Photo by Jan Banning, Jan Banning Fotografie
A deep-reaching story on communities living in poverty in rural America is not an easy one to tell, but for James Swift it is a narrative that he can call his own, and not just because he wrote it, but because he’s lived it.
The freelance reporter grew up living in a trailer with his family in the Cartersville area of Bartow County, Ga., yet he remembered living a different kind of poor environment than the one that exists now.
“When I was a child, the problem wasn’t money, because it was there,” he says. “It was a social problem – class delineation. Overall, we lived in relative comfort, which is something that I can’t say about kids living there today.”
The recession virtually decimated many of the communities that rest in Georgia’s northwest countryside. It spawned what Swift labeled as the “Green Death,” a financial downturn so violent that it has sucked much of the lively spirit out of these towns. Without jobs and paychecks, alcoholism and drug abuse have run rampant.
Four years of college at Kennesaw State University temporarily took Swift away from his childhood home, but he always hoped to return and document the recession’s effect on the people. That’s what he did over the summer of 2012.
Swift believes rural Americans are unfairly portrayed in the news media. “You don’t see a lot of these people have the chance to explain their wants and needs across the national radar,” Swift says. “They are really the backbone of the nation. They are the laborers and have helped to build the nation’s infrastructure. I wanted to show them as actual human beings with real worries and problems.”
His reporting led to a 24-page report titled “Rural America After the Recession” that was published by Youth Today, a trade publication dedicated to the youth services industry. With the addition of bold images from Dutch photographer Jan Banning, Swift produced a poignant piece about the trials and tribulations plaguing residents of Georgia’s rural enclaves.
“When I returned back home, everything looked a lot more broken down,” Swift says. “I wanted to learn about their philosophy and culture and what factors have made their situations worse. I found of a lot of sincerity and unexpected wisdom.”
Swift’s account describes his own family’s struggle and opinions on the recession, as well as those of a variety of neighbors and locals. Discussions around town led the young reporter to discover what he believes to be the two “roots of poverty” – disinvestment in education and regional isolation.
Most rural Americans find self-sustainability to be their most important quality, according to Swift, even if that means shunning other resources and programs that many deem imperative to rising out of poverty, like education.
“The recession has devalued the working class, so many people need assistance but would rather push on without it,” Swift says. “They take pride that ‘I live in a trailer and on a piece of land that I’ve completely paid off. What do I have to be ashamed of?’”
One obstacle that stood in Swift’s way throughout the process was people’s insistence on privacy. He established trust by encouraging the participants to speak off the record first in order to create a comfortable space for them to share their concerns.
“It’s amazing what happens when you put away the pad and turn off the camera,” he says. “I was honest about what I was doing, and then let them talk. I let them shape the interview.”
The key to tackling a sensitive and private issue like poverty, according to Swift, is to focus on the subject and learn as much about them as possible.
“You have to figure out your humanity first,” Swift notes. “Look at their worries and doubts. Look at the people themselves. Understand what’s important to them, what they value most in life.”
In the end, Swift successfully sought to “explain the soul of the countryside” and to give it a voice that it has never really had. Personally, it was a farewell to part of his family and part of his past.
“Final discussions about the story marked the last time I talked to my mother before she died,” Swift recalls. “The story gave me the chance to say goodbye to a life I used to know and to my mom.”
Jan Banning's stunning photojournalism accompanies the series. Banning's book, "Down and Out in the South," is available here. An exhibit of the same name will be shown at the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery in Atlanta from October 26, 2013 – January 4, 2014. To read more about the project and listen to interviews with some of the people featured in "Down and Out," visit Banning's website.