About Marti… I’ve heard it said that first impressions last longest. Tank top, blue jeans, easy smile and up to her elbows (literally) in wheat paste, that’s how I first met Marti.
She and fellow photographer Laura Burlton had organized, curated, & produced an outdoor photo installation as part of Houston’s FOTOFEST 2016. “A Hope, Prayer and a Dream” is an exhibition of photographs responding to and reflecting “the emotions revolving around the unrest and chaos that is raging throughout the world today.”
In March, an entire city block in midtown Houston was hung with cyanotypes and wheatpasted with 131 large black & white photographs and there was Marti, covered in wheatpaste and loving every minute of it!
I spent the next few days getting to know her, her work, and how she works so I was thrilled at the opportunity to chat a while and share some of what I learned about Marti Corn with SXSE. -DB Waltrip
db: OK, let’s start with a little background information. Tell me about your growing up years and events or individuals that may have influenced you to become who you are today.
Marti: I’m from West Springfield, Virginia, a city just outside of DC, but I spent my elementary years overseas in England and Australia where my parents took us to surrounding countries to understand different cultures. This experience seeped into my being and I continue to crave travel, exploring the places and connecting with those with different views of the world. I think that probably was what instilled in me the Buddhist belief that we are all connected.
db: I’m wondering, do you remember any special friendships from your childhood that maybe inspired you towards the work that you do today? England and Australia are quite a ways from Africa! Was there some experience in your childhood travels that instilled a love for African people?
Marti: I don’t recall any specific friendships that made me want to work with marginalized communities. I spent my elementary years living oversees. Australians, as a whole, have a sense of wanderlust. Every family I knew—without exception—was either heading away on their own kind of walkabout, exploring the world, or planning where they would go next. My parents weren’t diplomats, but they lived that same lifestyle—when we lived in both London and Canberra, it seemed like every week our home was filled with people from every country, sipping martinis, smoking cigarettes, listening to jazz, and talking about politics, world events, and philosophy. I found it thrilling that regardless of where someone came from or from what background, they were all connected in their curiosities and concerns. These experiences gave me a passion for travel and an appreciation for cultures and lifestyles of other communities.
When I was a teenager, the women’s liberation movement was in full swing. Barbara Walters had become the first female anchor, and my mother was always encouraging me to imagine a life that I could create without limits. I was fascinated with National Geographic and poured through every issue. I was in awe of the exotic cultures and landscapes and dreamt I’d discover them myself one day.
Why am I so intrigued with Africa? I’m not sure. Maybe it was from spending time in Tunisia riding camels on the beach and being introduced to what I thought was primitive living in the outlying villages. I find I get lost in our consumer-driven culture of confused priorities and crave the simplicity of purpose with these people, where their main focus is on caring for each other. They find joy in the simplest of things.
db: When did photography enter the scene?
Marti: My father was an avid photographer. He and his camera were always a dozen paces ahead of us in search of the next photograph. My family experienced Europe, Africa, the Fiji Islands, Hawaii, and Australia through his exuberance and lust for life, quite literally dashing from one place to the next. It never mattered if those we met were rich or poor, educated or illiterate, my parents always saw past these differences; they were intrigued by what could be learned from their stories.
I went to college at West Virginia University to study photojournalism and even took Swahili to prepare me to work in Africa. As it is with so many though, another path led me to marriage and the creation of a graphic design firm. It wasn’t until 2008, when I went to the outlying towns of Tegucigalpa in Honduras and photographed the effects of Hurricane Mitch, that my curiosity for photography was re-enlivened. Since then, I’ve been studying photography, meeting and learning from Steve McCurry, Mary Ellen Mark, Eli Reed, and my mentor, Doug Beasley.
db: How did your relationship with Doug Beasley come about? Are you a member of any professional organizations that feed you creatively?
Marti: Ah, Doug Beasley. There’s something about this man that makes you want to be in his presence. Aside from his nurturing zen-like nature (and yes, he’s a Zen Buddhist), he’s funny as hell. I met Doug after I returned from Honduras and wanted to develop my skill as a photographer. He was teaching a class in Breitenbush, Oregon, so I made my way there and began to learn how to see.
I have surrounded myself with creative souls from all disciplines who are supportive. Shootapalooza is one such group where we experiment with alternative processes. Pixels+Silver is a photographic critique group. I’m also a part of a group of photographers and writers who are working on long-term projects. And then there are those whom I spend hours with via Skype in regards to specific projects. Being an artist is often a solitary life. It’s essential for my craft, and quite possibly my sanity, that I open myself to collaboration and conversation with other like-minded artists.
db: You have a very impressive and polished graphic design portfolio, yet your photos are so very organic. Do you find it hard to switch gears, mentally & emotionally, between envisioning projects as a graphic designer and seeing the world as a photographer?
Marti: My intention was to become a photojournalist living in Africa (I didn’t know what a documentary photographer was at that time), but life steered me in a different path when I chose to get married and have children. Instead, I began working as a graphic designer and soon after opened my own design studio. I’m grateful that it’s been the kind of career where I was always excited to begin my workday wondering what project would cross my table. Now that my children have grown and I’ve become more involved with my photography though, my view of this work has changed. My mantra has become, “This is the work that allows me to do the work I want to do.” I still enjoy creating campaigns and producing publications, but that’s because I adore my clients who have all been great supporters of my photographic journey. So, I compartmentalize my life. When I’m working with my clients, I stay completely focused on the design projects. The moment I walk away, my mind and spirit is with the people I’m photographing, thinking about the stories I’m trying to share and the long list of things I need to do to make it all happen.
db: Speaking of Africa, when you told me of your last journey to Kenya you mentioned that you had to work through an interpreter. You also spoke of certain security measures that were taken by your hosts along the way & during your stay. Tell me more about what you go through to connect with these refugees.
Marti: There’s danger everywhere. I remember when 9/11 happened, flights were canceled because people were afraid to fly. I won’t allow fear or terror to tell me where I will and won’t go. If I do, well then, they succeed, don’t they? Don’t get me wrong. I won’t throw myself onto the front lines. I’m cautious, and I research what challenges might be out there. My children would never forgive me if I didn’t take precautions. When I went to Kakuma, I knew there was a chance of unrest. After all, this refugee camp is populated with people from 15 different countries and all the warring tribes within those countries. There was risk, as I had been told. But I was well protected. The moment Jesse (my 21 year-old son) and I arrived, we were driven directly to the FilmAid compound where we were given an overview of the camp’s landscape, cultural dynamic, and potential dangers. We were introduced to Paul who would be our security officer and were told to always stay in his sight. If he asked us to get into the car, we were not to question his authority but to do what we were told. Though we expected to feel a certain amount of anxiety and to witness tension as we wandered through the camp, we honestly never felt any threat. Most of these people live harmoniously together, intermingling and often inter-marrying. I believe their shared experiences of horror and their desperate desire to recreate their lives without violence supersedes most combative tendencies.
In order to enter a refugee camp, unless you are a refugee yourself, you must be sponsored by an NGO that has presence within the camp. Fortunately, I have close contacts with Kenya’s Amnesty International, and they introduced me to FilmAid, which is an international organization working within refugee camps around the world. After many Skyped conversations at four in the morning in preparation for my trip, FilmAid organized all of the interviews through their own contacts and provided translators when needed. It wasn’t difficult to connect with these people. They already trusted me because of my connection with FilmAid, and everyone I met was grateful for the opportunity to tell their stories—in this setting they have little control over their lives, so to be given the chance to tell their truths was empowering for them.
db: But it’s not just refugees in Africa that you’re working with, right?
Marti: Right. Now, through a grant from the Houston Arts Alliance, I’m documenting the oral histories and making portraits of refugees who have resettled in Houston. As an extension of this project, I went to Kakuma last November, a 25-year-old refugee camp in Kenya where the Lost Boys first entered, to have a more intimate understanding of the lives these people left. Again, I thought this would be a one-year project, but it’s becoming clear that this work will continue for some time to come. I’ve just committed to going back to Kakuma for several months later this year and will be working on several projects. Amnesty International has asked me to create a campaign to help reduce the prejudice of Somalians. FilmAid has asked me to teach their staff and refugees to make still photographs. And I wish to further document the lives of the Lost Boys, both those still living in Kakuma who have no hope of being resettled and those in Houston still struggling to make sense of their lives.
db: Tell me more about the Lost Boys… surely we’re not talking about Peter Pan‘s band of boys?
Marti: The Lost Boys of South Sudan is most definitely a reference to Peter Pan. South Sudan is primarily a pastoral land where the boys would go into the hills each day to tend to their goat herds. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Khartoum-aligned militias entered the Dinka tribe’s villages and raped the girls and women, burned their homes, and then slaughtered those who weren’t able to escape. More than 20,000 boys found themselves without families and homes and began a year-long walking trek to Ethiopia and then to Kenya. Most of these children did not survive the journey. They are the reason Kakuma was established. Several thousand of these boys were resettled in America, but 9/11 ended the resettlement efforts and many remain, 25 years later, in this refugee camp.
There is a community of Lost Boys in Houston whom I’ve befriended, and they’re most anxious to send messages to those who were left behind in Kenya. Provided everything works out, I will be returning to Kakuma for several months this fall with those messages in hand.
db: And Tamina, how did the history of Tamina, TX even come to be on your radar? Is this common knowledge in your parts? Or is this a hidden story that you’re intent on revealing?
Marti: Jesse, my youngest son, befriended Jaren Chevalier when they played on a basketball team together seven or eight years ago. Jaren lived in this small town called Tamina just a mile from my home. It’s reminiscent of a southern provincial town you would find in the mid-20th century. Horses are tied to trees in the yards, roads are unpaved, three churches line the main road along the railroad track. I was intrigued so I rerouted most of my drives home so that I could drive through this town. I wanted to know more about its origin, but all I could find were three paragraphs written about it. After talking with many of the residents I learned Tamina is the oldest freedmen’s town in Texas, yet none of the surrounding cities recognize it for its historical significance. Sadly, they’re more interested in their valuable land and want it for their own to develop. When I spoke with people like government officials, representatives of local non-profits, and school teachers, few had any idea of their history.
So, I decided I’d begin a photographic essay on the townspeople and teach photographic and journal-writing skills to the children attending a community center within the Tamina. The project grew organically. Initially I decided to spend weekends throughout a year’s time and then create a blurb book to distribute as gifts to people I met and for the surrounding libraries. I had no idea this would become a four-year long project with an added two years in preparing a book that would be published not by Blurb, but by Texas A&M Press. I’ve given presentations to teachers and students in area high schools and universities. The area school system is now incorporating their story into their curriculum K through 12th grade. Exhibits have been shown and continue to be scheduled throughout the area, and museum collections have acquired images of this work.
Thanks to a camera and a tape recorder, these people had a platform where their voices could be heard, helping their children recognize they have a strong foundation of courageous and grace-filled people. So, yes, I’m intent on telling their story to as many as I can who will listen.
db: Now, about your portrait of Johnny – what grace!! If, as Noah Webster claimed, a portrait is “A picture or representation of a person, and especially of a face, drawn from the life. In portraits, the grace, and we may add, the likeness, consist more in the general air than in the exact similitude of every feature” then you just nailed it. His presence just seems to emanate from the frame.
There has to be a relationship there. Tell me about it. How did your friendship develop?
Marti: People I interviewed and photographed often introduced me to other members of the community. That’s how I met Johnny. He’s a humble, mild-mannered man with a soft and infectious laugh. After hearing him sing in his church choir several times and spending two days in his home gathering his oral history, he agreed to let me to make his portrait. When I arrived the next day to photograph him, he was dressed in the checkered suit he wears when performing with his gospel band. Johnny stands just 5’6” but in this beautiful suit, his presence is greater than life. We spent the afternoon wandering through Tamina, sharing stories, and making portraits. We’ve become friends, and I continue to be in touch with everyone I met in Tamina. I go to their weddings, family reunions, and funerals.
db: I just love the photo I saw of the two of you in front of his portrait in D.C. How did your stunning portrait of him end up at the Smithsonian?
Marti: The Smithsonian’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition is held every three years. A dear friend had just returned from DC seeing the previous winners and suggested I enter. So I did, and Johnny’s portrait was one of 43 artworks selected. The greatest gift from this Tamina project was being able to walk into the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery with seven members of this community to see Johnny’s’ portrait hanging on the walls. They have been dismissed and looked down upon by surrounding communities, and now they’re lives are being honored in the halls of the Smithsonian.
db: Now for the really tough questions:
Digital or analog?
Maker or taker?
Director or observer?
Collaborate or solo?
Mostly solo but I have recently learned that collaboration is so much more fun and curious.
Introvert or extrovert?
Chocolate or vanilla?
Marti Corn is a documentary portrait photographer. Her projects revolve around human rights issues, telling the stories of affected people through portraiture and oral histories both in third-world countries and in the Houston area. Respected as a contemporary portrait photographer and ethnographer, her work is gaining international attention with exhibits shown throughout the US, Rome, and Nairobi, interviews with national and international publications, and images acquired for museum collections.
“I am curious about small communities of people who share common struggles. Regardless of the challenges faced, I’ve observed a perpetual sense of hope and integrity that propels them forward. I attribute my inquisitive nature to my father who took me around the world introducing me to all cultures in most every continent and my mother, who worked for the NGO, CARE, instilling in me a desire to make a difference in people’s lives. Now that my children have grown, I am in the position with less responsibilities at home, granting me the freedom to seek those documentary projects I have for so long only dreamed to pursue.”
For book sales, The Ground on Which I Stand will be available through Amazon as of June 6, 2016, but here is a link if they wish to order it directly from Texas A&M Press:
db Dennis Waltrip
db is a fine art photographer, lover of stories, and maker of quilts. Her current project, “Of Mud and Men” involves documenting her boys growing up in the South. She is interested in what it is to be rural, white, male, southern & Christian in a culture that values none of the above.
She seeks the beauty & humor in the everyday lives & surroundings of her boys as well as other southerners, listening to their stories & photographing their connections to the places they live. She is currently living happily-ever-after with her husband, 2 boys and 2 dogs on the Florida Gulf Coast.
facebook: kodachrome girl