The Southern Exposure Grant

Documenting the people, culture and landscape of the American Southeast

Past Winner

The Dam Birds

Paula Van Every - Mississippi, United States

The Dam Bird project interprets a fragile symbiosis between wild birds and a human/industrial environment in my home state of Mississippi. The Dam Birds are a community of waterbirds that have established themselves beneath an active flood control dam on the outskirts of the state’s largest metro area. The project will illustrate their beauty in the midst of grim surroundings, utilizing an atypical blend of nature and fine art photographic approaches.

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In 2016 I began photographing these elegant herons, egrets, terns, and gulls in the waters beneath the corroded concrete and iron bowels of the Pearl River dam. I am seeking support to complete this project and share it with others, for three reasons:

#1 - The Dam Birds need safekeeping. In this time when governmental protections for living creatures and environments are at risk, greater awareness of fragile ecosystems is urgently needed to motivate community support. In some regions, bird populations that established themselves at industrial dams have been deliberately exterminated to protect fish populations and keep adjacent recreational areas “clean”. A primary goal of this project is to share artifacts (framed photos, narrative, magazine articles) with local entities that may be interested in speaking up for the birds but lack resources to fund such materials.

#2 - The Dam Birds are beautiful. This project is an uncommon marriage of journalistic and artistic approaches. There will be images in the collection that lean toward a documentary style, while others have an aura of mystery that pushes them in the direction of fine art. This dual approach can guide viewers into a greater appreciation of the birds’ delicate beauty in contrast to their strange, cavernous environment of asymmetrical cubist architecture, industrial decay, and sporadic water flow. The style of much nature photography is documentary. My project avoids this convention with an artistic approach which suggests that beauty and grace can be found in the unlikeliest places, and that art can have its own voice in promoting interest in wild things.

#3 - The Dam Bird project is unique. As far as I can determine, no one has done a project like this, anywhere. There are a few documentary images of birds involved in the exterminations conducted elsewhere, and some in dam-related habitats like backflow ponds, but it seems that no one has taken on the photographing of these filthy, often decaying structures as a backdrop for the graceful water birds who fish in their shadows. In this project, editing and presentation will vary, ranging from harsh to soft monochromes, and from muted grungy colors to the rainbow palette of the water spray in a dam-bow. Displayable/publishable sets will be subdivided into categories by subject/composition and processing styles so that several distinct arrangements will be possible, as well as the larger blended introductory set.

Who am I?
I’m a recently retired educator and for the past decade, a serious amateur photographer. I display images on a gallery wall in a local business (and sell a few there). I help manage an active online photography forum and enjoy photographic friendships around the world. My photographs have won several awards in the annual Mississippi Outdoor Photo contest, including an Overall First Place. A few have been published locally, and I regularly donate images to conservation causes.

What Would I Do With The Award?
I’d first set aside funds to properly prepare the Dam Bird image sets for display, including printing and framing. I have contacts with the State Game and Fisheries Department, the state chapter of the National Wildlife Federation and the state Science Museum, and would approach them for their interest in a gallery display and/or a publication in paper or electronic media. Funds might be necessary for the publication efforts, since these entities are non-profit and strapped for resources. I would also seek display opportunity at the metro airport, which maintains a gallery of local photographic fine art.

The award would cover the expenses of my trips to the dam. I would use some of the funds to hire better access to the dam by boat. The area beneath the dam is frequented by subsistence fishermen. Some of them would benefit from a fare-paying rider. Hitching a ride in a rowboat that works the mouth of the river would give me different angles and looks that I cannot get from the shore. If allowable, I would rent a longer lens to obtain some closer, more detailed shots of these birds.

As of now, the Dam Bird collection resides in my archives, viewed only by me and a small circle of photographer-colleagues who have encouraged me to find them a wider audience. This award would allow me to expand the scope of this arts-documentary project with currently unavailable shooting angles, and make the collection available to a wider audience, hopefully to increase awareness of and support for this unique juncture of wildlife and industry.



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