110. In a Nashville neighborhood is a woman with a camera made sacred by what she seeks.

From the Journal 6 October 2017

I look at this old camera. Leica M-4. It has scars. It is a machine, but a sacred machine. In a time of digital images it might be difficult to understand this camera’s importance, and other cameras like it. “Back then” it was film in the camera. Every shot cost something. It took skill to expose the shot, develop the shot, get it delivered on time–sometimes across the globe. It was a different time in America and the world.

Nancy Rhoda is the most famous photographer you have never heard of. This was her camera. With this camera she photographed the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, politics, people. She was befriended by Al Gore before he was the famous Al Gore and she made a record of his first days politicking. Mostly it was people she photographed. She was searching for something for herself in every story she chose to follow, that’s what she said about her stories. Which is a curious thing for a journalist to say. It struck me when she said it because this is also what I am trying to do with photojournalism. I thought I was alone. 

Nancy said when she moved to Nashville from San Fransisco during the Vietnam War she was in a period of deep questioning.  She was wondering about meanings. Faith. Culture. Motherhood. She said she wanted to know what it looks like to be a woman independent of men. So in the early 1970s she photographed the Sisters of St. Cecilia in North Nashville. 

She said the Catholic sisters were strong, independent women, which she had not really expected. She said many of her most famous stories during that time were motivated by a very personal aim. She was sickened by the horrible fact of prejudice against black people so she went undercover to photograph and document the Ku Klux Klan. She exposed their meetings and horrible ceremonies with photographs. She literally risked her life for the photos.  

Nancy’s cameras become their own story now. When Nancy and I met at her house yesterday and she reluctantly answered my questions about her career as a photojournalist–Vietnam War to the Civil Rights Movement–she also talked about her cameras. She is not interested in fame or praise. I revealed to her that I still shoot film, medium format as well as 35mm for my stories. Then she shocked me by going to her closet and bringing out a box with all her old cameras. “Take them and use them. I don’t shoot anymore.” I agreed to borrow them and use them for this We Are Nashville story. It would be a fitting honor, I said. A camera is only as good as the Wonder is seeks.

Follow the story
]