“It’s Where I Became a Person”

When photographer Aaron Turner returned home to West Memphis he sought to capture not so much a narrative, but the feelings that he’d felt
TurnerAaron_011It was always home. No matter how much had changed since photographer Aaron Turner had left—the family members who’d fled for greener pastures, the businesses that had closed—with the composite of experiences made and felt there, it couldn’t have been considered anything else. And so, as he’s returned to the Delta to take photos, he’s sought to capture not so much a narrative, but the feelings that he’d felt. What it was like to grow up there. What it was like to know it as he did.

To make known what it was like to be there in that moment.

TurnerAaron_012Beside the yellow house, there was a breeze because there was always a breeze, and it was rustling the leaves, causing them to shudder and fall at his grandmother’s feet. Standing along the side of her house, she held her hand against its side, and then she leaned down.

She was picking up leaves. The breeze carried with it the scent of a cottonwood blooming in the front yard. She stood there for maybe 30 or 40 seconds, hand against the aged siding to steady herself, leaning there as her grandson Aaron Turner took her photo. It was warm.

If she were to look up and trace the lines that very nearly seem to match the black piping on the brown of her sleeves, they would lead around the house to the drive chewed uneven by the surging roots of the cottonwood and, following that trajectory, would move to the neighboring houses, three on each side, which had once been home to friends and neighbors and were now demolished. After a time, she stood, took her hand away, and they went inside the house, where she’d lived on the same block in West Memphis for 50 years.

A few days later, she moved.

Of course, in some ways, in most ways, it was and always would be home for Aaron, who’d been photographing the place to maintain a connection to it. Home was greens, curlers, gravel roads churned into clouds, whuppins and lessons, a cold rag pressed against his chin in the emergency room after the fantasy of an alley-oop collided with the reality of a door. Home was reunions and funerals, which were often much in the same. It was a composite of experiences made and felt there. It was a place where, even after he’d left the region—first to Ohio University for a graduate degree in photojournalism, and then to Rutgers for his MFA—he could always return through the photos that he’d taken—to the moment captured, to what he’d felt at the time.

TurnerAaron_02“When you’re away from home, you start thinking about things your mom has taught you, that your dad has taught you, that different family members have talked to you about,” Aaron says. “So all those things were playing in my head, and I had no visual representation, so they kind of drove me to gather these things, and still gather these things today, of home and what home means.”

Speaking from his studio on the Rutgers campus in New Jersey, the 24-year-old West Memphis native is talking about home. When he first started taking photos of his home, it was a way to keep connected when he left the region the first time. First on his iPhone, then later for a grad school photo documentary project, photography allowed him to capture this place where, as he says, he became a person—and to keep those ties strong, especially when he was so far removed from the place.

Taken over the course of a few years, the images made there in the intervals when he was home from school for holidays were not so much intended to serve as a narrative but to capture the feelings that he’d felt. What it was like to grow up there. What it was like to experience Southern hospitality. What it was like to hear his mother, her hair bound in curlers, calling from the back of the house for him to answer the phone. They were an opportunity to share his experiences as a voice from inside the Delta. To make known what it was like to be there in that moment.

TurnerAaron_06“‘Who did that funeral?’ It’s like a common language that I remember growing up. ‘Who did that funeral?’ ‘Oh, that was Anthony’s Funeral Home,’” Aaron says. “[After] hearing that all the time, I was like, I want to go see who Mr. Anthony is. I want to go see him. I want to go meet him. I want to go introduce myself and make a portrait of him. Just, ‘cause I remember all this vernacular that came from my mother, her siblings, my dad, his siblings—all these people know Mr. Anthony. And they went to high school with his children and his grandchildren and things like that, … and [that’s] what I wanted to represent by photographing him. Because he’s interwoven in my family.”

But so, too, does that connection go beyond the tie to one person. When Aaron speaks about returning for a funeral this past year, it’s not so much about mourning—it’s about the opportunity to see people whom he hasn’t seen for years, who’ve left the Delta or never been and whom the photographer knows only by name. It’s a chance to rekindle the connections and remember what it means.

“We can take things for granted sometimes,” he says. “Not even consciously, not even on purpose—it just kind of happens. Life happens. You’re trying to do certain things. You’re on a certain path for a while, trying to get to where you’re going.”TurnerAaron_03

TurnerAaron_010“The stories that my grandmother is telling me and my grandfather is telling me all of a sudden become more grand in stature,” Aaron says. “Like how my grandmother used to pick cotton in the Crawfordsville area. My grandfather was also from the area. They used to work in the fields and things like that.”

TurnerAaron_01Being away allowed Aaron to see the place. When he came home and heard the stories again, they weren’t just family-dinner small talk. In all of their retellings, they’d refocused the lens, and he was able to understand the stories in a broader context of the place.

“I really didn’t know home as the Arkansas Delta—I just knew I was from West Memphis, Arkansas,” Aaron says. It was only through immersing himself in photography and researching the place he was from that all of this was made clear.

“I didn’t know other people viewed it as this ‘delta.’ Which is an idea—it’s a geography term dealing with water, but the Delta in terms of what we’re talking about it—it’s music, it’s religion, it’s vernacular, all those different things.”TurnerAaron_05

For more of Turner’s photos, visit his website at aaronturner.format.com.