To see the Arkansas Ozarks through the eyes of Terra Fondriest is to see a community through the eyes of a mother, a neighbor and a friend. Fondriest has lived in these hills for over a decade, and in this ongoing series presents a warm and intimate documentation of the life of her family and community.
The Ozarks are rich in history, a well-worn fabric in the cultural tapestry of America. In Fondriest’s images, small farms dot the hills, corrals circle livestock, and in the woods, hunting platforms are as common as fishing poles at the creek on a lazy day. Most homes are connected to the land, be that a family garden, a chicken coop, or a wall of antlers in the living room. Neighbors stop on the road to help neighbors, children grow up collecting eggs and butchering chickens, and the strength of community is reinforced at every gathering.
In an area often misunderstood and maligned by outsiders, Fondriest builds a bridge between worlds with universal themes: hope of childhood, the confidence in friendship, and the necessity of community. In this interview for LensCulture, Justin Herfst speaks with Terra Fondriest about living and photographing in the Ozarks.
Justin Herfst: Can you tell us how you came to live in the Ozarks?
Terra Fondriest: We moved here from rural Minnesota so my husband could take a job down here in Arkansas. We only expected to stay for a couple years and then return to be closer to family. It’s now 12 years later, and while we really do miss being by family, we have no plans to leave the Ozarks. Once our babies were born and started to grow up in these hills and in the woods around the house, and once they started to form the connection to the land that we adults also felt, it seemed like it might just break all of our hearts to leave.
JH: Your work depicts a vibrant community. There are photos of children exploring the world, home births, animal husbandry, weddings, hunting, excitement and gatherings, neighbors helping neighbors. Can you tell us about your experience of this community?
TF: With our closest neighbor’s living a quarter mile away, and with people either sceptical of outsiders or having moved here to ‘get away’, you would think that a sense of community would be a farfetched idea. But it’s actually quite the contrary. It takes a little effort to get to know people, but it does slowly and steadily happen. And the more you meet, the more you realize connections between people, where they live, where they work, who’s related to who, and it just kind of snowballs. People watch out for each other and most are willing to drop everything and help someone in need at a moment’s notice.
I rarely pass a neighbor on the road without rolling the window down to catch up for a couple minutes. I’ve witnessed firsthand the kindness of a friend taking in someone addicted to meth and helping them back on their feet. I’ve seen a friend buy a run down general store in a small town, fix it up, and help make community gatherings a common thing again. I’ve watched my neighbors grow up, I’ve taken their senior photos, wedding photos, and then baby pictures… To me it feels exhilarating to be a part of a community that celebrates, worships, grieves, and feels the heartbeat of these hills all together.
JH: What is the process of making work for you on a day-to-day basis? And how does the community respond to being photographed?
TF: Well, I always pack my camera in the car wherever I go, and 90% of the time that’s where it stays. The decision to bring it out is typically based on a few things: who is there in the situation, if the light is nice, if the moment is unique or interesting, and if I feel like it’s not going to alter or ‘ruin’ a situation. The longer I live here and the more people know that I take pictures the easier it gets. In all truth, I don’t go too many places; we are big homebodies. So, many of my photos are of my family and neighbors. The neighbors are used to me and my camera, and are comfortable with me pulling it out and taking a few frames. I would say the majority of my photos for this project are people and situations just from on our road. I’ve also done weddings for some of my neighbors, senior photos, baby pictures, dog pictures—all sorts of requests. It’s kind of like we go to our one neighbor if we have a flat tire and he’ll fix it in his shop—I’m the go-to picture taker on the road
Photographing people I don’t know is typically a word of mouth thing. A friend or family member that knows me might be the connector. Or sometimes it’s people I come to know just from going to the grocery, the doctor, the library, school, and over time learning about them and me asking if I could photograph something I’ve come to find interesting. The relationships with people here are always number one. This is where we live and who we care about. The pictures are a secondary thing that happen when they are meant to happen.
JH: How has your relationship to this work evolved over the past ten years?
TF: Ten years ago my first child was born. Before giving birth, I figured I would just head back to work at Buffalo River where I’d been since we moved to the Ozarks and continue my career in Natural Resources. I soon realized that emotionally I couldn’t handle leaving my baby and going back to work fulltime, so ten years ago was the beginning of me starting to document my family. And over time, it’s kind of gone from all family photos to a mix of family and community.
In 2017, I attended the prestigious Missouri Photo Workshop and that was a turning point. It was the first time I really photographed people that I didn’t know in a storytelling capacity. That experience in a supportive, educational atmosphere gave me the confidence to go back home and start doing that in my community. As I started experimenting, a mentor inspired me to start this project and call it Ozark Life. That was the beginning. And while I do mostly photograph family and friends, I also branch out and try to tell stories of people I don’t know, which will probably always make my introverted self nervous and uncomfortable. But it’s the act of working through that nervousness with the people I’m photographing that ends up yielding the intimacy I strive for in my images.
The project is continually evolving. All through the process I’ve wanted to share what life looks like here from the perspective of a mother raising her children in the Ozarks.
JH: The role of women and children in the Ozarks is certainly central to your work. What are some key themes in these images that you’re expressing to the viewer?
TF: I photograph women and children because that’s who I am around the most, that’s who I relate to, and that’s who I feel the most comfortable with. But, I also see the importance in sharing the stories of women and children. They are both the backbone and the future of the community here. How they are raised speaks volumes about the culture and people of this area. Key themes that I gravitate towards photographing are: strong women, capable children, predicaments and quirky situations, rites of passage, connection to land, and family bonds.
JH: There is also a strong emphasis on animal husbandry, and the cycle of birth and death is intimately documented. What have you discovered of yourself or your community from this relationship?
TF: Living in a rural area, more people farm, have animals, hunt, etc. It’s the way of life and how many who call the Ozarks home make a living and feed their families. The birth of animals is always exciting, even to a fourth generation cattle farmer. They are also acutely aware that these animals die, because they’ve seen it growing up their whole life. So many folks here raise cattle both to sell and to butcher for their family. I think it’s safe to say that we are all pretty ‘close to our food’ here. Whether it’s living on a cattle farm, or hunting, or raising chickens for eggs or meat, kids learn at an early age where their food comes from and it’s just a normal part of life.
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago so I am familiar with how most people head to the grocery store to get their meat and don’t want to think about where it came from. Down here it’s different; there’s a sense of pride that a nine-year-old shot his first deer and is able to feed his family, or that the calf they bottle fed is old enough to be put with the herd to help make money for the farm. There’s a lot to be said for that sense of pride and connection.
JH: Being connected to the land, to family, to harvest, to wildlife, to community in such a visceral way has been, until recently, fundamental and universal, and in this new technologically dominant and consumerist centric culture we live in many of those relationships have lost significance. I’m wondering if in your experience in the Ozarks that loss is to our detriment. For example, in your own children. What do you think is unique about these experiences that they wouldn’t have elsewhere?
TF: I do believe it’s important for our children to remain connected to the natural world, to the source of their food, and to the traditions of previous generations. Unfortunately, in society as a whole, it seems like with the aid of technology we’re creating the potential to lose that connection to land rather quickly with the current younger generations. It is increasingly easier to get lost in the world of technology and become disconnected from the natural world and from each other. We are losing more than an awareness and connection: we are losing the appreciation and respect that kids gain by working with their hands and with their elders, and we are also losing the fundamental feeling of being at peace with ourselves without any form of technology.
While the impact of technology on kids is no stranger here in the Ozarks, I think one of the big differences between the city and the Ozarks is the easy access kids have to still play outside. The majority of kids here live in rural locations: on farms, in the woods, or in small towns. All they have to do to play ‘in the dirt’ or in the creek is go outside their front door. With my kids, they’ve never known a life living on a paved street, surrounded by other people. They know we have to drive 20 minutes to the park with the paved path to learn to ride a bike or rollerskate, or plan the 30 minute drive to their friend’s house if they want to visit. That’s just the way things are, just like how any kid grows up with ‘the way things are’ in their life.
JH: What do you hope they learn as they grow? What have you learned and what do you want them to pick up that is of value to our society at large?
TF: As my kids move through life here, raising chickens, keeping a garden, learning to hunt, taking in stray dogs, hiking down to the waterfall, playing in the river, I hope that deep inside of them, they are building a connection and respect for the earth and its creatures that will be a guiding force for the rest of their lives. While down the road they may go on whichever path they choose, having the memories of their childhood here in this place will hopefully have been the stepping stones for them to live with gratitude and respect for their food and for each other. Wherever they are in life, I hope they will be able to close their eyes and feel the dirt in their fingers and remember the tangible feeling of happiness that a childhood in the Ozark hills provided them, and carry that appreciation to other facets of life and society.
JH: A lot of documentary photography made in this region of America tends to present a darker perspective to such a degree that when thinking of this area solely through that lens, drug abuse, poverty, and depression seem to run rampant. Your work comes across very differently. Are you aware of how this area is depicted and if so, how much of your work is made in response to that?
TF: Yes, I am very aware of that depiction. And yes, all of those things do exist here. But it’s not the whole picture and it’s not the story I want to tell. I am a big Norman Rockwell fan, and I love how he’s known for ‘showing people their best selves’. In a way, I gravitate towards doing that as well. When it comes down to it, life is fleeting and beautiful and we are all navigating it together, but in our own ways. Yes, I see drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, depression around us, and I’ve even photographed people that might fit those descriptions. But you wouldn’t know if because that’s not the aspect I chose to focus on for my images. My vision is to share our Ozarks story, not hiding the darker parts of life, but highlighting the beauty in humanity that hopefully others can relate to.
JH: What are some memories made while making this work that stand out to you?
TF: Moving into this area and not knowing anyone could be pretty tough. It really takes a conscious effort to get to know people since everyone is so spread out. I think this project has been a way for me to get to know my community better, to learn about the things that people find important in their lives, and to find that beauty and magic here in the everyday.
One of the most emotional stories I’ve photographed is included in Home in the Ozarks. A friend passed my contact info on to a local man named Steve Treat. He was in full heart and liver failure and had been ready to die if it weren’t for his young grandson, Liam, who lived with him. Liam was his whole world and Steve was racking his brain on how he could make sure Liam knows how much his Papa loved him. My friend Jennifer suggested to him that I come hang out and take photos of them spending time together. Steve was on board, so that’s what I did. Steve made it through a whole other year of life after that first set of pictures. We put together a slideshow complete with him recording words for Liam for when he’s older. I felt like I’d been a part of something important doing that, and that was fulfilling. Steve and his family welcomed me using those photos for this project
It’s also just been pretty cool to be a part of so many people’s special days, or even regular days. A homebirth, weddings, several-day-old babies, river baptisms, so many moments I’ve been privileged to document. And just spending time with people when I am in a place taking photos; it seems as though most of the first part of any day is spent talking. Getting to know each other is also a privilege. There’s always a laundry list of things people need to do, and when they take the time of day to talk with me and share their life, that means a lot and I am always thankful. I’ve had to run from cows, help move cows, wash dishes and cook, babysit, etc… all sorts of things while I’m placed with my camera. ‘Making yourself useful’ is never a bad idea. It puts you in the action and is a way to give back too.
JH: Is there anything in particular you would like the audience to know about your work that we haven’t explored here yet?
TF: This project logistically works for me as a mom. It’s something I can do in and around my home, or with my kids. They won’t be little forever and I can move onto other things at that time, but for now, this project fulfills my need for a creative challenge and outlet. And it fulfills my need to contribute to society in a meaningful way outside of raising kids. I would encourage anyone who feels like they can’t ‘get out’ to do a photo project, to look closely around them. No one knows your life better than you, no one sees it the same way as you, and it’s one of the most unique stories that you could possibly tell. And it’s accessible with no effort. I think it’s such a great creative exercise to look at your everyday and try to photograph it in a way that speaks to your artistic vision.