Tahlequah is a small town in Cherokee County, Oklahoma. It’s in the northeast corner of the state, with rolling hills and lush greenery, and it’s where I grew up. Earlier this year, I leveraged my personal history there to land a job to produce a “rural America” image library for a major telecommunications company. I was really excited to produce this high-level project in Tahlequah, to feature the people and places of my hometown and bring some economic benefit to the area. I assembled a crew and hired a local to help me connect with potential subjects, but a few weeks prior to the shoot date the client killed the project. I was disappointed, but decided to take advantage of all the time and effort invested by shooting it anyway, as a personal project.
I set out to document the land and the people of my hometown as a sort of straightforward homecoming, but I found myself unable to ignore the political and geographic polarizations that are so prominent in our country in this moment. They’re nothing new for me – as a kid with country roots living in big progressive cities for the past thirty years, I’ve often felt a tension between my love for the land and family friends of my hometown, and my desire to create some distance from it. I felt pulled to make some sort of statement about that tension through this work, and indeed there were some captures in the first edits of this series that carried a more cynical gaze. In the end, though, that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell.
Instead, what I found myself making was a tender reminiscence: a portrait of generous people and hard work in a rural part of middle America, the close heaviness of heat and humidity, undergrowth, weeds, open spaces, tradition. Rather than an uncritical celebration or a caricature of rural America, I wanted to hone this project to give a sense of how it feels to actually live there, from someone who can honestly say, “I grew up just down the road.”