As long as she's healthy enough to drive around rural Mississippi, nothing can stop 72-year-old photographer Jane Rule Burdine from trekking through the countryside and shooting soulful portraits of communities in the Deep South. In an area often forgotten by politicians and philanthropists, her photos are a record of lives lived and the slow march of change.
Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, she knew she was different. Most people wanted to settle down, get married, and have some kids, but Burdine wanted to forge her own path. "So I struck out on my own," she says in a new short documentary about her life, Under Her Skin, directed by Kelsey & Rémy Bennett and produced by The Front.
Burdine documents the beauty and quirks of Mississippi's farming communities, studying how the people impact the land and vice versa. In the 80s, she spent time photographing an area known as Sugar Ditch, then the poorest county in the nation. Even though they're photos of poverty, Burdine's portraits brim with happiness and humanity. "My work is an affirmation of life, in the face of imperfections," she says in the film.
The Bennett Sisters sat down with Burdine for VICE to talk about what it was like working together and why she credits her sense of adventure for her prolific career.
VICE: When did you start working as a photographer? Do you have any memories that come to mind from being on assignment?
Burdine: Well, I got my masters degree in sociology and then immediately got hired as a photojournalist for the Louisiana State Tourism Bureau in 1976. I stayed there a couple of years just traveling and shooting.
The image of the man in the wig shop, I shot for Guideposts, a religion magazine. A man had come in to rob the wig shop and the salesman thwarted the robbery by talking to the thief about Jesus. I also had taken a portrait for that magazine of a female ventriloquist and her dummy who loved the Lord.
I got to travel to Africa and Tanzania to shoot for British Airways. I traveled with friends across Canada by train, and I went to Mexico. I was a photographer out on the road, and oh, it was fun, but it was hard work.
Aside from the premiere of Under Her Skin you have some other exciting events coming up this year.
Yes, at the end of April my work will be showcased in the new museum, the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience, alongside Maude Schuyler Clay and other Mississippi artists. I’m working on my second book which will be photographs that I’ve taken up in the hills around Oxford and Lafayette County. In the future, I would love to put a book together of my "wacko" stuff.
What’s your "wacko" stuff?
This phrase came to me in the middle of the night— The it-ness of a weird thing seen—it describes the absurd. I just love coming up on these surprising things. A lot of times, I see the “it-ness” and maybe no one else does.
Can you elaborate on what you thrive on when you wander the backroads with your camera?
It’s mainly my sense of adventure, going out and being a visual explorer. You can have wonderful experiences without even getting out of a car. I never have a particular agenda, I just chase the light and the image and take in whatever happens along the way.
What others artists, writers, and photographers did you admire when you were growing up?
When I was in high school I came across a Margaret Bourke-White photography book. I was so taken by her courage doing these industrial photographs—and then her images during the war. And of course, Miss Eudora Welty, who as well as being a great writer was also a photographer during that time. Then Dorothea Lange, whose work just stabbed me in the heart.
What is the importance, in your eyes, of photographing buildings and places in relation to the changing landscape?
After studying those photographers of the 1930s, I went out into the countryside and was seeing similar things that I saw in those photographs. I just felt like there needed to be a record of this architecture. I’m not doing "dead barn art." These are historical buildings.
One of my favorite images by you is the woman barefoot on her horse riding into a building. What’s going on there?
That was at a museum on campus [at the University of Mississippi]. Shannon rode her horse down to the college to ask her momma something, and her momma wasn’t coming out of the air conditioning, and the ground was too hot to stand barefoot, so she stayed on her horse.
Oh, so she’s actually speaking to her mom, who is standing at a doorway off frame?
Yes. And I was there because my work was in an exhibit on campus—you can see the sign on the wall outside, Images of the Southern Woman.
You live right outside of Oxford. Could you talk about why you live in Mississippi?
I could have lived anywhere. I’ve traveled a great bit for work, but I came back to Mississippi because it’s what I know. When I go out hunting for these photographs, it’s not like a stranger coming to town. I can move fluidly. I know what I’m seeing. There’s so much here that I know and can discover within my knowledge. How could I ever exhaust it?
How did it feel being on the other side of the camera during the filming of Under Her Skin? The crew we brought down with us has known you and each other for years. How do you feel the intimacy and familiarity influenced the filming process?
There’s no way that I could have let my hair down with strangers! And I was so comfortable with y’all around, cause it was like, Hell, we were all having a party, and Alex [Warren] was filming it. I never felt uncomfortable. It was such a delight. It was just all wonderful.
Something you said in the documentary, which seems to resonate with a lot of people, is that you "struck out on your own." Can you elaborate on what that means to your life?
I haven’t lived a normal life, like the girls I grew up around. I was born the middle child between two older brothers and two younger. I’ve always had a sense of adventure and independence. If I had wanted to settle down, I would have done it. I wanted to travel, and I did. I was fortunate to have my own way.
At 72 years old, this is a very exciting time for you in your career. How do you feel?
I’ve been taking photographs for almost 50 years. I’ve got a lot of work that’s never been seen, and I’m looking forward to getting it out there. If I can keep my health, then nothing can stop me.