37. In Nashville neighborhoods people are often bigger than our stories allow them to be…

From the journal: 6 December 2017

Preston Taylor Projects, Nashville: “The Jungle”

People are bigger than our stories often allow them to be.

A photographer asked me yesterday how I choose the people I follow for this Nashville project—Did I choose the Prince family, for example, because Hot Chicken is a quintessential Nashville thing? Did I choose St. Cecelia Motherhouse simply because of the music the sisters sing?

No. I don’t do that. Or I try not to, I said. I try not to use people to illustrate a thing. That edits a person’s life too much and reduces them to a theme. It eliminates any other part of them, I said.

That is what we do when we use someone’s life to illustrate a thing: We reduce them to a subject when in fact the subject we seek to understand is only revealed by knowing a life. We get it backwards and miss everything that is important.

A person is not poverty or music even if they have these things in their life. A person is a son or daughter, man or woman. They are first a person with lungs and laughter and fears and desires. They might be poor but poverty’s reach does not extend to their person. They might be famous but they still worry about their children.

James Agee wrote: ‘If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, places of food and excrement… As it is, though, I’ll do what little I can in writing. Only it will be very little. I’m not capable of it; and if I were, you would not go near it at all. For if you did, you would hardly bear to live.’

No, I told the photographer, I don’t actually choose anyone, really. I can’t hardly trust myself to make such a decision as to who are the people in Nashville we should discover. I let fate lead me, and relationships. Nashville in particular is revealing something very intimate in how people pass me along to others. I told the photographer that I follow the Mystic Pizza principle: Take from what is already set before you. Don’t cook to order. 

No, I don’t choose a person because they are notorious, a celebrity, or a “voice.” I choose them because our paths cross and allow their story to unfold naturally. You don’t need select people for this. Anyone can teach you about the city where they live if you are willing to listen.

Follow the story