Dispatches from Missouri's Twin City

Wednesday, September 30, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:37 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

FESTUS, Mo. — Festus and Crystal City have histories so intertwined that a Walmart store happily sits on the border between them (and the cities share the sales tax). Crystal City, population 4,549, is nestled on the Mississippi River about 34 miles south of St. Louis. Festus is due west of Crystal City, essentially trapping the latter against the river on the east and the town of Herculaneum to the north. These two small towns share an identity as the Twin City,  although the tension of “us versus them” remains.

I am here as a member of the digital darkroom crew of the Missouri Photo Workshop, a yearly, weeklong boot camp in documentary photography put on by the Missouri School of Journalism. This year 31 workshop participants, 13 faculty members and 20-some MU student-volunteers (that’s me) have descended upon Festus and Crystal City to document and hopefully shed photographic light on this place.

I find it an odd contradiction in journalism that those who hold the pen (or camera, in this case) are expected to explain another person’s truth in so little time. How can one-hundredth of a second, a click of the shutter, one photo (or maybe five or seven) be expected to tell the entire truth of someone’s story?

This is the rub: A documentary photo is not BIG TRUTH. It is the truth of the moment. Part of the workshop is learning to narrow the story the photos are telling so that the moments do tell the story. A photograph is a slice of time, made static. Or as author and critic Susan Sontag wrote, “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”

I think what we are really doing here in Festus is enabling a visual anthropology through documentary photography. We're trying to look at the world as it is today — to look at this town — and to find and preserve the one-hundredths of a second that will collectively reveal a sense of what is happening here now.

Workshop participants have been documenting small-town Missouri for 61 years.  At first the idea was to tell the big story of the town hosting the workshop, but it eventually found the form it uses today, for each photographer to tell a smaller, more personal story. The result is an emergence of understanding, a synergy of individual photos that make up individual stories that in turn create a portrait of the town that is greater than the sum of its parts.

“A great photograph poses more questions than it answers,” said David Rees, the workshop co-director, head of the MU photojournalism department and all-around Yoda. The process of making these photo stories is not really to present the meaning of life, but to challenge viewers to search for it.

Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and a current page designer for the Missourian. She is also a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism and is currently volunteering on the multimedia team for the 61st Missouri Photo Workshop in Festus and Crystal City.

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