Even though I travel all over the world doing photography for non-governmental organizations, finding stories in my own backyard has never been a problem.
I am as pleased as punch to be a Nashville photographer. I find myself in constant amazement over the diversity of stories and life experiences that can be found in what many would see as a traditional southern city.
I don’t think many people realize this, but Nashville is a refugee study, and we have large populations of people from all over the world. We have people from South American, Mexican, and Middle Eastern countries. This music city is a melting pot of many different cultures, people, life stories, political views, and religious views.
This post is to share with you one of the organizations I've been working with over the last year to tell better stories about our refugee and immigrant population in Nashville.
On less than an acre, near Nolensville Pike in South Nashville, there is a group of amazing immigrants from Bhutan, Burma, and Nepal. It was a privilege to document this community and their revered elders who use traditional farming and agricultural skills to feed large swathes of Nashville's population. On my documentary campaign for the Nashville Food Project, I have met around seven to nine of the farmers that are working to take what would have been seen as a worthless piece of land and turn it into tons of produce for our community. The Nashville Food Project repurposes food that would otherwise be wasted by restaurants or grocery stores, and creates new paths to food sovereignty.
Tallu Schuyler Quinn was the visionary woman who started the project, giving people in Nashville unparalleled and equal access to food resources. Only a few months ago, she passed away, but her work has been foundational for our city. Very few people, I think, realize everything that she's done. I had the honor of photographing Tallu twice during both her career and mine as we overlapped in different editorial photography assignments throughout the years. I was always impressed by the humility, gentle cheer, and indomitable courage she possessed. She was a really wonderful one; and that's from someone who only got to meet her a handful of times. The Nashville Food Project continues to thrive in her legacy in West Nashville, where they have a kitchen and several community gardens around the city.
The project connected with several different nonprofits to better support and serve our refugee community in Nashville. I went out to the Growing Together Nashville gardens for the first time in October 2021. I was amazed at what I saw. Under just an acre of land, tucked behind a little church, is an acre sized garden. On it are beautiful people in folkdress, working with traditional farming methods to turn a lot of food out of onevery small piece of property. This is urban gardening. More and more centralized living and centralized sources of food are happening in America. Urban gardening has really become a hot topic lately.
I won't pretend to know everything about farming, or about food sovereignty. But I can tell you some things that I've gotten to capture during this documentary campaign. One of the things I've gotten to see is how people in sustainable agriculture work to create new streams of revenue, and to take things that might be wasted and turn them into resources that support the community. One of those things is known as “Scrap Land”. Scrap land is land that has good sunlight and topsoil drainage, but for certain reasons, undesirable for building purposes. People take these small plots of scrap land and turn them into community gardens. Gardens that produce fruit, food, and herbs for the people that live close to it. I've gotten to learn more and more about herbalism and organic gardening over the last few years. It's incredible how much can really be at our fingertips with just a very small bit of knowledge. However, I will say that the people at Growing Together Nashville have no small amount of knowledge. Their farmers are also revered as wise elders in their community. They are full of life, color, and joy that you can feel the minute you step into their garden. They work so hard to turn over these perfect vegetables. I've never seen such perfect cabbages as the ones that came out of the beautiful gardens there. The carrots alone are works of art. There is a sense of purpose that is found in every single cabbage, potato, and herb that they grow.
The first morning I was out in the gardens, I met a woman from Nepali named Nar. She didn’t speak a whole lot of English, but could get her point across pretty quickly. We weren't sure how the community would respond to having a camera put in their faces. (In documentary photography, this is always a concern with any at-risk population.) However, because of the relationship I built with the Nashville Food Project over several years, the community knew I wasn't there to exploit them. There may’ve been a bit of hesitation from most people, but Nar had no hesitations with me. I waved gently at her as I wandered into the garden with my Hasselblad film camera, and she waved back. We knew we were going to be buddies. She was working in the basil patch, and was really excited to show it to me. She explained to me, in non English, that she was growing quite a lot of things in her patch.
In these types of situations, I often find that I am simply there to create the story that the photography subject wishes to portray to me. There are a lot of concerns going around, and rightfully so, about how documentary work can be incredibly exploitative. People like Nar, however, reveal that if you give the photo subject enough space, they will run the show. I think this is how photographers can avoid exploitation. We ask for permission, and we also ask for people to tell us the story that they want to tell.
Nar and her husband work in the garden patch almost every morning throughout the growing season. She is revered as a wise woman, and as someone who knows a lot about gardening. Nar grabbed a piece of basil, knelt down in between her two perfect rows of vegetables and herbs, and then gestured to me and the camera. She lifted the basil leaf up to her mouth, and bit down hard between her back teeth. I took the photo and it's been one of my most popular images on social media to date. I credit that to Nar’s personality more than my photography skills. Sometimes, you know that it’s not just you… that it is another person’s gift shining. And this is good.
I am constantly inspired not just by people like Nar, but people like Tally who runs the Grow Together Nashville program. I've watched her study faces and facial expressions to communicate with farmers that didn't share a language with her because they were incredibly valuable in her eyes. I've seen people like Jennifer Justus write beautiful pieces on so many different aspects of the NashvilleFood Project for photjournalism publications all over the states.
Ultimately, everybody tells the same story, which is that hunger should not exist in any country or in any place where love, people, and simple resources can be had. They've inspired me honestly to begin my own little garden out in my backyard. I want to experiment with what it looks like to actually be somewhat food independent vs. food reliant. With the freezer downstairs, and a few seeds every year, I actually am making my way towards food sovereignty. Food sovereignty becomes a much more urgent question when it is coupled with stories about poverty and lack of resources. Honestly, turning public land, like government parks and state parks, into food gardens can be a great answer to this issue. Another answer to the issue is providing things like seeds, greenhouses, and simple training classes to help people grow produce. People at the Nashville Food Project are willing to show us all a better way towards food sovereignty.
If you would like to donate to the cause or support the work these projects are doing, you can do that here:
Jump over to my instagram to see more from the campaign here: