What is the story of rural America and, in particular, Mexico? Eight young professionals took on that question in an intensive weeklong photojournalism workshop at Presser Performing Arts Center through the VII (Seven) Photo Agency.
The workshop is known as "The Life that Remains: Photographing America's Rural Spaces," and is instructed by Danny Wilcox Frazier, an agency member.
Students of the workshop will hold a presentation of their stories and photography 7 p.m. Saturday at Presser Performing Arts Center's main stage. The presentation is open to the public. Stories include farming and its changing leadership, community members who leave and then come back, how the downtown area is still thriving and the growing Hispanic and Latinx population, among others.
Wilcox Frazier was inspired to document more of Mexico after he visited in 2016 while working for ESPN Magazine as a photographer for a story about Tyronn Lue, who grew up in Mexico and went on to become an NBA champion, first as a player for the Los Angeles Lakers and later as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Coach Lue connected me with his family and friends and I really just felt an instant connection to the (Mexico) community and knew it was a place I wanted to return to,” he said.
VII Photo Agency was founded in 2001 a few days prior to the Sept. 11 attacks and is named VII for the number of its founding members. The agency's first assignment was the 9/11 attacks on New York City. It was founded as a way to combat the trend of larger corporations buying small, independent agencies.
The workshop is intended to improve the student's technical photojournalism skills, and it can also change their perspectives about rural life. "I spent most of my life denying my rural background and worked really hard to leave my hometown in Montana," said Bronte Wittpenn, visual journalist with Austin American Statesman, a sister Gatehouse Media publication to The Mexico Ledger.
Through the process of the workshop, she has learned to be proud of her rural background.
"I don't have to hide it anymore, and that's just because of who I've talked to that is from here," she said. "I'm proud of where I come from and I hope to go back and make my community proud with the work that I do. This workshop has made me photograph for myself again. I was having fun again."
Wittpen focused on Audrain County Farm Bureau President and Beck's Hybrids Seed Advisor Clarissa Cauthorn. Wittpenn learned she and Cauthorn were born within days of each other at the same hospital in Virginia Beach, Virginia. They also have connections to the U.S. Navy through their respective families. Wittpenn also interviewed Mayor Ayanna Shivers and Ana Garcia, a prominent voice for Mexico's Hispanic/Latinx community.
Wittpenn often focuses her work on women and how they are changing industries historically dominated by men, such as agriculture.
"I have a lot of respect in (Clarissa Cauthorn) and the decisions that she's made, and it's really cool to see how she's building a community through young people in agriculture and also helping a lot of older generations, too," Wittpenn said.
Workshop students researched the community before they arrived in town Saturday. This research was only one small piece of their storytelling and would only take them so far, Wilcox Frazier said.
"The idea was to get here and to cover stories that allow those who live in these metropolitan areas to connect with and see all that is common between rural and metropolitan classes," he said. "Instead of just seeing it as a divide, my hope is this work will help those from urban areas to connect with those of us in nonmetro communities."
The students discovered that Mexico residents find ways to help their neighbors without avoiding the difficult realities of rural life, Wilcox Fraizer said.
"We're not going to shy away from the difficulties, but if that is all we look at, then why would those in power incentivize and make it possible for more small businesses to get started. If they don't see these success stories (we're sharing), then they're just going to (disregard them)," he said.
Workshop student Liz Moughon focused on Jenna Frazier, owner of the Imagine This Learning Center, because Frazier left Mexico for college but decided to return to start a daycare business.
"I'm from a small town half the size of Mexico in Tennessee, and I'm only 22, and I just wanted to get to the city, but I think I have a deeper appreciation (now) for small towns," Moughon said.
Moughon said she was impressed that Frazier is still able to be an active presence in the daycare and preschool and not just sit behind a desk in an administrative role.
"I'm curious about the people who go against the grain and decide to be one more person who is going to keep this population a little more alive," Moughon said. "One thing I have noticed about Mexico is there are so many businesses. Jenna has 12 employees, so she's provided 12 new jobs."
Wilcox Frazier understands his eight students aren't going to find all of the worthwhile stories in Mexico after just one week, but the students work hard to tell the stories they find, rising at the crack of dawn and going to bed well after midnight.
"This is just a little blip on the radar that is the life of (Mexico)," he said. "What I hope is to build maybe a program where we return to Mexico every year and then also start working with young people here in Mexico to train how to document their own community."
Wilcox Frazier encourages his students to be open, honest and transparent so in turn their subjects are equally open and don’t feel that the students are imposing on their community. He is working with the students to build a narrative thread that documents the reality of their subject's lives, he said.
"I want people to have an openness and an awareness, but most importantly, that openness should be one that I am here to learn. Learn from you, the residents of Mexico. These students are here to learn from those that they come in contact with," Wilcox Frazier said.