Memory  /  Art History

As God Is My Witness

A year-long series of photographs and stories that explain the struggle between the old South and the new.
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

I have always thought of myself as a Southerner. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, I've lived in Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia. I have a strong sense of belonging to the land and its culture. But as a photographer representing the South, I want to dig into my own Southern identity a bit more. I want to know exactly what I'm claiming when I call myself a “Southern artist.” Do I believe in the Southern trinity of Elvis, Jesus, and Robert E. Lee? Could I swear it, like Scarlett O'Hara did, with God as my witness?

Then, the unthinkable happened. Dylann Roof walked into a evening prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine church members before fleeing the scene. Almost instantly after his arrest, an image appeared online showing Roof posing with a handgun in front of a Confederate battle flag. I felt an immediate pull away from my Southerness and a sense of shame for our broken past.

To look intently on the South, I needed to look at the darkest part of our history to see if there was any truth or beauty I can abide with. So I sought out the Sons of Confederate Veterans and those who still wave the rebel flag. I spent time with people labeled as racists, rednecks, country folk, and in some cases, those labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as extremists. I spent time with and photographed people caught up, sometimes incidentally, in public reenactments or “tributes” to the Confederacy. I also spent time with authors, historians, and documentarians to level the playing field. Through some digging, I even discovered that my own third great-grandfather, William Kelso(e), fought for the Confederacy in the 19th Alabama Infantry, Company B.

As I photographed Confederate memorials and rallies across the Bible Belt, I realized I was witnessing a dying culture. “As God Is My Witness” is an attempt to document what remains of this version of the South today, not some glorified Old South of the past. Both as a Christian and as a photographer, my task is to listen and practice empathy, to peer beyond the veil of America's only “felt" history and accept it.