How “Southern Route” Speaks to Our Purpose
Words by Chuck Reece
Photos by Tamara Reynolds
Miss Kitty’s Place, Lebanon Road, Nashville, Tenn.
The first time I spoke with Tamara Reynolds on the phone, I heard home.
Tamara was telling me how she felt compelled to create “Southern Route,” how it fulfilled her in a way her success as a commercial photographer never could. She was grateful for the commercial work, she said, then added, “But that’s not why I come into photography.”
Not “came,” she said, but this: “That’s not why I come into photography.” Constructions like that persist in my own speech, the mixed-up verb tenses that are part and parcel of the dialect I grew up speaking in rural North Georgia.
Immediately I knew this one was meant to be.
Several months before we launched The Bitter Southerner, when Reynolds put together her description of “Southern Route,” she wrote, “This project is about resolving the conflicted feelings I've experienced as a Southerner. I love the South, but I have sometimes been embarrassed to claim it as my home.”
So yeah, Reynolds and The Bitter Southerner have similar motivations. Until I saw Reynolds’ work, I’d never seen photographs that so beautifully and truthfully captured the same duality that pushed us to start The Bitter Southerner.
“I think just photographing beautiful people in beautiful clothes with beautiful guns in beautiful homes is very one-sided,” Reynolds says. “The South is beautiful on a lot of levels, and that’s why I went out and did this. I approach it on a heart level, not just by the look of it. Part of the reason this works is because these people allowed this woman, me, into their lives.”
Reynolds spent as much time as she could, usually at least a couple of hours, with every subject.
“These people were so receptive and beautiful and gentle and gracious and vulnerable,” she says. “They’re the very people who could lose everything, but they were all so open and willing and kind. They’re Southerners. They have the gift of gab. I’ve never really thought that about myself, but you know ... we’re easy. Southerners are easy.”
She uses the word in the same sense I heard it as a child. When you had a problem, you had something you couldn’t “get easy with.”
But we are generally easy with each other. “And that’s how these people were to me,” she concludes.
You can see their kindness in Reynolds’ work. Every subject appears comfortable with her camera, even those in the images shot in the middle of Nashville. Which means they speak to a larger truth: something about the honesty and openness Southerners usually extend to others, even strangers. It’s not a rural thing. It’s a Southern thing.
Reynolds sees “Southern Route” as a series that will never completely be finished. But she’s worried that the openness and access she experiences in her travels will someday disappear. She remembers her visit to a cotton gin in Avon, Miss., which sits just across the big river from Arkansas.
“I just walked in off the street and introduced myself to the owner, this big old white guy, and I said, ‘I’m a photographer,’ and he just let me go off and shoot!” she says. No call to the PR folks at headquarters, no consultations with the lawyers.
“I don’t want that to go away,” she says.
Until it does, we will look forward to Reynolds’ continued travels on the Southern route. And we’ll count ourselves damned lucky she’s out there, helping us to see the South as it is.