «appropriation».

b) You're a white male —— some people (who not necessarily have slave holders among their ancestors!) will also feel offended —— and find that you're «betraying your race»...

May be annoying, but you're a grown-up person, you can handle that!
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Old 01-05-2019   #10
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I can handle that My wife and I live in a very diverse neighborhood, she (also white) teaches at a black university, and I have made a documentary film about the history of jazz a few years ago, which was very well received across a very diverse audience.
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Old 01-05-2019   #11
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The photo below shows the Neck Meeting House. It was built in 1802 by the Quaker community as a place of worship and gathering. The Quakers were opposed to slavery and used this building to plot plans to help fugitive slaves find shelter on their way from the Southern to the (free) Northern States:

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Old 01-05-2019   #12
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I found a stretch in the woods were all trees were covered by weirdly looking vines which kill the trees to take over the territory in their fight for sunlight. This particular vine reminded me of a snake! I saw this in the summer but had to come back in the winter to take a photo without all the leaves obstructing the view.

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Old 01-05-2019   #13
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An interesting approach. I am also working on documenting the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Not so much as a revisit of the moral corruption that it was, but more focused on the human migration aspect. It was, as I am sure you know, one of the largest human migrations in history. The parallels to current global events is alarming really.

If I could suggest what has been touched on already, visit AME congregations. These groups and buildings have been the focal point of affected populations for a very long time.
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Old 01-05-2019   #14
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I like that you have brought up the role of the Quaker communities. They were integral to the flight of fugitives North to free states and onward to Canada.
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Old 01-05-2019   #15
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A lot of focus and praise has been heaped upon men like John Brown, who in my opinion was a savage, murderous extremist who "recieved messages from God".

Men like Douglass should be at the forefront of our history and lore.

Your skin color, as the story teller/documentarian will always be brought up. From any direction it amounts to the same flawed logic. It is a HUMAN story.
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Old 01-05-2019   #16
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Drop a line if you ever wish to chat. I have travelled extensively throughout the Bight of Benin, Biafra and down to the DRC.
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Old 01-05-2019   #17
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Drop a line if you ever wish to chat. I have travelled extensively throughout the Bight of Benin, Biafra and down to the DRC.
I saw it on your web site, amazing work!
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