Sweetgrass and sunlight: the Gullah culture of South Georgia

Photographer: Lynsey Weatherspoon | Guest Editor: Tara Pixley

Captions: Elizabeth Atalay

Essay: Tara Pixley

An elder stands in a doorway, framed by history held in the structure of a building that invites entry to stories untold. A child crosses her arms — perhaps self-consciously, perhaps defiantly — as she smiles sweetly, her body a pillar resonating with the nearby landmark whose stark presence represents decades of her ancestors’ enslavement. I selected these two images to open and close Lynsey Weatherspoon’s quietly lovely rumination on the Gullah/Geechee people of South Georgia as exemplary of their past and future. Throughout the series, Lynsey highlights the relationship of Gullah to the land, its homes, structures and green spaces.

In the final image of this series, the young girl stands on Butler Island Plantation, a former rice and cotton plantation on the Altamaha River Delta in coastal Georgia, that occupies a particularly tragic space in America’s history of chattel slavery. In 1859, 436 people kept as property of Butler Island Plantation were sold off, making it the biggest slave auction ever held in America. This auction would later be called The Weeping Time and many of the Gullah community in and around coastal Georgia are descendants of those auctioned off as slaves during that time. The horror of families’ forced separation lives on today, a backdrop to the strength and continuity of Gullah culture and life in this land.

What makes Lynsey’s images powerful is the dignity and respect with which they depict black Americans who have built lives in the shadow of slavery’s past. Decrepit buildings and expansive porches respectively stand as counterpoints and complements to the strong bodies and souls of the Gullah. The waving grass and weeping willow trees operate as ever present characters in the frame, sentinels to centuries of those working, living and loving the land. In each portrait, hands are clasped and held, heads tilted thoughtfully — an interesting consistency that feels to me to speak to a culture of composed resistance, beauty and vitality despite histories of struggle.

Hover over image to see captions.

Lynsey Weatherspoon is a commercial, portrait and editorial photographer based in both Atlanta and Birmingham. Her client base is the person next door, the startup still in incubation, the established brand or business, and media. Capturing heritage is important to her and evident in such personal projects as portraits of former members of the Negro Baseball League, Ronnie the shoe repairman, the Gullah Geechee culture of the Sea Islands, and Birmingham’s historic Ensley neighborhood. As a portraitist, Lynsey can see where people sitting for her have come from, and where they are going. Using her experience as a public speaking instructor, Lynsey enjoys helping others face their fears to make presentations and tell their own stories. 

Her editorial tearsheet includes The New York Times, NPR, AFAR Magazine, The NationalSierra magazine, ESPN The Undefeated, The Bitter Southerner, and Birmingham’s B-Metromagazine, as well as a number of trade publications. Commercial projects include Cox Communications, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Google, Blue Cross Blue Shield Alabama, and Wells Fargo.

In 2018, Lynsey was named to The Authority Collective’s Lit List: 30 Photographers to Watch

Tara Pixley is a photojournalist and scholar of visual journalism based in Los Angeles, CA, with an MFA in Photography, a PhD in Communication and over a decade of experience as a photographer for news and editorial organizations.  Her personal photographic and scholarly work focuses on rethinking visual representations of gender, race and sexuality in documentary image-making. She was a 2016 Visiting Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism of Harvard University, researching and writing about how to improve inequities behind the documentary camera. Her Nieman Reports cover story on visual journalism's lack of diverse perspectives was awarded the 2017 FOLIO Ozzie for Best B2B Single Article. Tara is also a founding member of  RECLAIM Photo and a co-Founder and Board Member of Authority Collective

Captions writer Elizabeth Atalay is an avid snapshot photographer, but is more at home with words than with a camera. In her 15 years as a research editor at National Geographic magazine, she’s had the chance to help research and craft captions for some of the best images in the world. Now she’s thrilled to be working with Confluence Magazine to help give voice to the next generation of documentary photographers. Elizabeth is available for captions writing, editing, and consultation.  Elizabeth.Atalay@gmail.com