There’s a trope in documentary photography for the poor, rural American community. Often captured by photographers from outside that world, this type of work is embedded with a bleakness that can be very othering. When we spoke to photographer Stacy Kranitz earlier this month, she spoke of questioning the honesty of documentary photography altogether. But Terra Fondriest’s Ozark Life project is the complete opposite of this, offering a new perspective on this community. Full of quirky yet relatable moments, her photographs of everyday life in the Ozark region – the stretch of mountains running from Missouri through Arkansas to Oklahoma – are full of life and are even very funny in places. Whether it’s a newborn baby being introduced to a horse for the first time, a blood-spattered dog looking sheepish or a circle of family, supporting a woman as she gives birth at home, Terra’s images are astonishing for their observation and their compassion. The difference comes from the fact that Terra has made her own life, and that of her friends and neighbours – her community – the subject of her work. “I photograph others the way I would want my family to be photographed, with respect, love and an eye for the humorous little moments,” the self-taught photographer tells It’s Nice That.
It’s obvious from the richness of Terra’s work that the relationships she has with her subjects have been built over days, months and years. “Since I live in the community that I photograph, it’s easier for me to do that because I see people on a regular basis and I’m not in a rush to get to point B,” she explains. While in art school it’s called “relationship building”, for Terra it simply stems from the fact that she loves the people around her and loves being around them. And while the fire the Ozark Life project has ignited in her has given her the courage to talk to people she never would have before, the root of her work stems from what we share, rather than our differences. “I’ve come to the realisation that we all put pants on one leg at a time, we are all navigating being human,” she tells us. “I think that most folks I meet can tell that I’m an introvert and am putting myself out there with this project. I am living a version of the life that they are living in these hills and following my passion. There is camaraderie and trust in that.”
For Terra, photography is a relatively new passion and a second, if not a third career. She graduated college with a degree in fish and wildlife conservation, and after a short internship as a firefighter, made the bold move of applying for a job with a hotshot wildland firefighting crew and initially “embarrassed the heck out of” herself because she was so inexperienced. In many ways, Terra has thrown herself at photography with similar gusto, educating herself to get to the top of her game. While she carried a point and shoot in the front pocket of her Nomex fire shirt, it was becoming a mother that cemented her ambition. Wanting to capture this new adventure in high resolution and work on her photography skills at the same time, she bought her first DSLR.
“While I was embracing motherhood in a kind of homesteading capacity, I craved the thrill, challenge and interaction of pushing myself creatively,” she says. “My photography adventure began, I started to ask myself… how can I tell our story? I started to realise that everyone has their own unique story that only they can tell from their perspective, and that’s pretty powerful.”
At first, Terra just took photos of her baby with veggies from the garden, with the dogs – “cute things like that.” Then, in 2013, she began participating in the now-defunct National Geographic Your Shot community and discovered the genre of family documentary photography, teaching herself technical skills and approaches to storytelling. “Up until then, I knew nothing about the photography world,” she says. “I didn’t realise that there were people out there photographing their own family in an artistic way and that National Geographic found it interesting enough to feature it.”
Through participating in that community, she saw what stood out to editors and realised what she liked and didn’t like about people’s photos. “It was a self-study in a way that most definitely shaped my photography,” she says. “I tried imitating, I tried going out on a limb as an individual, and eventually realised that I’d found my voice somewhere in between all that.” Now a full-time mum and part-time photographer, Terra sees the world in scenes, inspired by the “entertainment, truth and good heartedness” of her hero Norman Rockwell. “I get an idea in my head of what I might want to photograph and usually it makes my stomach turn with nervousness and excitement,” she says. “I guess I crave that feeling, like being thrown to the wolves and figuring out how to navigate it. Just like in firefighting, the camaraderie of being ‘in the trenches’ with those around you creates an intimacy that can’t be matched.”
Her work spans more conventional family portraits (“moments that are a bit saccharine for me, but I know people enjoy them”) to the reportage-style of Ozark Life. For this ever-expanding project, Terra is looking for images that make sense as standalone photographs, say something about the region or tell a larger, human story. The most important thing for her is to never rush and to take time getting to know people and make them feel comfortable and trusted. “There is an unspoken comfort that exists when others know that you are with them because you want to be and they aren’t just a scheduled part of your day,” she says. A natural storyteller (something she says is true of everyone in the Ozarks), it’s clear to see that Terra really bonds with those she photographs. “I can’t say how much I admire the humour, ingenuity, authenticity and humbleness of the people in the Ozarks,” she says. Refreshingly, it’s a series where this admiration really shines through.