10 Powerful Portraits From Small Town Missouri

You pass a lot of cornfields as you drive into Perryville, Missouri. After you enter the town, those cornfields turn into churches, diners, schools, and homes. Bordering on sleepy, Perryville fulfills the conventional image of Middle America.

If you weren’t looking closely, you might even miss the fact that a superhero lives here. His name is Treven, and he’s eight years old.

This September, 41 photographers (including myself) from 18 states and seven countries arrived in Perryville, each in search of someone—like Trevan—with a story to share. We had one week to discover that story and photograph it to the best of our ability as part of the Missouri Photo Workshop.

The result is a rich tableau of experience—the tension between a man’s faith and his sexuality, a widower reorienting his life after his wife’s passing, and an eight-year-old boy living with translocation Down syndrome who feels most at home dressed as Superman. These exact stories can’t be found anywhere else, but these kinds of stories are everywhere—if you’re looking for them.

Since 1949, the Missouri Photo Workshop (MPW for short) has captured and catalogued the breadth of life in 46 of Missouri’s small towns (sometimes returning to the same place after a number of years has passed). Founded by the Missouri School of Journalism’s Clifton C. Edom, the workshop is amassing a growing archive of images shot by more than 2,500 photographers.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say those photos show the evolution of small-town Missouri, and America, over nearly seven full decades,” says current co-director of MPW Jim Curley.

Part of the magic of MPW is the ability of workshop participants to generate intimate imagery in such a short period of time. When else would you ask someone you just met if you can photograph them sleeping, going to a therapist, or taking a bath, if not for the sort of crucible this workshop creates? (It probably helps that the workshop coaches are some of the best photographers and editors in the business, and they’re eager to help students push the boundaries of their visual storytelling skills.)

These portraits show people who were living remarkable stories long before a band of photographers recorded them for a week. These are the people who animate a town that might appear commonplace to newcomers but reveals itself as remarkable to those willing to look a little longer.

Explore more stories from the 67th class of the Missouri Photo Workshop here and follow along for updates on Instagram.

Discover photographic gems from the nearly seven decades of the MPW archives here.

Editor’s Note: This post originally included ten photographs, one portrait has been removed at the request of the subject.

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