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Locals participate in statewide project for state’s bicentennial

Five local residents this week had the opportunity to represent revitalization in the Natchez area through a Mississippi bicentennial photography project.

Chandler Griffin, Aaron Phillips and Alison Fast of Blue Magnolia Films have been traveling the state gathering 100 personal photo essays from residents in Mississippi’s smallest and largest towns.

When the road trip has hit an end, the Blue Magnolia team will choose one photo from each essay and print them out on a 5-foot by 5-foot canvas. These photos will be displayed in Jackson on Dec. 9 as a part of the Mississippi bicentennial celebration.

At each town, the team asks mayors, people in arts and culture in the city and other community leaders to nominate up to eight men and women to represent their town and its unique history.

“We go to them, and we say, ‘Who should be in this workshop? Who should define revitalization in your town?’” Griffin said. “There are so many different ways we define revitalization.”

Anyone can be a participant, Griffin said. So far, the candidates have ranged from a 14-year-old to a 91-year-old, of all jobs, religions and races.

“What we’re learning is that Mississippi’s greatest asset is its people,” Fast said.

More than finding examples of physical reconstruction, Griffin said in each community they are looking for “bright spots,” natural leaders who help shape a community.

In Natchez, the bright spots were Ser Seshsh Ab Heter-CM Boxley, Marsha Colson, Janita Frazier-King, Mary Jane Gaudet and Jeremy Houston.

“This has been the most stimulating thing I have done in a long time,” Gaudet said. “The people in this workshop are so fortunate.”

These leaders are encouraged to tell a story through photos. Once the photos are gathered — Griffin said each person usually takes between 500 and 1,500 photos – each participant writes and records a 400-word explanation of their photo essay. The result is a three-minute audiovisual story.

“It’s kind of a mini-documentary, but it’s not really a documentary,” Griffin said. “After 85 of these, we haven’t figured out what to call them. They’re really in their own genre.”

Few guidelines control what story the participants tell, from brick masonry and music to little-known facets of Mississippi civil rights.

Once participants have chosen their subjects, they take an iPhone 7+ from the box of tech Griffin keeps handy and venture out to begin taking practice shots.

Instead of just sending the residents out with no oversight, Griffin said he, Phillips and Fast pair up  with each participant and coach them as they take photos, telling them where to find the right light and what to look for in their viewfinders.

After the weeklong session, participants invited their family and friends on Wednesday to view the photo essays.

Each participant took on a different subject, but the stories had a common thread: life and living in Natchez.

Boxley’s film showed images of his life and journey to become a new African. He tells of his original dream of becoming a football player and how he eventually found a new passion in learning and sharing his African heritage.

Colson, who photographed her family’s 18th century house and the internal conflict she faces in reconciling her family’s history of owning slaves, said she had never said those feelings aloud in public.

She has tried all her life, she said, to be an advocate for civil rights and equality, but she still sometimes cringes while thinking of her ancestors.

As the film showed images of a family graveyard where an enslaved woman was buried, the audio in Colson’s production ran:

“I’m not a crusader, but I try to change the world in little ways.”

Jarita Frazier-King profiled the Natchez Heritage School of Cooking, which her family operates.

She spoke about the oral traditions that are passed down with recipes and the unifying nature of sharing a meal.

In her classes, Frazier-King said, she teaches participants how to cook in the old way, with Southern, African and Indian influences.

Generations of her family have added depth to the recipes, she said, but the cultures meld well.

“No matter who you are or where you come from,” Frazier-King said in her video, “it only matters where you’re going.”

Gaudet profiled Natchez resident Duncan Morgan, a local mason and preservationist.

Morgan, Gaudet said, is one of Natchez’ finest persons.

In Gaudet’s interview with Morgan, he says he believes brick masonry to be an art.

Houston, who owns Miss Lou Heritage Group & Tours, visited his childhood home for the first time since he was 5 years old to complete his video, which featured his work in recognizing Natchez’s history in the Civil Rights Era and the remnants of slavery that persist around town.

Houston spoke of his tour groups and how visitors often have no knowledge of the important history that happened in Natchez.

Houston said he hopes his work makes a difference, both in Natchez and beyond.

Darrell White, who was Blue Magnolia Films’ first contact in Natchez, said he was overwhelmed by the quality of the work.

“You have captured parts of these communities that will forever be a part of the nature and being of Natchez,” White said. “I’m moved just seeing what you have here.”

By this, the 11th stop on their 13-town tour of Mississippi, Griffin said he is beginning to see what the end result might be.

“You end up with an encyclopedia of bright spots,” Griffin said. “An encyclopedia of real leaders.”