ART: Portrait of the Plight of America’s Black Farmer
ARTISTICALLY SPEAKING: Q&A with EDITORIAL PHOTOGRAPHER SHOUN HILL
The daily grit and grind which define much of the New York City experience could easily overshadow the struggles faced by America’s black farmers, but not in the eyes of Shoun Hill. The photojournalist who didn’t start taking pictures until he was in the U.S. Army decided to take a closer look at this subject to show that “the African-American experience isn’t monolithic, that there are important stories outside of the inner-city that need to be told.” Hill mentions in this exclusive with Tania Fuentez Media that there was a time in his life when “I’d walk down the street and miss things, because I didn’t think they made a picture.” Not anymore, and for good reason. He wants others to know what is going on with America’s black farmers and let these farmers know that there are those who care and want to help.
NOTE: All photos courtesy of Shoun Hill Photography
TFM: You recently launched a solo IndieGoGo project close to your heart, The Plight of the African-American Farmer. How did a New York City photojournalist get turned on to this issue and why is it so important now?
Shoun: I did a few internships when I was in grad school at Ohio University, and most were in the Midwest and I had quite a few assignments that involved covering farm issues. It shouldn’t come as a shock, that all the farmers were white, and that was the time they were asking the government for help. As I listened to them talk about their struggles, I thought, if they have it hard, how are black farmers doing? I had hoped to start the project while in Athens, Ohio, but couldn’t find anyone. So, this is my bucket list project. Farmers in general are not doing well, and black farmers even less. I know people don’t like to hear this, but a lot of it has to do with race. When all the people controlling the funds are white, it makes it harder for black farmers to get the loans they need to keep their farm viable and productive. Plus, they are losing their land and some have been on those lands for 50 years or longer. My goal with this project is to educate not only white people about black farmers, but black city folk as well! We need to reach out and support those black-owned farms and farmers. I know people will look up the Pigford case and say “the government gave them $50,000” _ well, those folks would see two things. First, the wrong people got the money and second, for farmers who face decades of discrimination in regards to not getting loans, $50,000 wasn’t anything close to what should be paid.
TFM: I visited your Web site and came across a comment that a co-worker of yours, Michael McMullen at “The Commercial Appeal” in Memphis, once told you _ “Anything makes a picture.” Explain why that stuck with you and how it has influenced your approach to editorial and fine art photography.
Shoun: I was always in the photojournalist-mode, meaning it had to be happening as I was seeing it. For me that meant, people. Do you know how many great photos I missed because I was myopic? Probably thousands. When McMullen made that comment it stuck because I’d walk down the street and miss things, because I didn’t think they made a picture. Now, I’m doing a fine art series on trees and I never would have thought of doing that without his comment stuck in my head.
TFM: Social media networks, such as Facebook and Pinterest, have raised legitimate concerns among professional photographers over copyright violations, content management and the overall devaluing of standards/quality. What is your stance?
Shoun: I see so many of my non-photographer friends post hundreds of photos on Facebook and my thought is always why. The only photos I have up are family and then only a few. If people read the fine print on Facebook terms I don’t think they would be sharing as freely as they do. At one point, the terms of usage on Facebook read that any image posted could be shared with other companies. A young lady sued AT&T and Facebook after AT&T used a photo of her gotten from Facebook in an ad. Those terms might still be in effect. The main concern is people stealing images from your Web site, but most Web site designs have security for that … now the threat is that with so many people having access to camera’s via cellphones, it devalues what we do. This might be off point, but what does disturb me are painters or illustrators who use a photograph as subject, like the Obama poster. They can say they re-conceptualized the photograph, I say bullshit!!! Picasso re-conceptualized. A lot of these artists take a photograph as is, and just add color or do what they do, but the bottom-line is they didn’t have the original concept, they are just making funky copies of the original!!! Off my high horse now :) Just because you see a photo you like, doesn’t mean you should share it or copy it.
TFM: When did you know photography was more than a hobby and worth pursuing as a career?
Shoun: I was torn between writing and photography while in the Army, but when trying to get a newspaper job I had to decide which to do. I loved writing and it came easy for me, but photography allowed me to be creative in a different way, plus be outside the office. As a reporter, an editor can change your story so much there is nothing left of you in it and you still have to put your name. As a photographer, they can crop a photo, but the essence is still there, that the photo is yours. Did Shoun Hill grow up with a camera in hand, ready to capture that special close-up? Like I said, I didn’t start shooting until I was in the Army, hell, I didn’t realize you could make a living doing this.
TFM: What is your preference when shooting on assignment and on your own time (favorite tools of the trade)?
Shoun: Right now, believe it or not, my tool now is my phone :) The images I have from the tree series, done with my phone, would not have the same look and feel had I shot them with my camera! I’m trying to get into video, so we’ll see how that goes.
Shoun Hill Photography: http://www.shounhill.com/
Plight of African-American Farmers campaign: http://www.indiegogo.com/Plight-of-African-American-farmers