I never expected to be living in Mississippi. I grew up in rural Nebraska in a religious and conservative family. I left for college and got exposed to the rest of the world by traveling around the world with my husband, then working as a photojournalist for eight years in Africa.

My own personal history has given me a unique perspective on the deeply intertwined cultures that keep the South a unique region in our country. After several years of living in Mississippi but not feeling it is my “place,” I decided to deal with this uneasiness by exploring the state, still largely rural and agricultural, through a series of road trips, with my camera.

I started by visiting small communities listed in the Mississippi Atlas & Gazetteer, often with unusual names like Love, Darling, Expose, Fair Trade, and Midnight. The landscape away from the coast is unrelenting in its flatness or undulating pine covered hills, punctuated by small communities with their ubiquitous churches and well-kept cemeteries; county seats with sometimes crumbling courthouses, always flanked by a tall civil war soldier on guard. If people are out and about I stop to talk, that easy Southern hospitality and politeness coming through even with outsiders.

At other times I attended local festivals celebrating music and culture like the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale and the Redneck Festival in Baxterville. Along the way I saw signs and symbols of the South: the confederate flag; Bible verses posted on trees; Baptist churches; abandoned, kudzu-covered houses; trailers and brick ranch homes, salvage yards; bridges with graffiti riddled with vulgarities. Some historic places such as Bryant’s general store in Money are slowly disintegrating and but not the horrible memories of what happened there.

Eudora Welty, calling herself a recorder of real life, traveled around Mississippi during the depression taking photographs for the Works Progress Administration. These were later published in One Time, One Place. She photographed not “to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain.” I, too, am not trying to change or improve the image of Mississippi but simply to shed some light on this often-misunderstood state.

I was trained that photographs should be perfectly sharp, in focus, and well exposed. But now, having experienced more of life, this seems less important. History is clouded with uncertainties due to selective memories. Time past loses its clarity but not its meaning. Thus I chose black and white film to use with plastic and old cameras such as the Holga, twin lens reflex, and later a Hasselblad, to capture evidence of the past with cameras used in the past. The resulting imperfections, the soft focus and light leaks serve as metaphors for how landscape, race and religion have played a part in the complicated history of Mississippi and still affect lives today. Exploring and photographing is a personal journey for me to better understand the past and present, and in time, the images may reveal more of this place where I now live.

— Betty Press

Follow LensCulture on Facebook and Twitter daily.