Missouri photo exhibit honors the state’s black farmers
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — June Davis Richardson was raising a family in St. Louis by the time Torsten Kjellstrand began making his regular trips to the Bootheel to photograph her parents. Kjellstrand was a master’s candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism in the early ’90s, and for his capstone project, he tasked himself with photographing African-American farmers in the state’s far southeastern quadrant.
Kjellstrand got his master’s degree and headed off to the Pacific Northwest to start a career as a newspaper photographer, as well as a young family. He was too busy, he said, to do much with his project.
Earlier this month, Davis Richardson, the oldest living relative of one of the three families Kjellstrand photographed, drove from St. Louis to Columbia to meet the photographer and tour an exhibition of his project. Teary-eyed, she stood before black-and-white portraits of her late parents, Will and Grethel Richardson, adorning a gallery wall. The photos are part of the exhibit, “Black Soil: Missouri’s African-American Farmers,” on display at Lee Hills Hall in honor of Black History Month, the Columbia Missourian reported.
“Mr. Torsten did an excellent job of capturing my family,” Davis Richardson said. “The photos bring back a lot of memories — not sorry memories, but good memories.”
The now 80-year-old matriarch said she heard about the exhibit recently from a nephew who was in the photographs and whom Kjellstrand had contacted. Her nephew couldn’t make the trip, but Davis Richardson decided to head to Columbia along with her daughter Jane Moore, 53, and granddaughter Angel Davis-Mason, 33.
As they leafed through contact sheets Kjellstrand shared with them, Moore recalled visiting the family farm every summer as a child. Davis-Mason, the great-granddaughter of Will and Grethel Richardson, said the family tried to document its history before, but Kjellstrand’s photographs will enable them to preserve their rich family history for generations to come.
For Kjellstrand, now 57 and a professor of practice at the University of Oregon, “it was super exciting to have the family view the photos.”
“It was a big deal for me,” he said. He said he wishes he had published the collection sooner so more of his subjects would have also had the opportunity to see their images in a gallery before they died.
The exhibit documents the lives of the Peats, the Pullens and the Richardsons. As African-American farmers, they represent a tiny minority in the United States: According to the U.S. 2012 Census of Agriculture, less than 2 percent of the nation’s farm operators are black.
In Missouri, the numbers are even more minuscule: 0.2 percent of the state’s farmers claim African-American heritage, said Sarah Low, associate professor for MU Extension, who analyzed the agriculture census data for the Missourian.
Throughout the course of the year and a half he worked on the project, Kjellstrand encountered a number of hurdles. He could only afford to shoot in black and white because the cost of color photos was out of his budget, and the five-hour trip from Columbia to the Bootheel, which he had to drive nearly eight times, left Kjellstrand sleeping in his car.
Kjellstrand, who describes himself as “an awkward Swedish guy,” admits he was especially intimidated as a white person covering race because “there are so many ways to get it wrong.”
But race was not an issue, he said, once he got to know the families.
“The black-and-white thing wasn’t front and center all the time,” said Kjellstrand, who added that he was initially drawn to the story because he had grown up on a farm. “It became a story about Will, Grethel, Joe, Ted, Elisha, Justin and Monique. I photographed who they were.”
In recent years, Kjellstrand said he has resumed his trips to the Bootheel. Some of his more recent photographs — now shot in color — are on display on screens in the gallery.
While he was back on the MU campus, Kjellstrand met with photography classes. One of his messages stressed the importance of being willing to risk encounters with people who are different from you.
“You have to get over personal discomfort to get the shots you want,” he told professor Keith Greenwood’s students. “You have to be an emotionally functioning human being to be a good photographer. You have to be able to bond with your subjects.”
“Black Soil: Missouri’s African-American Farmers” will be on display in the McDougall Center Gallery, located on the ground floor of MU’s Lee Hills Hall, through the end of March. The exhibit is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Information from: Columbia Missourian, http://www.columbiamissourian.com