One shot at a time – Program helps students document life in Black Belt

January 21, 2008

Tuscaloosa News
By Adam Jones

LIVINGSTON | As a child, Destynni Burrell played outside a hunting lodge near her house. She never thought much of it until she was handed a camera and told to document life in the Black Belt.

"It's been there my whole life, but when I finally looked at it, I saw something more," said the Livingston High School student.

Burrell was one of 15 students from seventh to 11th grades in Sumter County selected to participate in "Black Belt 100 lenses," a project aimed to get teenagers to think about their culture and region by taking pictures of whatever they believed showed their life and community.

An exhibit of the pictures opened last week and will be on display at the Webb Gallery at the University of West Alabama through March 1.

The exhibit shows a broad range of life in the rural county near the Mississippi border. One shows a boy getting on the school bus just after dawn. Another is a black and white capture of two abandoned antique gas pumps.

There is a picture of a family gathered around the table at Thanksgiving, the turkey ready for carving. There is a pot of field peas, some not shelled, in black and white. Another shows smiling children in the back pews of their church before or after a service.

"This is an untainted version of what the Black Belt is because chil dren don't sugar coat anything," said Felicia Jones, with the Black Belt

Community Foundation, which sponsored the project along with the University of Alabama.

Elliot Knight, the University of Alabama graduate student who helped lead the project, said each student approached the project differently. Some went out with a more artistic eye hoping to show social issues, while others took shots of potholes or run-down structures in hopes of bringing attention to their community.

For Burrell and a few others, they stuck close to home.

"I went a lot of places to take pictures, but I realized the most beautiful things are near my house," she said. "The pictures they used were just a few feet from my house."

Kate Bonner, a student at Sumter Academy, said she nearly gave up on the assignment, but was encouraged to look harder by her mom.

"I took this as an opportunity to look beyond my little world of cheerleading and sports," she said.

Students were selected through guidance counselors and English teachers, and met with Knight and Whitney Green, arts coordinator for the Black Belt Community Foundation, to go over basic photography this summer. Given point-and-shoot film cameras, the students took color photos and met again to discuss why and how they selected their photos, Knight said. They repeated the project with black and white film.

"A lot of issues start to get exposed, and a diverse group can talk about things that might not normally get talked about," Knight said.

Samory Pruitt, vice president for community affairs at UA, said the project is planned to extend to 12 Black Belt counties. When finished, he envisions an exhibit that tours the state and the photos being bound into a book.

Reach Adam Jones at or 205-722-0230