How photos can peel away the layers of a small town

My grandma came from a small village surrounded by mountains. Residents could only enter the village through a single road. Then China urbanized. Many dilapidated houses in the village today sit abandoned. Only a few elderly people still live in town.

Grandma’s family moved away years ago. When I went with her to visit the village in 2012, I saw a rural community lost amongst the wildness, lands lost to the shifting sands of time, yet there lived people unable or unwilling to move, tied to the earth they grew up on.

That trip would eventually lead me to another rural town, Sweet Springs, Missouri.

With a population of 1,484, Sweet Springs was platted as Brownsville in 1838 and renamed Sweet Springs in 1887. In the early 1900s, the International Shoe Company employed nearly 400 people. The company shut down in the early 1980s. Downtown is almost vacant now.

When I first visited this town, the only things I saw were cracked streets and abandoned houses. However, by getting to know some community members, I realized that people are trying to revive their town. Showing my photos, listening to residents’ reactions, and then responding by shooting again through their eyes led to a truer story. Importantly, they would tell me that my images evoked memory, not death of a town.

For my master’s project I conducted two rounds of interviews, prompted by my photos, with eight community members in Sweet Springs. The “photo-elicitation” interviews were carried out individually. I discussed with them the stereotypes of rural communities, which I identified in the research literature, and the impressions of their own community:

  1. High poverty rate, around 26 percent of rural residents live at the poverty line;
  2. Lack of infrastructure, such as public transportation, water supply, etc.;
  3. Limited sources of education. Many rural schools don’t have much money, which limits curriculum options and makes it hard to attract highly qualified teachers;
  4. High rate of health problems, like chronic disease, disability, and obesity, due to the limited access and high poverty rate.

The photographs used for the first round of interviews were taken based on my first impression of the town. Subjects pointed out several important things that were missing, such as churches, farms and school. In the second round, I showed the photographs that represented important aspects for community members. In the end, I tried to figure out if my photographs portrayed their community fairly in their eyes.

Concluded from two rounds of interviews: Community members agreed with the stereotypes to different degrees, but they don’t think these labels represent the whole of their community. They thought these stereotypes didn’t show the heart of their community: its people.

Influence of personal background on interpreting photographs

When community members saw the photos of empty, cracked streets, and dilapidated or abandoned buildings, they didn’t react negatively.

“The Colonnades” are famous historic buildings in downtown Sweet Springs. Even though they are vacant now, community members didn’t regard them as empty buildings, because these represent the heyday of Sweet Springs.

Jane Perkins owned a business inside “the Colonnades” with her husband around 20 years ago.

Zhihan Huang: Colonnades“This is the building that my husband and I ran the youth center out of in 2000. We painted this, this used to be pink, and we painted it gray back then.” Perkins said, “There used to be a little beauty shop right there. I can remember being a kid and going in there, and there was always like all these women sitting under these dryers all the time.”
Bill and Phyllis Koch are renovating “the Colonnades” now in an attempt to bring some business back to town. Some respondents, like Janet Scott, expressed that they see hope through this photograph.

Community members pointed out some important things missing from the photographs in the first-round interview.

There are seven churches in town. The school, which encompasses kindergarten through twelfth grade, is a point of pride.  Farms should be included, they said, because they are an agricultural community.

These were my blind spots. Through the first round of interviews, I discovered these aspects and started photographing them for my project.

Stereotypes versus insiders’ impressions

I chose 14 new photographs for the second round of interviews, including community events, people’s activities in churches, a farm and abandoned things.

They talked about what they saw in the photographs. Then I asked them what words they would use to describe their community. All of them chose positive words. “Caring,” “support,” “safe and quiet” were mentioned most frequently. After showing the photos, I told them of the four stereotypes. They agreed these problems exist, even while quibbling with some of the details. But they don’t want to be defined by them.

“I think these elements exist,” said Kris Raven, pastor of First Baptist Church of Sweet Springs, “but I don’t think it’s a representation of the town.”

Michelle Fuehring, the city clerk, said the center of their community is its people. “We’re a very caring community and we are a community that is striving to grow,” said Fuehring. “We’re working hard to make it better and bigger.”

Janet Scott said she thinks that although these labels are negative, they describe the community accurately. But Scott also thinks that they cannot represent the community’s entire situation, “I want people to see the good thing about living in a small town,” she said.

Jane Perkins thinks there is a trade-off for people: “They can leave their house unlocked, they can leave their lawn mower in their yard, and they don’t have to worry about people running off with them. See, the trade-off is you have security and you have connection in a small community,” Perkins said.

Visuals change stereotype

Zhihan Huang: BaseballThere was only one photograph showing people for the first-round interviews. It got the most comments. Lindsay Fogarty found her family on this photograph and said, “What I want to pick is this one, because it's community…. It’s just small and intimate and I've just enjoyed being a part of this place.”

Zhihan Huang: VolleyballIn the second round of interviews, I asked my subjects to pick their favorite photographs in the beginning and to pick the photographs which they think are the most accurate description of their community in the end. Although every respondent had his or her own favorite photographs, all of them chose the school photo as the most accurate description of their community. 

Zhihan Huang: AerialOne of Lindsey Good’s favorites was a drone photo of downtown, but she didn’t choose it as the most accurate.  “Those (landscape photos) are what our community is, like what does it look like,” Good said. “But if you really get into the heart of our community, it’s our people.”

Zhihan Huang: CowLindsay Fogarty compared the farm photo and the school photo: “I feel like people when they think about rural, they think farm, there’s nothing. ‘Oh look, there’s one cow in the pasture.’ Well, you didn’t see the other 42. They’re just hiding under the trees. This is what people would see from the outside. But things like this (school photo), you’re on the inside of a gym, so you’re actually inside of building. This is what you see togetherness, rallying one another, encouraging one another, excitement, fun. I feel like inside represents us more.”

As photojournalists, I don’t think we should just tell the stories on the surface where stereotypes live. We should go beyond the labels, and we should dig out the fuller story.   

“Do you hate that?” Lindsay Fogarty said. “It’s run down and falling apart, and really not being used right now. But it doesn’t represent death to most people. It’s a memory that’s still alive.”

Zhihan Huang: Ruins

Literature on rural stereotypes

  • Bryant, J.A. (2010). Dismantling rural stereotypes. Educational Leadership, 68(3), pp. 54-58
  • Provasnik, S., KewalRamani, A., Coleman, M. M., Gilbertson, L., Herring, W., & Xie, Q. (2007). Status of education in rural America. The National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from:
  • Jansen, A.S. (2009). Rural America: Issues and Developments. New York: Nova Science Publishers
  • Roka, Krishna. (2018). Rural areas. Salem Press Encyclopedia of Science.
  • Smalley, K. B., Yancey, C. T., Warren, J. C., Naufel, K., Ryan, R., & Pugh, J. L. (2010). Rural mental health and psychological treatment: A review for practitioners. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 66, pp. 479–489.

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