Robbie Lawrence travels the dark backwaters of the Deep South
Setting out to document a southern US state community in the first year of Trump’s presidency, Robbie Lawrence and Sala Elise Patterson found the greater narrative lay in the Ogeechee River that runs through it
Cover story, British Journal of Photography, Once Upon a Time in America, Issue 7890 — December 2019
Photo: Robbie Lawrence
Robbie Lawrence points to a picture. The image depicts the darkened interior of a church; a sliver of light illuminates the scene. A woman sits on a red velvet pew, clasping her hands and turned away from the camera. “I want to open up this small crack of time,” says Lawrence, eyes fixed on the image. The photograph is quiet yet captivating, and slowly draws me in. “It should feel like you are sitting in that church. You feel the light and warmth. I want you to feel as though you are there.” And, momentarily, I do.
The image forms part of Lawrence’s most recent photobook, Blackwater River – a dark and meditative journey along the final part of the Ogeechee River in the southern US state of Georgia – published by Stanley/Barker. Snaking past the city of Savannah, the waterway traces a route fraught with tension: verdant landscapes ravaged by the effects of the climate crisis, and broken communities shaken by gun crime. Lawrence eschews the sensationalism or didacticism often associated with documenting these issues. Rather we are invited to join him as outsiders looking in; distant observers reflecting on a society of which we are not part.
In November 2017, Lawrence travelled to Savannah with the writer, Sala Elise Patterson, and together they explored the city and its surrounding areas over an intense two-week period. The intention was to experience a pocket of America in the first year of Trump’s presidency – to immerse themselves in a community and attempt to make some sense of it. “One of the reasons we chose Savannah is because it felt like the epicentre of an area with numerous political issues,” explains Lawrence, who, along with Elise Patterson, devoted weeks to preliminary research, identifying gun crime, domestic violence and climate change as pertinent subjects to explore.
In Savannah, the pair allowed the work to unfold on the ground, guided by the people they met and the places they visited. “There were moments when I thought, ‘I cannot tell this story. This is so far from where I come from. What the fuck am I doing here?’” says Lawrence, who originally wanted the focus of the project to be gun violence.
In 2015, violent crime in Savannah spiked and the number of gun-related offences remains markedly high. According to locals, the problem is due, in part, to social issues, including poor education and economic opportunities, along with gangs and widespread, systematic racism. The pair visited murder scenes and met with parents who had lost their children, but decided that they could not go deep enough to do the subject justice.
Instead, the landscape emerged as a central focus – lonely swamps dappled in sunlight, swathes of marsh grass, forests dripping in Spanish moss, and the black waters of the Ogeechee River coursing through it all. “The river drew everything together,” reflects Lawrence. “It provides a narrative spine. It felt like a language through which we could communicate.”
The climate crisis, poor environmental regulations, and rapid development have all contributed to the decline of the Ogeechee, and these were the issues to which Lawrence felt most drawn. “We quickly became interested in nature, and the collapse of nature, in a place that seems, at first, so verdant and beautiful – the riches of the swamp, the flowers, the trees, the moss,” he says. “We kept on coming back to it and finding ourselves at night, after a few beers, saying, ‘God, that fishing village was miserable’.” Waterside developments have devastated important wetland habitats, and the river itself is increasingly polluted by nearby coal-fired power plant emissions and other illegal sources. There has also been an intensification of tropical storms and hurricanes over the last two decades. Lawrence’s images and Elise Patterson’s text bear witness to the resultant degradation and despair – broken silhouettes of weather-beaten trees; riverside residents concerned by the state of their surroundings.
The essay by Elise Patterson features interviews with local subjects – a shrimper mourning the demise of his trade; a spoken-word artist and born-again Christian preaching non violence to the youth of Savannah; the chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, a group of African-Americans descended from slaves whose culture blends North American traditions with their heritage; and a Vietnam War veteran- cum-environmentalist. The text forms a central part of the book, running over eight of the middle pages and anchoring the context and structure to Lawrence’s work.
“I did not want it to feel like an introduction, which is why it comes halfway,” says Lawrence. “You are led into [the text] by the images, and then they lead you out of it again.” As the pair debated the edit, the language became clearer. “Formal portraits disappearing, quieter moments, nature, bleakness,” reflects Lawrence. He was drawn to the work by the atmosphere it creates, which he was keen to capture. “We wanted to create a world in which the images and text were focused on themselves,” he says. “It was more about the atmosphere than trying to tell a specific story.”
Exploring these subjects in the context of Trump’s America imbued them with additional significance. “The idea for the project developed in reaction to inflammatory media – the very black-and- white notion of what was going on in the US,” explains Lawrence.
The work is human at its core, unveiling the contradictions and complexities of every individual depicted. Straightforward reportage is eschewed in favour of a much more considered approach.
On their final visit, the pair met Larry Lucas – a Vietnam War veteran living alongside the river, displaying a deep devotion and concern for the Ogeechee. “Lucas is your quintessential white American man,” says Lawrence. “He is 65, has lots of guns, he values his country, he values the flag. But he was deeply thoughtful and provoked a lot of interesting conversations around the environment.” Lucas defies the white, southern redneck stereotype. In presenting individuals who evade rigid categorisation, the work encourages us to consider our own prejudices and preconceptions.
Deciding what to include was as important as deciding what to leave out. “What kind of imagery is useful?” muses Lawrence, pulling up an image on his phone that did not make the final edit. The photograph depicts a young boy, dressed in camouflage, clutching a semi-automatic rifle almost half his size. A swipe right reveals his “gun cabin” – an unassuming log cabin filled with weapons. Albert is 12 years old and from a white, Catholic, upper-middle-class family. His mother often picks him up from school early to go to the family farm where he changes, selects his weapon, and heads out to hunt alone until the sun goes down. But Lawrence explains that Albert is also smart and empathetic: “He cries pretty much every time he kills an animal”.
Ultimately, Lawrence decided against including the image, believing it didn’t add any value to the conversation. “The narratives around gun violence are stubborn in the United States and I do not think that Albert would have done anything to move that needle,” says Lawrence. “I do think that it would have just been so sensational and disturbing that it would have probably been the end of the discussion.”
Despite graduating with a BA in literature, Lawrence has always enjoyed painting and fine art and went on to study the subject in New York. “All my mood boards start with paintings,” he explains. “I have always been interested in the cross-pollination of mediums.” Light and colour are central to Lawrence’s visual language and his masterful manipulation of these techniques, inspired by Dutch Masters, gives shape to the images – darkened thickets popping with brightly coloured flowers, shadowy clearings bathed in slivers of golden light, the faint outline of a man’s face veiled in darkness. He also excels at subtlety in his artistic approach. “I am fascinated by how shadow can construct a narrative,” he reflects. “I allow light to dictate some of the form or the context.”
The portrait subjects in the book are all obscured – faces turn away and profiles are shrouded in shadow. “[The book’s publisher, Gregory Barker] calls it ‘anti-portraiture’,” says Lawrence. “I think you can convey a lot about someone, even if it is a sliver of their face or their hand, it is meant to feel very quiet.” But the technique is also important for encapsulating the distance that he felt. The portraits do not profess some feigned familiarity between photographer and subject, rather they allude to the insubstantiality of the connection. They do not pretend to be intimate; they observe. “I wanted it to feel like you, as the viewer, were experiencing it in the same way that I was,” he says. “I felt like an outsider looking in. Despite having long conversations with these people, I wanted them to exist separately.”
Lawrence’s place in relation to his subjects is something that he thinks about deeply: “What is my right and what is my role?” It’s a concern echoed by Elise Patterson, who sent interview questions to her subjects ahead of meeting them. This allowed interviewees to weigh in and she could avoid injecting too much of herself into a situation. “There was silent energy between us when we were working together,” says Lawrence. “I wanted to give her space to do the interviewing, and that provided me with the space to work as well.”
The experience transformed the pair’s perception of the area. In observing a specific place at a specific time, the project also provides a space for others to reflect on a microcosm of contemporary America. Text and image work together to conjure up the worlds of the individuals depicted so that we may momentarily comprehend them. A sense of unease and melancholy permeates the pages, and devoid of judgment or narrative, we are given room to meditate on this. In years to come, Blackwater River will exist as an artefact of a particular moment – a record of sorts, capturing southern life in Trump’s America. But, more than that, it is an exploration of the nuances and complexities that define humanity: the individuals depicted may all inhabit a certain space and time, but they are not one and the same.