Arkansas Sketchbook

John Williams | 2010 | Digital print

Can you imagine how it’d change you, an experience like this? If you were a young photographer taking classes for your BFA in photography. If you spent your days making portraits of people you knew, contracting out for weddings, documenting life’s moments, professionally and personally, as they appeared, unfolded, took shape before your lens. And if, one day, everything changed. If you had an opportunity to spend three weeks volunteering in a rehabilitative facility geared toward helping those with mental illness—and ultimately doing portraits of the people seeking help there. You’d walk through the doors and find a place where life is so very different than any you’d known previously—where life, in many ways, freezes up and stagnates, refuses to stagger even an inch forward. And here, over the course of those weeks, though especially on those days when you brought people into the makeshift studio, here is where you’d change.

Then, years after the fact, when asked about the experience during the course of a phone interview, you’d remember a woman. In the weeks leading to her session, she’d scarcely acknowledged your existence and the same could be said of her time sitting for the photo. When she came into the lunchroom you’d draped with a black curtain and lit with a single strobe. You’d remember she was calm at first. But just a few moments into the portrait, however, she’d wagged a finger, beckoning an aide to her side. She’d whispered close into the ear turned toward her, and she was led away. (Later you’d learn she’d told them there were snakes spilling from the walls.)

Again, speaking over the phone from your home in Hot Springs, you’d describe this moment as if it’d just happened—and not more than five years before. Looking back on the intervening years, you’d understand the extent to which this changed you, these portraits that you took. You’d say you can’t do portraits in the same way. You can’t do boudoir. You can’t do glamour. You’d say you saw something in those faces at the rehab center that changed your understanding of what a photo can do. You’d understand the importance of listening—of understanding who a person is and knowing who they are before depressing the shutter. You’d say “the whole idea of taking a photo to capture that moment in time—that specific person’s state of mind, reference of being, everything—that, to me, is what photography is.” And you’d be right.