After more than 30 years of living abroad, photojournalist Keith Dannemiller returned to the U.S. from Mexico City in 2017 for a month-long Eyes on Main Street photography residency in Wilson, North Carolina. His first experience was that of reverse culture shock, but it wasn’t long before he began to settle in, navigating this unfamiliar/familiar territory through the lens of his camera.

This one month encounter was soon to evolve into a long-term relationship, with Dannemiller returning twice to Wilson in 2019 with more trips pipelined for the future. As he rode buses around town and visited community centers, churches, schools and homes and got to know the community, a sense of belonging began to replace his initial feelings. Sinking into the fabric of everyday life, any preconceptions he once had about life in the American South began to fade, leaving in their wake a sensitivity to its complexity.

In this interview, he talks to Gina Williams for LensCulture about the conflicting feelings of ‘going home’, switching up his approach to the street, and the people he met along the way.

Mothers of students give direction for group photos in front of the Wilson County Library before the boys’ 8th grade prom. May 3, 2019. © Keith Dannemiller

Gina Williams: You have a fascinating background. You graduated with a degree in biochemistry and worked for three years in San Francisco investigating the use of radioactive isotopes in inflammation, but ultimately turned your attention to photography and the ‘human laboratory’ of the street. What initially drew you to photography?

Keith Dannemiller: As a kid, I had various influences which I think led me to becoming a photographer. My father was an amateur photographer and documented our family celebrations with his Argus C3 loaded with Kodachrome. My brothers and sisters and I would put on our pajamas, our Mom would make popcorn, and we’d watch a slideshow of his photos. From a young age I associated looking at photos as a fun thing to do. We also had an extensive collection of stereopticon cards and a couple of viewers. I would pass hours fascinated by the exquisitely composed 3-D images of exotic destinations and the beauty of the American landscape. We had subscriptions to LIFE and Sports Illustrated magazines. They obviously nurtured my photojournalistic tendencies.

While I had made photos before I moved to San Francisco after college, my first camera was the result of a drug deal. A friend of a friend was visiting from Tennessee and needed money to get home. He asked for a loan of $150 to buy a quantity of weed, which he presumed he could resell on the street at a profit. I lent him the cash but asked for some collateral. He gave me his Canon TL camera with a 50 millimeter lens. I never saw him again.

Sandy’s Convenient #2 at dusk. Herring Avenue. December 6, 2017 © Keith Dannemiller

GW: Do you recall the first images you ever made?

KD: Fortunately, the Bay Area and all of California was such a rich setting for all types of photography. I dove in head-first and began walking the streets of downtown San Francisco eager to emulate local heroes like art photographers Jack Welpott and Judy Dater and Oakland Tribune photojournalist Fran Ortiz. The only thing I had not figured on when walking the streets and looking for images of people was my fear of photographing them.

How did I get close enough to make an interesting photo? How did I confront people? What would I say if they confronted ME and asked what I was doing? I was scared shitless to do it. But one day while walking in Union Square in downtown San Francisco, I happened upon a group of men hanging out on and around a bench. Something about the group of them—their individual attitudes and body language, the urban tableaux, the graphic lyricism—drew me in like a magnet. I stopped, raised the camera to my eye, saw some of them through the viewfinder looking right at me, and clicked the shutter.

None of those on the bench said anything. No one did anything. Regardless of the outcome of the image, I had crossed a personal photographic Rubicon that day and began photographing on the street with more confidence and assurance. Although I stuck out with a camera when walking on the street, and it was sometimes a bit of a risk, to me it felt like a natural way to satisfy my curiosity about people.

James 16X, a member of the Nation of Islam, sells the Nation’s newspaper on Pender St. in downtown Wilson. December 15, 2017. © Keith Dannemiller

GW: What initially moved you to head back to the US for the Wilson residency?

KD: In my constant search for grants and residencies, I came across Eyes on Main Street. I immediately thought that it was a great opportunity to expand the work I had been doing throughout my career on migration. It presented the possibility and challenge of a photography project in the US, in the South and in a somewhat typical town there—something I had not done in over 30 years. All my focus on immigration had been in Latin America, so this was a way of looking at the problem from a different angle and perspective.

GW: I recall you reflecting on a feeling of ‘reverse’ culture shock after having been in another country for so long. Can you describe that feeling and perhaps how it impacted your approach. What alleviated it? What made it worse?

KD: Yes, in fact it had been over 30 years since I lived in the US and something like 45 since I had been in North Carolina. My viewpoint, my way of relating to the world my entire life, had changed in some very visible ways and in other ways that I probably wasn’t, and am still not, fully aware of. So, to go back to Wilson North Carolina, to live there for a month by myself, was an abrupt change that required some adjustments.

It was as if I’d become a foreigner in my own country. But it was not all bad. Some of the shock was positive. In a certain sense, I could empathize with the same feeling of disorientation and deracination many migrants feel on arrival in the US.

Also, I was going from an urban megalopolis of 23 million to a town of 45,000. I quickly had to make some changes from the way I normally work. There are a few less people on the streets of Wilson than there are on those of Mexico City. Walking around and expecting to run into people on the streets and be able to make my style of ‘street photography’ happen was just not possible. My approach became more documentary oriented, for example, looking very specifically for events, people and even landscapes that would lead to a visual profile of the town, and not rely on the serendipitous spontaneity of the street.

Kids wait to present hens that they have raised from birth at the annual Wilson County 4-H organization (Head, Heart, Hands, Health) Chicken Show. The competition is held annually at the Wilson County fairgrounds. November 9, 2019 © Keith Dannemiller

GW: Did you arrive in Wilson with a ‘plan’ or vision?

KD: I knew there was a significant Latino population (10%) in the area of the city and the county of Wilson. I was very interested in exploring how the Hispanic migration to this wholly Southern town, with all the baggage of tradition, the vestiges of slavery and a one-crop (tobacco) agricultural economy would affect the social structure and community relations. I did a lot of research and read about the migratory phenomenon from Mexico to the region.

I came across a group called AMEXCAN (Association de Mexicanos en Carolina del Norte) and contacted the president of the group, Juvencio Rocha. I explained what I was thinking of doing, and he enthusiastically promised the group’s support for my work in Wilson, in the form of contacts and information about events. That was my main focus for the whole month, but importantly, not the only one.

GW: How did that vision evolve during your time there?

KD: If I wanted to look at the migratory phenomenon in Wilson, I realized, it would be necessary to photograph all segments of the community—white, black, rich, poor and so on—to show how the collective community identity changed or didn’t. I walked, rode buses, talked to people, read the local paper and basically asked to photograph anywhere and everywhere. In people’s homes. In churches. In community centers. In schools. It was an intense time both photographically and personally.

A lot of the notions I brought with me to Wilson and the South after so many years were either modified or changed completely. I should have suspected that the South is a much more complex, fascinating place than I ever remembered or imagined. And Wilson served as a beautiful reflection of all its current-day problems, changes and potential.

The bridegroom searches for the garter at a traditional Mexican wedding reception in Wilson. © Keith Dannemiller

GW: One might think that a residency experience could be constraining—that it may hem you in with artificial confines. But you said it wasn’t restrictive at all and that you’ve even continued the project over time. How did this residency evolve to become something of a long-term project?

KD: The residency was in no way ‘artificial’. I was not confined by any requirements of the organization, since in reality there were no requirements. I was given carte blanche to photograph in Wilson County, North Carolina. The only possible constraints would have been self-imposed and my mind-set was so gung-ho photo, that I was not going to let that happen.

After completing my month’s work, I realized a couple of things: One, that I had only scratched the surface of the photographic possibilities in Wilson, only peeled back a couple of layers of the essence of the place and two, because of that, I wanted and needed to return to do more—to be able to actively participate in documenting with my own, unique, bi-cultural vision, the changes that are afoot throughout the South as a result of the influx of not only Hispanics but international immigrants.

Many of the stores and commercial venues in downtown Wilson are closed and have been abandoned by their owners. Mannequins remain in the front window of one of them on Tarboro Street. December 4, 2017 © Keith Dannemiller

GW: Tell me more about this point of focus you wanted to explore.

KD: I want to tell the stories of those contributing to the new diversity that is reshaping Wilson. But, just to be clear, I was not hired by the Chamber of Commerce for the work I am doing. Some of those stories are not pretty. Some downright harsh. Some might not set too well with the prevailing sense of the town’s identity embodied by the civic logo ‘Wide Awake Wilson’. But I figured, if I was going to continue the work there, I owed it to all the people of Wilson to show them something they might not see by themselves.

To quote Robert Frank: “It is important to see what is invisible to others.” At the same time, I don’t want that to sound like I consider myself some kind of visual savior who came in to rescue the poor people of Wilson from themselves. I don’t see myself like that at all. That’s why I returned twice during 2019 and have various trips planned in 2020. It’s nice to have a timeframe and goal, which the exhibition in 2021 at Barton College in Wilson provides.

Sunday morning worship service at the Christ Deliverance Tabernacle Ministry is conducted by the Apostle Doctor Amanda Jones. November 10, 2019. © Keith Dannemiller

GW: Has your time in Wilson changed your approach in other areas of photography?

KD: Yes, I would say so. I have always been aware of the allure of being able to work on long-term documentary projects. Most of my editorial work for magazines, NGOs and newspapers did not require that type of treatment. And my own personal work here in Mexico City consists mainly of street photography, where the individual image is predominant over any longer narrative series. The work in Wilson is a documentary project and as such I have had to think differently about not necessarily how I photograph. I honestly don’t think that will ever change much.

As a result, I find myself here in Mexico, photographing less on the street and concentrating more on reportage that gives me the possibility of a narrative, however short it might be and however difficult it might be to place in whatever media. In June 2019 during a large movement of migrants through southern Mexico on their way to the U.S., I photographed a group of Haitian refugees who had been prohibited from moving further northward through Mexico and had come to establish a small community in a poor barrio of Tapachula, Chiapas. I focused not so much on their struggles with Mexican immigration for travel visas, but rather their daily lives in a foreign country.

In 2018, I initiated another longer-term project in the small town of Agua Dulce, Veracruz, photographing much in the same documentary style and incorporating video, that I have used in Wilson. Not coincidentally, the area in and around Agua Dulce has been the source of a large migration to the US, specifically Wilson and other parts of Eastern North Carolina. My hope would be to one day put the two projects together into some type of binational visual presentation. Street photography seems less important to me these days.

Playing the part of an angel, Esmeralda Villanueva rides the school bus on the way to a Christmas performance by students of the Sallie B. Howard School for the Arts and Education at a nursing home in Wilson. December 7, 2017. © Keith Dannemiller

GW: Your work raises some big questions about what makes a place home and how identity and a sense of belonging is shaped by a place. Have you come away with any answers?

KD: If one deals with the theme of migration, as I have, you also deal a priori with the related themes of ‘homeland’ and ‘home’. They are the natural thematic extensions of my work during the Palestinian Intifada; the Guatemalan diaspora in the eighties and nineties to refugee camps in Chiapas, Mexico; the movement through Mexico of Central Americans fleeing poverty, climate change and violence in their home countries; forced displacement because of cartel violence in Guerrero, Mexico; and the ‘Juarochos’ who returned to Veracruz state from Ciudad Juárez because of the same drug violence.

All of these projects have carried the underlying themes of ‘home’, ‘belonging’ and ‘identity’. So it was somewhat of a no-brainer, a natural progression before I went to Wilson, to have those themes operative in the work I knew I wanted to do there. Almost all the Mexicans I have met in Wilson are cognizant of the struggle, personal and collective, they face every day of their existence in the US. Wilson is not where they were born. Is it their ‘home’? Is the US their ‘homeland’/‘patria’? Is it possible to have two ‘patrias’?

One facet of my work in Wilson attempts to look at and answer these questions. Another has to do with the changing make-up of the Wilson community, and how that changes the existing power, class and social dynamics for those who are residents of the place. The other side of the immigration coin, if you will.

Shy’hiem Williams flashes a smile after being chosen Prince of the Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church during the ‘Evening of Elegance’ festivities. December 8, 2017. © Keith Dannemiller

GW: What have you enjoyed most about the project? Least? The most surprising impact personally?

KD: This is my story, too. What I am focusing on out there in Wilson with my camera is obviously an attempt to look inward and explain my life to myself. I was born in Ohio, but do not consider that my ‘home’. I wouldn’t know where to go back to. I live now in Mexico, which IS my home. My family is here. My friends are here. This is where I feel I belong. Nevertheless, my ‘homeland’—the US—remains in my heart. The ties will never be cut. And while I know I will never ‘be’ a Mexican, my attachment to Mexico is passionate.

Who I am now has been shaped by the time I have lived here. While working on the Wilson project with the themes of migration, home, homeland, belonging and identity I have enjoyed being able to simultaneously integrate my binational dilemma, as it were, into the broader questions, answers and themes of the project. It has been the most important station on my journey. What I am searching for and finding in the personal stories from Wilson has helped me to more clearly define my own identity as a man with two countries, two homelands.