Forest McMullin is a seeker, motivated by an insatiable curiosity about the human condition and a wanderlust for unexpected people and places. His wanderings are pilgrimages into the heart and soul of rural America and he brings back dispatches from a population that has been chronically underserved educationally and economically, with a lack of access to healthcare, nutrition, and opportunity. But for all they lack, opinions are not wanting.
His journey was guided by signs, sometimes literally: a hand-painted sign for eggs, a wall of rock and kudzu, a red blanket, a barber’s pole, were all invitations for him to pause, investigate, meet people, and listen.
McMullin’s spare and simple statement for this series is as devoid of rhetoric and pretense as his images. His interest is not in guiding the viewers’ opinion but in the simple and surprisingly powerful act of introducing the viewer to the people, unvarnished and humble, who he finds along his path.
When I was reading through these stories and looking at the images, it brought to mind Dorothea Lange and her off-the-grid wanderings to bring back visual communiques from the Great Depression. These are honest pictures and honest narratives, and McMullin presents them without judgement, perhaps the most critical and difficult act of a documentarian—an act of faith—let the viewer be the judge.
And judgement is at hand for David Wayne Hull who freely admits with blunt matter-of-factness and lack of shame that he is a white supremacist. Boasting of a Mensa IQ while spouting ignorant pablum, Hull reflects on a life spent on the fringes: prison sentences and lost opportunities. What is left of his sense of worth largely relies on the odious ideology of racism.
But the richness of McMullin’s work and the region he documents, is revealed in other hearts. The hospitality of Dusty Wade Pritt, suspicious at first, he quickly lets down his guard, offering grapes and apples and asking the photographer to confirm that he looks like Jesus, as “the girls” have told him. And Justin Dube, a single father and champion boxer who uses his skill to help bring hope to kids, finding his own salvation in AA and God. Nobody is turned away.
There are stories of love and heartbreak, war heroes and convicts.
Some subjects are of weak mind and strong opinion, others have anabundance of heart. He treats each with humanity, giving them the very human opportunity of telling their own story.
While the world may have turned its back on the region and the people, McMullin is there to listen. The First Lady famously wore a coat with the question: “I really don’t care, do you?” The answer for McMullin is yes. —Billy Howard
David Wayne Hull ©Forest McMullin
David Wayne Hull
Eggs the hand painted sign read. I followed the arrows. The road was paved, but a few hundred yards after it became one lane, there was one more of those signs in front of a house, so I pulled in. There was another sign posted that said Beware of Dogs, so when I heard ferocious barking, I sat in my car with the window lowered. Walking down a slope from a barn with a Confederate flag on it was David Wayne Hull. He said I was fine to get out- the dogs were fenced up. I explained I wasn’t interested in eggs, but I was in conversation and possibly a photograph. We sat on his porch and talked.
“Let me be clear, I’m a white supremacist. I’m the Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. We’re not the cross-burning kind of Klan, although I got no problem with them. We put the emphasis on the Invisible part of our name. Like if there’s someone selling drugs, they might get a visit in the middle of the night by some of the boys. And they’ll make it real clear to that drug dealer that they’re not welcome in this county. Sure enough, a week later that dealer has moved on. They can sell that shit somewhere else, but they can’t sell it here.
“I spent nine years in federal prison. Wait, eight years, eleven months- I don’t want to be a liar. I believe it’s important to always tell the truth. It was on bogus charges. Even the ACLU told me the charges were no good, but they couldn’t take my case because of who I was. So I did my time.
“Prison is as bad as you think. It’s hard to sleep, the food’s awful, you have to watch your back all the time. But I had people I could trust. Some of the best friends I ever had were in prison.
“Prison is like being dead, but without the sympathy.
“When I got out all they gave me was forty dollars, a wrinkled shirt, pants that didn’t fit, and a bus ticket.
“I grew up tough in Pennsylvania, but I always believed in hard work. There was a ton of Pennsylvania Dutch around there and a lot of your worth was based on how hard you worked. They’d say, He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s a helluva worker. That’s just how they felt and I feel the same way.
“I’d work if I could. You may think I’m a deadbeat on Social Security Disability, but I paid into it and by god my knees won’t let me work.
“I could be in Mensa. I tested 151 and 153, but because of my criminal record I can never vote or own a gun again the rest of my life. It shouldn’t be that way.
“I always thought PTSD was a farce made up by weaklings, but I’ll tell you, that shit is real. I have it, but not the kind you hear about where you can’t be in crowds or loud sounds set you off. What I have makes me cry at inappropriate moments. Like one time I went to the store to get feed for my chickens and when I got there they were closed. I sat in the car and cried. Weird, right?
Dusty Wade Pritt
I pulled in front of an abandoned gas station. It caught my eye because of a large, bright red blanket hung over the front door. As I stood with my camera deciding whether there was a picture or not, I noticed the words THE HOUSE OF GOD scrawled in blue and yellow paint. I was surprised when a man pulled aside the blanket and stepped out.
“Whatcha doin’ there, buddy?
I explained that I loved the colors of the blanket and sign and I was hoping I could take a photograph.
“I’d rather you didn’t.” He paused. “But you can take my picture! I’m Dusty Wade Pritt.”
I told him that would be great.
“I’ll show you around and you can decide where you want to do it.” He quickly walked to the side of the building. There was the remains of a house, mostly burned out, the roof collapsed. “I lived in this place for thirty-eight years ‘til it burned, so now I’m using what I can from it to fix up my place, it’s coming along good.” He charged up the hillside in back of the gas station.
“And up here I got grapes and apples I’ll give you some to take with you. See here the grapes you can have ‘em.” He handed me a small bunch of whithered and hard grapes. “And I take these here vines and I make trees and wreaths with ‘em that I sell to folks at Christmas time and up here are the apples.” He climbed a tree and began shaking it violently. A few apples dropped to the ground. He jumped down, scooped them up and handed them to me. They were wrinkled and covered with brown spots. “You can have them, too, Golden Delicious they are and take with you on your trip.”
I followed him back to the front of the station. “C’mon in and I’ll show you my place.” He pulled the blanket down and threw it to the floor. Inside it was dim with the only light coming from the open doorway. We walked past a bare mattress in the corner. The floor was cement covered with an accumulation of grime. I noticed a small shelf on the wall with a hypodermic syringe sitting on it. We walked into the next room. It was quite dark, but I could make out a small wood stove and a recliner with the stuffing coming out where the holes weren’t repaired with duct tape. Dusty jumped up on a chair and pulled down the plywood that covered a window.
“There’s more light for you now if you want to take a picture here I don’t mind if you do. I didn’t want you to before ‘cause I thought you were from the county and they don’t want me living in here, but now I see you aren’t, you can go right ahead. Hey, did I tell you a few weeks ago four guys set on me and beat me to death? That’s right, I died! My heart stopped and everything but look at me now I was born again good as new! That’s why this here’s The House of God!”
He took off his ball cap and shook loose his long red hair. “Don’t you think I look like Jesus? That’s what the girls tell me, but I had to shave my beard off. It made me feel dirty.
Justin Dube ©Forest McMullin
“I’m doing God’s work here. I’m changing lives, man. I’m changing lives. See her over there. See all that hair on her head. When she started coming in here she was almost bald. Things were so bad for her she had pulled almost all her own hair out. And look at her now. I’m changing lives.
“A lot of these kids come from pretty rough stuff. Parents into drugs. Whatnot. But they come in here, it gives them something to do, somewhere to go that’s safe. Gives them something to work for.
“I don’t charge a thing. Anybody wants to come, they can. If they can afford to pay, great. But if they can’t, that’s no problem. No one gets turned away.
“I’ve been clean and sober for eight years. I had a construction business down in Florida. Nineteen employees. I started drinking too much, then I started doing drugs. I lost it all. If I had a beer right now, I wouldn’t be able to stop for three days. And I’d probably end up in jail. AA saved my life. I still go to meetings regularly.
“My ex-wife, Avery’s mom, I loved her so much. We got divorced two years ago and it was still eating at me something awful. Then I decided to go in the ring again. I trained hard and I had a fight. When I won that belt, it was like a weight got lifted. I know it’s just plastic, but it means I can move on.
“I won’t fight again. Well, maybe after Avery turns eighteen. I can’t take any chances of getting hurt so I can’t provide for her. I talked to my mother and she’s proud of what I did, but she says I need to be there for Avery.
‘I tell my little girl, it’s me and her against the world. And I know with God’s help, we can do anything we need to.”
Marvin Robinson ©Forest McMullin
“Oh, I’ve had lots of jobs. Plain laborer. Truck driver. Maintenance worker. Janitor. Upholsterer. Did a little farming. Yeah, lots of jobs.”
“I’ve been here about a year. I was coming up from Dalton, Georgia to see my brother and was in a terrible car wreck. I been waiting since then for the insurance money to come through, then I’ll figure out what’s next. I get by on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.”
“I’ve had my share of health problems. A few years back I had a bad cup of coffee and it ruined my esophagus, so now I got to be careful what I eat. And I got the sugar, diabetes, you know. You got to be careful ‘cause it destroys your sun protection, so I can’t go out much.”
“That’s a pastel. I did it years ago. I used to draw some. Took a few art classes. You like it? You can have it. That’s right. Go take it off the wall. It’s yours.”
“I married my high school sweetheart. I was nineteen and she was seventeen. We had three kids, two girls and a boy. A while back I had a sore on my neck and the doctor said, If it scabs over, you’re OK. But it never did, so he told me it was cancer and he had to operate and take it off. We had to wait until our tax return came ‘cause we didn’t have health insurance, but my wife wanted to spend that money on re-doing our deck. We went round and round about it and I finally realized she didn’t care whether I lived or died. She loved that damn deck more than she loved me. I moved out the next week. That was eight years ago.”
“The main problem is, I still love her.”
Noah Lester ©Forest McMullin
Iaeger sits lower than the main road, just visible next to railroad tracks that used to be busy hauling coal. It’s mostly deserted. There’s a town hall with a working Coke machine out front, but lots of empty storefronts. High on one exterior brick wall you can just make out through the peeling paint, Pioneer Community Bank, The Little Fellows Bank. I saw a barber’s pole and an OPEN sign so I stopped in.
Noah Lester had been in this location for two years.
“I served in Iraq and then came home to work in the mines. I worked driving for a strip mine operation until I was laid off in 2012. They had a re-education program, so I went to barber school, but then got called back to the mine in 2015. In 2016 I got laid off again, so I said screw it, I’m done. I opened a shop twenty miles from here, then I found this spot. I can afford the rent, even if it is off the beaten track.
“Being a barber is great. I get to run my mouth, which I enjoy and there’s nothing better than giving a little boy his first haircut.
“People fall in love with this area ‘cause the people are genuine. Really good people.”
The door opened and a young man came in.
“God damn it, Cam, didn’t you see the closed sign?”
“It says open!”
“Oh, shit. I forgot to turn it. Fine. Get in the chair.”
Cameron Auville had just graduated from high school a few months earlier and worked loading trucks in a nearby feed store. He looked forward to the owner’s promise of training him to drive for his wrecker and concrete businesses.
“I live on a hill with my parents, my granddaddy, aunts, and uncles. They all worked in coal, but they know the same thing I do- it’s a dying field. I want to stay here because this is where my history is, but I’ll never work the mines. Never.”
Noah added, “I love coal. I really do. God made it for a reason. We should mine it as long as we can. But me? I’m not going back.”
Rodney Chaney ©Forest McMullin
As I drove north out of Jackson, Kentucky, the road hugged a hillside. On my left there was a wall of rock and kudzu and brush. On my right there was a drop off into a small river with a speedy current, twenty or thirty feet below. The road was winding with tight curves, no shoulder, and precious few places to pull over if you had a flat or wanted to be polite to let a speedy motorcycle pass. I noticed that every quarter mile or so there were suspension bridges across the river. They were clearly for foot traffic only, no vehicles, and were fifty to one hundred feet long, spanning from one riverbank to the other. By each there was a spot big enough for one or two cars to pull just off the road. I could see small houses or trailers on the far side.
I was curious, but there were no cars parked and I didn’t think it was wise to just drop in to any of the homes I could see. Then I saw a man using a weed whacker around the roadside on one. I drove a distance down the road and found a spot to do a U-turn and went back to see if he could tell me about the bridges.
He looked up, clearly as curious about who I was as I was about the bridges.
“Well, the county put them in when then got tired of fixing the ones big enough for a vehicle every time they flooded which was pretty often. These foot bridges are up high enough the floods can’t reach ‘em and we can walk over ‘em to get the mail or bring home groceries or what not. If you got somethin’ too big to carry, then you got to drive an extra thirty or forty minutes to get over there, so these here bridges are pretty sweet.
“C’mon over. I ain’t got nothin’ to hide.
“I’m Rodney Chaney, but you probably heard of me.”
I told him I was from Atlanta.
“I thought maybe the folks down in Jackson might have told you about me. But that don’t matter. I ain’t got nothin’ to hide.
“My ma lives back there in that trailer. C’mon over and see. It’s a fine property, isn’t it? My people been here since 1921. Look here at this old hearthstone. It says 1934. I found it over yonder and set it here. Ain’t that somethin’?
“I don’t live here, my ma does, but I stay here sometimes. Y’know, a couple weeks back they all came over here late one night. Them varmints. And I mean the two legged kind, not the four legged kind. And I let loose with bird shot in the air to scare ‘em off and the neighbor, right over there, called the law and damn if they didn’t arrest me! Does that seem right to you? You can see I ain’t got nothin’ to hide.
“But that’s OK ‘cause I believe the word of God. Y’know what I mean?
“I ain’t got nothin’ to hide.”
BIO: Forest McMullin is a freelance photographer, artist, and photographic educator based in Atlanta, GA. Currently he is a full time Professor of Photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus. He is represented by Thomas Deans Fine Art in Atlanta.
He has had work in numerous solo and group exhibitions including at the following: Thomas Deans Fine Art, Rochester Institute of Technology, Buffalo Museum of Science, Sun Valley Center of the Arts, Colby College, Hunter Museum of American Art, George Eastman Museum, Everson Museum of Art, Griffin Museum of Photography, Houston Center of Photography, Lightwork, MOCA Jacksonville, Hudson River Museum, Haverford College, Emory University, Visual Studies Workshop, Center for Photography at Woodstock, and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.
He has work in the permanent collections of Hunter Museum of American Art, George Eastman Museum, Georgia Council for the Arts, American Society of Media Photographers, Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester Institute of Technology, The Buffalo Museum of Science, Savannah College of Art and Design, and Southern Poverty Law Center.
All the pictures in What Matters were shot with Fujifilm cameras, including the X-E3, GFX 50S, and GFX 50R.