Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town by Matt Eich
In early 2010, while on an assignment in Mississippi, I found myself in the town of Greenwood in a neighborhood known as Baptist Town. The people I met invited me into their homes and their lives, and have kept drawing me back into the Mississippi summer heat—one thousand miles away from my wife and two daughters.
Several months into making pictures in Greenwood, a young man named Demetrius “Butta” Anderson was shot and killed. I had previously photographed Butta, an 18-year-old from the Baptist Town neighborhood, and I returned to document his wake and funeral. He was the third person in his family to be murdered. In Greenwood, as with many cities in the South, structural inequalities create cycles of poverty and violence that too often result in young black men laying in caskets. The dynamics at play in this small Mississippi town reflect a larger set of interconnected issues that exist at the intersection of race and socioeconomics in America.
I am often surprised by how problematic photography can be. The way that I have tried to use the medium has been idealistic, if not naïve, and, in some ways, I have been stumbling blindly through one of our country’s most complicated issues. Mississippi taught me many things—among them: documentary photography has its limitations; racism probably doesn’t look like you think it does; and it is nearly impossible to depict rich and poor, black and white, without vilifying or reinforcing stereotypes.
At best, I can only show a small portion of this incredibly beautiful and complicated place and disconnected fragments of my own personal experiences. They stem from my desire to better understand and counteract the deepening racial and socioeconomic rift in America. If images are capable of anything, I hope that they help plant seeds of empathy.
During the time I spent in Greenwood, I experienced openness, vulnerability, love, fear, hope, pain, loss, family, community, out-and-out racism, apathy, and the earnest desire to heal racial wounds. There were moments, when I was making this work, when I felt more seen and accepted in Baptist Town than I had with my own family. I hope that the people depicted in this work feel seen and accepted in return.
The “sins” referred to in the title of this work are my own: the sin of my absence from my family for more than 120 days while making these photographs; the folly to think that I could ever impact systemic race and class disparities with photographs; and the act of trespass as an outsider seeking to enter and depict a community that is not mine, in an intimate way. Even in my transgression, the act of engagement offered the only path to redemption.
This place is a microcosm of a story that plays out in every corner of America. History repeats itself. Our collective memory favors the convenience of amnesia over acknowledging the damage that we continue to inflict upon one another. Photography is an antidote. There is beauty in resilience. We are all both sinners and saints.