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In his forthcoming book, to be titled “On Photographing in the South,” Lee, a photography professor in the School of Art at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will provide a visual tour of the Southeast, including some of the poorer areas of the region.
Lee is sharing these same photos with his students this year to help them understand poverty -- and to help them learn to look beyond poverty to see people. It's appropriate timing since this year Ready for the World, the campus' international and intercultural initiative, is focusing on "Our World in Need," with a particular emphasis on poverty.
Lee spent a large portion of his early career photographing themes of poverty. His book is an album of the photos he began taking in the early 1980s when he embarked on a trip around the Southeast photographing anything and everything.
Because Lee -- who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and educated on the East Coast -- had never been to the Southeast, it was a very eye-opening excursion into the realities of rural and urban poverty.
He remembers being especially touched in Augusta, Ga., when a man in a van drove up beside him on the street and asked him if he would mind going with him to take a picture.
“I had no idea where he was taking me. I had no idea what I would be photographing either,” Lee said. “We finally ended up at a funeral home.”
When Lee walked up to the coffin, he saw a baby lying there. After talking to the mother and father, he found out the couple could not afford a crib. The baby rolled off of their bed and got tangled in the sheets.
“My wife and I were about to have our first child, and I remembered shopping for cribs,” Lee said. “I remember having the ability to do or see something these people couldn’t.”
During the next decade, Lee continued to travel to places including Texas, Kentucky and Florida to take photos. More recently, he photographed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
By sharing the photos from his book with his students, Lee hopes to open their eyes to the issue of poverty.
“In photography, as an art form, I have a tremendous amount of leeway on the content I show my students,” Lee said. “I don’t think it’s my job to advocate a cause, but instead to show these causes exist.”
He wants students to learn to use their photography to delve into the lives of the people around the world and look at the person instead of the role a person plays in society.
“I hope the students venture a little bit into where the people really live,” Lee said. “It’s easier to look at the person serving you in a restaurant as just a server. The servers and maids live real lives.
“The poor may be poor, but they have and want the same things as everyone else,” Lee said. “It’s important to remember that we’re all still brothers with the same hopes, and we all still suffer similarly.”
Photography can be used as a tool for change, he said.
“When I do and talk about photography, I’ll make the assumption that the audience doesn’t have a particular sympathy to the subject,” Lee said. “In the ones who are unconvinced or unaware lies the possibility of doing something of value.”
In his classes, he said, he tries to enlarge a student’s view of a subject, which ultimately enlarges their view of the world.
“I don’t want to just talk about how pretty the composition is, but you can talk about those lives,” Lee said. “A greater awareness of suffering and poverty will allow people to rediscover their passion. Then they realize both intellectually and morally that a little bit can help.
“Regardless of as many degrees you get and the amount of intelligence you acquire, the world outside is always bigger than that.”
Lee received his bachelor's degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his graduate degree from Yale School of Art where he studied under the famous photographer Walker Evans, who photographed sharecroppers in the 1930s. Lee's work has been displayed in prestigious venues like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and he has received many awards and fellowships for his contributions to photography.
Beginning in April 2010, Lee’s photographs of the South will be showcased at the Knoxville Museum of Art in an exhibit to be called “A Sense of Place: Southern Photographs by Baldwin Lee, Walker Evans and Eudora Welty.”