On a spring day earlier this year, Chris Aluka Berry was driving through Texana, North Carolina, a close-knit African-American community in the Appalachians founded in 1850, when he noticed a man hitting golf balls near his trailer double width. Berry, an award-winning photographer, was excited about the opportunity.
“It would make a great photo, and it can overturn a number of stereotypes,” said Berry, 43, who is based in Atlanta and works on an exciting project that has become an exhibition called “Affrilachia: The Remnant That Remains”. Affrilachia is a term coined by the poet Frank X Walker which means “Black in the Appalachians”.
When he got out of the car to introduce himself, the potential subject was not happy that a stranger approached his property.
Even though Berry tries not to let fear control him, he knows when the mood isn’t right. In fact, Berry has a rule that when someone sternly says no three times, it’s time to go.
Berry later learned that the golfer’s neighbors described him as strange. But that did not diminish Berry’s hopes.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “If I go down that road and see this guy playing golf, I’m going to try again.” “
Berry has two secrets for his success. One is her unwavering determination to get the perfect shot and find a way to tell a great story. The second is what Berry calls having a “passport person,” someone integrated into the community – a minister or activist – who can make presentations.
“You need this person who already has confidence in the community,” said Berry.
Marie Cochran, professor at Duke University, historian and resident of Affrilachia, was the first person with a Berry passport and helped him build dozens of connections in the region. Cochran and Berry have collaborated on this visual storytelling project since an Easter 2016 trip to a historic AME church in western North Carolina.
He has since traveled the Appalachians, including northern Georgia, eastern Tennessee, and North Carolina, documenting the daily lives of black people. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, blacks make up 9.9% of the total population of the region stretching from southern New York to northeastern Mississippi.
“The project exists to challenge stereotypes about race and class, especially about locals,” Cochran said. “I’m more interested in telling a complex and nuanced story of blacks in the mountains that adds to the story of the American experience.”
Black activists and artists in Appalachia are finally brought to light in history and in the media. But Berry’s project is often about the ordinary person: Mae Louise Allen, the matriarch of a multi-generational Cullowhee, North Carolina family or attendees of the annual Rock Springs Camp reunion in the White County, Georgia, a tradition since 1886.
Berry is Métis and grew up mainly in black communities. His identity not only made him more comfortable working with African American subjects, it also stimulated his interest in the project and strengthened his relationships with communities. When someone calls him “brother,” he knows he is sincere.
“That’s why it’s really important for me to show these communities in an honorable way, in a way that has dignity,” Berry said. “Some of these people are some of the best I have ever met in my life.”
When Berry is working, he couchsurf, stays in hotels, or even in his own car or a tent in someone’s yard. A great hiker and camper, Berry doesn’t mind the nomadic lifestyle, acknowledging that being a cisgender man affords him security and other privileges.
But accepting a stranger into your home or place of worship requires finesse, something Berry has developed over the years. This includes his three-no policy. He said he rarely feels threatened, but is able to defuse difficult situations by pointing to his passport. And when he wins that person’s trust, he says he’s “riding the wave” as he’s introduced to more people.
“I want to be around people who want to have me with me,” Berry said. “And I want to document the people who understand this is important.”
Most of the subjects are young or old. Berry and Cochran are grateful that he was able to capture the lives of those who have since died. His work with young people inspired him to perhaps focus his next project on biracial growth in the Appalachians.
“I feel like I have to focus on this new generation and how the landscape is changing,” Berry said. “A large part of the new generation is made up of biracial or multiracial families and children. “
Berry’s form of visual storytelling requires patience, time, and a certain level of risk. It is not a job that will make him rich, and the constant rejection has sometimes made him want to give up.
“I wanted to stop. There are so many times I felt like people didn’t care, ”he said. “So now I’m really grateful. And I hope good things will happen.