How a Fayetteville photographer found his calling and a deeper truth in the faces of strangers


Photo courtesy of the photographer, Andrew Kilgore

It was the early 1970s, and Virginia-born Andrew Kilgore, then a budding photographer, found himself at a crossroads. Should he move to the East Coast and apprentice with an established photographer, or should he remain in Fayetteville, a place he’d fallen hard for while visiting a friend, and just try to find his own way? He chose the latter route, a path that led him to become one of the Natural State’s preeminent photographers, as well as one of its most prolific: Over the years, he’s captured the faces of tens of thousands of Arkansans.

On an outrageously warm February afternoon, he sits with me in his studio, a small room in a quaint Fayetteville cottage that doubles as his home. Looking down on us is a wall filled with the black-and-white portraits he’s become so well known for. It’s hard to look away from the photographs, as each is as arresting as the next, and all lead me to ask my first question:

Who are these folks?

The top row is part of a project called Let there be Light: 100 Black Men, and the point of the project is to photograph all of the different ways that African-American men live their lives, from professors to doctors to fathers to homeless people to manual laborers. I view it as a way to create a cultural bridge, one that isn’t about politics, but is just about being a person.

The bottom two rows—those are photographs that [I’ve taken] at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, at their community lunches. They’re all pictures of people who live in extreme poverty. I’m hoping when people see these photos, they come to realize that these are just real people. The way we invite people to be part of this project is to pay them $20 for their participation. About two-thirds of the project has been paid for with contributions. The irony is the people who donate the $20 bills. To them it’s a sum that’s no big deal, but to the recipients, the money will change their life for a day or two.

Why portraits? What got you so interested in capturing people—mostly normal, hard-working people?

My education was in philosophy and religion, and there was a time when I was young when I was drawn to ministry and then the Peace Corps. So I’ve always had a real fascination with and love for what other people are experiencing. And particularly how people experience their own identity, their own feeling of being inside their skin. I’m interested in the ways that people experience themselves from the heart. So I try to make photographs, even of little kids, where you just have a sense of a person’s deeper knowledge of himself or herself.

How do you capture that?

I just love people as much as I can, and I think that’s really the most honest thing I can say about it. I really feel a deep affection for even people that I’m just meeting for the first time. An “appreciation” is a good word, a real desire for them to be OK. For them to be well. To be loved. And people respond to that.