For a unique project on rural America, supported by a 2017 Rappahannock Association for Arts and Community (RAAC) Claudia Mitchell Arts Fund Grant, Barcelona-based international photojournalist Wil Sands has spent part of the past two years capturing the images of Rappahannock County residents as they go about their daily lives. Now, rather than a traditional gallery opening and exhibit, Sands’ portraits of familiar and not-so-familiar faces of the county, titled “Who We Are,” accompanied by several images of Rappahannock’s distinctive landscapes, will be enlarged and displayed throughout the county for one month beginning Saturday, July 7th. They will be attached to the exterior walls of buildings and other county landmarks that we pass by everyday. The Rappahannock News caught up with Sands and spoke to him about the project.
What is your link to Rappahannock County?
I am a documentary photographer and photojournalist based in Barcelona, Spain. I am not a local. Nor did I grow up in the region or even the South. However my grandparents, Bill and Linda Dietel, have lived in Rappahannock my entire life. So the county is a place I have been visiting since I was a child. In recent years my parents moved to the county to be close to my grandparents. As a result I’ve been visiting Rappahannock with more frequency. During the 2016 presidential election I became really interested in rural America and its role and influence on national politics. So doing a story on Rappahannock seemed like the perfect way to focus on rural America, while still working on a story that was closer to home and more intimate to me.
You’ve been living in Spain, what made you decide to undertake this project?
After Donald Trump was elected president there was a lot of talk in the media about rural America and white America. Unfortunately, too often the conversation and commentary seemed to fall into simplistic narratives and played out caricatures, portraying rural America as homogeneous and reactionary. And instead of legitimizing the experience and challenges of people living in rural communities, the simplistic coverage appeared to only distance and exclude rural Americans more. So I decided it was important to focus on rural America and look for stories that added depth to the broader conversation. Rappahannock was in many ways the perfect microcosm for a conversation about rural America: death of family farms, rural gentrification, economic inequality, aging populations, complex racial and class history, etc. Once I’d decided to focus on the county then it was just a process of peeling the layers back and discovering what was there.
How difficult was the project to complete, finding subject matter, etc., and how were you received for the most part?
The strategy has been to start with the low hanging fruit and work out. So I’ve started with my family and then worked out through their friendships and ties in the county. This has worked well because one interview inevitably leads to another. Everyone has been very welcoming and surprisingly transparent in their conversations with me.
Tell us about the subject matter, who will we see?
The exhibit is made up of a mix of portraits and landscapes. All of the portraits are of people that live in the county and feel tied to this rural corner of America. Some are multi-generational residents, others arrived later in life. I’ve chosen these portraits because I think they represent well some of the different historical, political, cultural/social currents that define the county and its internal dynamics. The landscapes explore how the county has changed in the past and is currently changing now.
When does the exhibit open?
The exhibit opens on Saturday the 7th of July and closes on the 7th of August. The exhibit is designed to be a visual scavenger hunt — 13 images from the project have been blown up on big vinyl prints and I’m planning on putting them up on the sides of buildings and in farm fields around the county. Each image has an accompanying caption that explains both the photo and the importance of the location where the photo is being exhibited. I’m hosting the exhibit opening at 4 p.m., Saturday, July 7th outside Pen Druid Brewing in Sperryville. I’ll give a brief introduction to the project and there will be an opportunity for questions and we’ll close up the evening with Pen Druid’s beer and some bratwurst from my father’s grass fed operation. The exhibit’s locations will be listed on the project website and in brochures that will be distributed to local businesses around the county. (Visit http://williamsands.com).