If Josh Hailey has it his way, he will have found a creative Mississippian in every state before the end of the year.
“I'm looking for people who love Mississippi, but who have started lives somewhere else and who give that Mississippi hospitality to everyone they know,” said the Jackson-based photographer and filmmaker.
The endeavor is just a small part of the enormous project Hailey, 30, set out to accomplish at the beginning of the year. PhotAmerica will document the changing lives of Americans in 2012.
The yearlong project will take Hailey through 50 states in 50 weeks, mostly in his '92 Chevy van, which has been gutted to make room for “sleeping quarters, artwork, people, whatever I want or need,” he said. “It looks like the Mystery Mobile. I have a P.A. rigged to the front so I can talk to people.”
Although he has been a photographer for years, this is Hailey's first film and publication project.
“I want to make an impression on the artistic community, but more importantly, the American public,” he says.
The idea for the project was born on his trip back to Mississippi, where he had taken a freelance photography gig for the Mississippi Development Authority, from Los Angeles.
“As I was moving back I stayed with random people in each state,” he said. “I stayed with a psychic in Phoenix and a Jehovah's Witness family in Roswell, New Mexico. “I ate dinner with them, ate breakfast with them. I listened to their stories, and I was inspired.”
When the Occupy Movement set in, Hailey said he knew he needed a task that would make a dent in the way Americans view themselves.
“It was the first time that I've see in my lifetime, that people actually went to the streets and listed some grievances of the things that aren't right right now,” he said. “I'm not one to sit and watch. I want to share stories so that everyone knows they're in the same boat.
“One question I'll be asking is, 'Are you proud to be an American?' I want to know if they are or aren't and what shaped them in the last five, 10 or 20 years,” he said. “I want to know what they would do to make America a better place. It's grassroots, but I want to talk to people when they're not stuck behind the Internet or working at their corporate jobs.”
Hailey raised $23,000 on Kickstarter to fund the project. He'll be living in his van and accepting the generosity of people who take in “couch surfers” much the same as he did on his trip from Los Angeles to Mississippi.
“These are people who are letting others use a spare couch or room for people pursuing these type of adventures,” he said. “In return you do the same for them when they come to your city. They're loving people who like to meet people from around the world and share stories.”
At press time, Hailey was gearing up for a flight to Hawaii, where he will kick off the project. By the second week in January he will have come back to the South in hopes of garnering some warmer temperatures through the winter months.
“I'm trying to stay warm the whole time, but I'll take what I can get,” he said. “I'm not a big fan of snow.”
He'll tackle Alabama and Florida and move through Texas in March. From there, the trip is planned in a counter-clockwise path. He should be moving into Oregon and Washington in April, then into middle America. He'll go from Boston to Alaska in August.
The job will entail photographing and filming people and places from each of the 50 states, “creating an eclectic patchwork of images and stories of Americans from a range of backgrounds.”
By documenting the rapid changes that have taken place in America,
even over the last 10 years, Hailey said he has designed the project to be thought-provoking and
inspiring, highlighting the ever-changing mindset of Americans.
The project also includes keeping a daily journal and tweeting and sending artwork to editors who will help with preparing canvases and film editing for final display.
In December, PhotAmerica will culminate in a documentary film and photo exhibit that Hailey hopes to take on the road. A book is slated for publication in mid-2013, he said.
Haley said he's looking forward to visiting the states to which he's never been – Montana, Wyoming, Ohio and Michigan excite him the most, he said.
“I'm going to be an ambassador for Mississippi the whole time,” he said. “I'm going to give out music CDs and t-shirts. I'll have a package to give to everyone. I'm going to be telling them how cool Mississippi really is, breaking some of those stereotypes. It's been a good year for Mississippi. We've had some positive national attention. There are some really intelligent, caring, forward-thinking people mixed with our stereotypes, and people need to know that.”
As for being on the road alone, Hailey said he has no fear.
“When you're on the road by yourself you learn a lot about yourself,” he said. “You have peace of mind. And then I'm not one to meet a stranger I like people too much.
For more information about the project, to follow Hailey's journey, or to contribute, visit www.photamerica.com. Readers who would like to be photographed or interviewed can contact Hailey directly at (601) 214-2069 or email Josh@JoshHaileyStudio.com.