Phyllis B Dooney's series focuses in on the Browns, a family from Greenville, Mississippi, but reveals the forgotten lives of communities across the American South
“Now the project is completed I feel the overarching theme is desire. For me, as an American, this is very much part of the American condition today – if not world-over,” says Phyllis B. Dooney, the American photographer behind the photoseries Gravity is Stronger Here, a runner-up in the graduate category in this year’s BJP Breakthrough Awards.
Her project, which centres on a family in the Mississippi Delta, was five years in the making. Over the course of half a decade, Dooney’s work has changed significantly. What began as a means to explore the cultural narratives of the southern states developed into a project that revealed the antipathy and ennui of ordinary citizens, and their demand to be recognised.
“In spite of globalisation and social media, it feels as though most people I meet are not satiated or fulfilled and desire more. Desire to be heard. Desire to be seen. Desire to connect and matter,” says Dooney.
A desire to connect with her country was part of the original impetus for Dooney herself, who ventured south to learn more about such an important region in the history of the United States. The south has undeniably shaped the United States culturally, socially and economically, but has experienced a turbulent time with the rise of global centres of influence in the northern states: New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington D.C.
“As a New Yorker, I wanted to see more of my country. I was looking to get a broader view of the American Way of Life. Who are we collectively?” explains Dooney. “I had no story in mind except that I wanted to discover and learn.”
Greenville wasn’t the only place Dooney intended to photograph but, during her research, she realised it was aptly representative of the sentiments and stories of many parts of the southern US. She met with local non-profits to learn about the social, educational, economic and racial inequalities in the region and visited local history museums to get a flavour of how the sweeping global changes of the 20th century impacted people in these towns.
“Really though, my research was simply hitting the streets and talking to folks,” she says. “Greenville has its own rich history: Greenville was a critical epicenter of the Delta, a genuine destination, and since the 1980’s has been in a steep economic decline. I wanted to see an American city that had experienced this arc and was looking for its second coming.”
One evening, she met Halea Brown in a karaoke bar and asked if she could take her portrait. Brown and her family soon became the central figures of the entire project. “My process in Greenville was to first pursue a myriad of storylines. Eventually, in bringing the work home and showing it around, it became clear that the story of Halea and her family was the core narrative,” says Dooney.
“These were the photographs that were resonating with viewers, probably because they revealed my own connection to the Browns.”
In order to capture a raw and sometimes emotional account of the Browns, Dooney visited the family fourteen times over the five years, often for two weeks at a time. Progressing slowly, the series to became more intimate as the photographer and family got used to each other, and started to trust each other. But it was a relationship that was both open yet difficult to navigate.
“Documenting people invariably means that you are in relationships,” says Dooney. “The nature of these relationships; how one navigates them, how one preserves the dignity of the participants as the person in control, and on. These are soul-searching questions and riddles.
“I learned that I have to be the best listener, to those I am representing and to my own instincts that I can be. Listening, even more than seeing, is how I manage my role in this process. I am not sure I was a good listener before I began this line of work.”
The finished project brings together photographs, videos, audio and prose, collected through Dooney’s time spent with the Brown family to create a patchwork image of their lives: a life which could easily be transplanted to any middle America town. The narratives show addiction, love, war, domestic life and abuse, money, sexuality and religion in equal measure, a heady mix of truths and deconstructed identities.
“I believe that people are complex and by utilising different ‘lenses’ like video, audio, stills and prose I wanted to complicate the conversation in a meaningful way and encourage the audience to absorb multiple truths,” says Dooney.
She adds that the project was influenced by her interactions with those she met, as their word choice, accents and emphasis, all help to convey their opinion and world view. The Gravity is Stronger Here photobook, published by Kehrer last year, includes prose and poetry written by Jardine Libaire, based on Dooney’s interviews.
“I want intimacy to break barriers and collapses distance. I hope that by showcasing intimacy and vulnerability, the work touches and inspires people on an emotional and human level that rises above stereotypes and assumptions,” adds Dooney.