Looking For Lost Memories In The Delta

Jan 5, 2013
Originally published on January 5, 2013 8:14 pm

Photographer Eugene Richards had several reasons to visit the Arkansas Delta 40 years after his initial visit.

"I went back, ostensibly, to look at the culture and see if there was anything left of it," he says. Or at least — that was the pitch he gave National Geographic magazine, in hopes that it would send him there, which it did. You can see the story in the magazine's November issue.

Richards' real motivation for returning, though, he tells NPR host Jacki Lyden, was a bit more personal. He wanted to see what he could remember — to fill the ineluctable void in memory that comes with age.

"Every once in a while, in all of our lives, the void becomes a little overwhelming and you try to fill it. So I went back trying to fill an emptiness," he says. "I found that I couldn't even find the places that I knew profoundly."

Richards struggled to find the places he had known so well — for two reasons. Primarily because, as the National Geographic article explains, the segregated sharecropping culture that once typified the region has been all but eclipsed by industrial farming.

"Everything [still] exists, but on a smaller scale. The churches exist," he says, "but they might have six people — where they might have been jammed before."

The challenge of digging up old haunts was even harder for Richards, though, because of his issues with memory. He suffered a serious head injury when he was younger. And though he rarely talks about it (because, in his mind, who wants to hire an injured photographer?), it has had a serious impact on his life.

"One of my reasons to go back was that I was embarrassed by it — that I couldn't remember my years there," he says.

Ultimately, though, perhaps it's a futile effort. Even those who remember everything can't control the way things change. The fact is, memories might remain intact, but people and places rarely do.

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When the photographer Eugene Richards was a young man, he left Massachusetts for the Arkansas Delta where he volunteered in the small city of Augusta. Though segregated and even dangerous, the Delta still had vibrant local traditions, which he documented with his camera. Decades later, industrial farming has emptied the Delta geographically, and, as he found through his lens, almost spiritually.

That's what was depicted in Richards's recent photo essay for National Geographic when he went back after 40 years. When we spoke, I asked him about first coming to Augusta, Arkansas.

EUGENE RICHARDS: It was a sharecropper culture, and there's a little romantization of things. You've got to be very, very careful because the people there were very poor and sometimes actually extremely hungry - lack of food, nutrition, all kinds of tragic underpinnings. But on the other hand, there was a spiritual largeness. And what we talked about is all the times, poor as people were, they always wanted - they were working their butts off in order for their kids to have a better life.

LYDEN: Right. I think it says in the National Geographic article that at the time, the per capita income of the people there was about $68 a year.


LYDEN: And, of course, we're talking just 40 years ago, not 100 years ago. So as you returned for this article with National Geographic in which you shot these wonderful pictures, what was flashing through your mind?

RICHARDS: I went back for a couple of reasons. I went back ostensibly - and this is what I persuaded the editors - to look at the culture and if there was anything left of it and had a lot of trouble, initially. Asked what it was like, I found out that I couldn't even find the places that I knew.

LYDEN: You mean they'd been wiped off the map?

RICHARDS: Yes. The sharecrop existence. The houses they lived in, the land they lived in has changed profoundly. The houses, they looked like, you know, the great Mississippi had washed them all away. They're gone. I recall the - one of the first times that I went back there, I went out on a road and there was these three houses that I used to visit regularly. It took me a long time to find the place that they were because now the old wooden bridge was now concrete bridge, on and on and on. But I found it, and I went around with my hands - it was early morning - and feeling around to try to find some remnant of these houses.

And I remember I couldn't find anything. And behind me, when I turned around - it was one of the nifty days in the Delta morning - there was a 40-year-old man standing there. That's what I figured he was. And I - he said: What are you doing? And I says: I'm trying to find - there was a plantation here and these houses are here. And he said: I lived here my whole life, and they've never been here. So there's a - in other words - and I know that they were. So there's a denial of a lifestyle. But it's also, on the other hand, the manifestations of that lifestyle were gone.

LYDEN: Yeah. Wow.. One of these pictures that you have - speaking of that place where the imagination borders and bleeds into reality - is a picture of ruby red slippers, as worn by Dorothy, and they're inside a Lucite box. And you write that they glowed like broken glass. Tell us about taking that picture, please.

RICHARDS: There were three little houses in the town of Lehigh, which were - turned out to be farm labor houses. And on the outside porch were these absolutely amazingly red glowing slippers that you recognized right away from "The Wizard of Oz." And they were sitting there, and so I made the photo rounds. You find these things, and in my - in your mind - because it's an - everything's empty, the houses are torn up - you say to yourself, maybe I should take them with me. But I've never been able to do that. These belong here.

A month later, I came back with my wife Jeanine, and I was looking for them. And as we arrived at the house, a van pulled up. And outside, about seven or eight - actually, I'm not exaggerating - huge men came out covered with tattoos, wearing torn T-shirts and military outfits, asked me what we were there for. And Jean pops up. She says: I'm here to see the red shoes. And this tough, armored man says: You mean Dorothy's shoes, maybe sort of internally smile. But they were gone. It was like one of those things that happen, surreal things that happen all the time to all us who go on the road where things don't make sense. But they do make sense later.

LYDEN: Where are all the people who came to work there, thousands of people who were the descendants of former slaves, sharecroppers who came from around the Delta region? How has big agriculture changed things, and where did those people go?

RICHARDS: It's been an outmigration - it's classic outmigration to Chicago, in many cases, in the people from the Delta where it just got to be too much. The schools weren't good for so many years. Racial separation was there. And people wanted to make life better. And also, there was no work because big machines came in. So now you have tractors when you had people working in the fields by hand. So there was no work. Right now, I feel, when I was there, that all you have left is a support group, you know, for a large mass of agricultural business. And in time, these people will go. Basically, they're not needed. It's a disposable population.

LYDEN: In one of your last pictures in the magazine, we do see young children there today from a family called Kern, the Kern family.


LYDEN: And they're walking down a road past a huge field petting their dogs. Is there anything traditional still there - used to be music and oral tales - that binds these communities together any longer?

RICHARDS: Yes. Well, everything exists but on a smaller scale. The churches exist. They're spread all over the place. But they might have six people in the church while the place would have been jammed before. The thing that doesn't exist is that feeling, at least in my mind, you know, you have an experience - you don't want to say that my experience down there even recently was everybody's experience. But there's not the sense of hope that there was before. And you could feel it.

The kids, you say, what do they want to do? And they shrug, and they say nothing. I just want to, you know, be - live my life out here. Before, there was always that the kids wanted to get out. They wanted to somehow help their parents succeed, move out into the world. And that seemed to be gone.

LYDEN: That's Eugene Richards. His photography was featured in the November issue of the National Geographic, and you can see the photos we talked about and others at our website, npr.org. Eugene Richards, thank you so much.

RICHARDS: Thanks so much.


LYDEN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.