About the project:
Nonprofit: SOCM: Save Our Cumberland Mountains, becoming Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment
Project Title: Save Our Cumberland Mountains
As photographers we often focus on actions resulting from the failure of process: wars, riots, hunger, poverty, and distressed communities. Even natural disasters are intensified because process fails. Deaths from the recent Haiti and Chinese earthquakes soared because of poor building construction resulting from corruption and poverty.
Yet actually photographing process—not its failure—is both difficult and visually challenging.
With the support of the Getty Grant for Good, this is what I attempted. I wanted to show how an organize effects social change working within the process of laws and politics.
To do this, I focused on a single long-lived grassroots organization that has been active in Tennessee for almost 40 years. Over several months, I visited and interviewed the membership. I wanted to show the often-quiet process of change at the grass roots level. I wanted to show the long-term commitment those in the organization make in the interest of securing social change.
There were challenges. When I started the project, I had no idea that the organization itself was in the midst of major transitions. As I began work, the organization still used its old name, Save Our Cumberland Mountains or SOCM.
SOCM began as a regional group based in east Tennessee, focused on environmental issues like clean water and strip mining. After graduating from college, I had worked with the organization before beginning my career as a photographer. But in recent years, the organization expanded to a statewide focus, with a broader mandate to address racial and economic issues.
This transition accelerated sharply over the course of my project. While I was documenting their efforts, the organization formally changed its name. The new name, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, retained the familiar SOCM acronym. The old director, a key figure in the organization, stepped down after 30 years of service. Two interim directors were appointed. A month after I finished my project, a new director finally came on board.
In the midst of this transition, both older SOCM members that I had known for years and newer members whom I came to know and admire were all helpful in assisting me with documenting both traditional and new activities.
The newly named organization was growing in many directions, like branches on a tree. Finding a central focus to tell this multi-faceted story seemed elusive. Once comprised of a largely white membership focused on a few environmental issues, the organization was now multi-racial and multi-ethnic. New chapters, spread across the state, focused on racial harmony, immigrant worker rights, and green jobs, along with the older environmental concerns.
In this unexpectedly complex tapestry, my challenge was to find a common thread. In the end, I found that thread in the members themselves. Despite a shift of focus, what SOCM did remained consistent, teaching people how to use the tools needed to make effective changes in both their lives and their communities. This was grassroots organizing at its best.
Since SOCM’s strength is in its membership, I made environmental portraits of members who had been active in the past as well those now taking leadership in the present. I documented those issues that are core to the traditional and contemporary focus of the organization.
Much of grassroots change is process, typically done through meetings. Though these tend to be nonvisual events, I felt coverage was important, since so much of SOCM’s learning process is shared in them. Here, members visit and bond, discussing concerns of importance to them and their communities.
My challenge throughout was to create images that can help SOCM capture public attention. Once engaged, visitors to SOCM’s website may become involved and participate in the organizations efforts.
SOCM is largely comprised of working and middle class individuals who deeply care about their communities, their families and the land on which they live. Many, whether they attend church or not, are spiritually inclined.
In my interviews I found most SOCM members to be articulate and well informed about the issues concerning them. Because of that, I placed extra emphasis on recording audio, and to some extent, video. I wanted the people of SOCM to tell their own stories in their own words. My hope is that those listening to them and seeing their images will be moved by what they hear and see, perhaps to the point of helping this unusual and long-lived organization continue to carry on its mission of social change.
March 19, 2010
Discover more about Karen Kasmauski
Learn about Save Our Cumberland Mountains