ts one thing to gather an impression of a foreign country from news reports.
It's another, as University of Southern Mississippi photography professor Betty Press has done, to live in a country such as Africa and absorb what makes African people and their traditions unique.
An internationally-known photojournalist whose work has been featured in Newsweek, Christian Science Monitor and major newspapers all over the country, Press self-published I Am Because We Are, a collection of riveting black and white photographs of African people going about their daily lives in their home environment.
“My husband, Bob, was a writer at Christian Science Monitor and got assignments to Africa in 1987. I went with him and freelanced,” said Press, a graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University, who previously taught at Stetson University and has been on the University of Southern Mississippi faculty since 2003. “We liked it so much we moved there and were based in Nairobi, Kenya. I was covering a lot of hard news, and a lot of terrible things were happening there. I started out in black and white photography and feel its better for the subject matter. The book, which I began assembling in 2010, but which covers photographs going back 20 years, is all about normal family life and street life.”
The collection of 125 photographs showcases dance, leisure, conflict and peace, religion, wisdom, children, mothers, death and hope. The overriding theme is that life goes on.
“Africans have huge extended families,” Press said. “That impoverishes them, but they take care of each other.”
Press has displayed her work for two decades not only in Africa but at university libraries around the southeast and at USM faculty shows. When she began exhibiting the photography that would eventually comprise I Am Because We Are, she was told that while her work was very strong, something was needed to set off the artwork. This resulted in her collaboration with Annetta Miller, who contributed a series of African proverbs that accompanies the photography.
“I met Annetta when we moved to Africa,” Press said. “She's an American, a retired Mennonite musician who taught for years and had published books of proverbs, including Strange Gifts, which is available on Amazon.com. She says Westerners come to Africa with a certain point of view about the country and don't consider the African point of view.”
The layout of the book, which took about two weeks, came together as Press and Miller worked in Millers garden.
“The book is based in African philosophy,” Press said. “For the lay reader, the proverbs are very universal. It is a joyful book. We chose the proverbs that matched the photographs. Theres an index in the back which tells when and where they were taken. I received a lot of help from a non-profit organization called Books For Africa that bought copies and has helped promote the book. Some of the proceeds from sales on my website go to Books For Africa.”
The launch for Press' book was at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where copies of I Am Because We Are were displayed in a gallery at International Visions.
“I was thrilled,” Press said. “They're sold at the Library of Congress gift shop and at the Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution.”
The book, which was released last fall, won the coveted Photography Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters in April, and Press was honored at a ceremony in Jackson on June 12. She was nominated by George Bassi, the director of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel.
“I have been familiar with Betty's work since she moved to Hattiesburg,” said Bassi, whose gallery hosted Press for a book talk and signing last fall and sells her book in their gift shop. “The first exhibition of her work which I saw included both works from Africa as well as from Mississippi. My wife and I quickly purchased one of her photographs for our home. Her work really draws you into the scene, event and landscape. I was familiar with many of her images from Africa, but the book really put them into context for me. She has an emotional connection with all of her subject matter. The photographs are complemented with terrific text. You really immerse yourself in the photos and words.”
I Am Because We Are is available at Main Street Books in downtown Hattiesburg and at Lemuria in Jackson. She has displayed at Fischer Art Gallery in Jacksons Fondren District and at Oddfellows Art Gallery of Hattiesburg. Oddfellows, she said, is as beautiful an art gallery as one would find in New York City.
“Its amazing how Betty captures these African scenes, and how these moments she has frozen speak to her eye,” said Oddfellows owner Charles Price. “She's someone that knows her craft and is sensitive to the scene. There are many great photographers that have the skills Betty does, but she can capture a fleeting moment in a really poignant way. Not everyone can do that.
“The reception at our gallery was very well-attended, and her book has sold well. I'm proud to know her, and it's our good fortune that we have an artist of her caliber in Hattiesburg.”
Press' book was selected for the Top 20 Self-published Photobooks of 2011 (sponsored by the Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson, New York). “Presss images of Africa are timeless, immediate and personally authentic . The proverbs accompany, expand and ground the pictures, ” said Alison Nordstrom, curator of photographs for the George Eastman House.
“The power of this collection is that we are able to see the engaging images of the heirs of this wisdom and hear the voices of continuity, identity and legacy that affirm their communal spirit,” said Joanne Veal Gabbin, a poet and professor of English at James Madison University.
Press said that working on I Am Because We Are reinforced the notion that we keep growing and maturing as people, and should be able to – as Miller said – see points of view other than our own.
“Africa grabs you. The people are struggling but still know how to enjoy life,” Press said. “The lives of the people there are improving, and African-Americans should be proud of their heritage.”
For more information about the book or to purchase copies, visit www.bettypress.com.
“Africa grabs you. The people are struggling but still know how to enjoy life. The lives of the people there are improving, and African-Americans should be proud of their heritage.”