I met up with Billy D. Harris at the country store in Aubrey, Arkansas, then followed him out into the cotton fields. There was a slight breeze before sunrise, but once the mist and shadows lifted, it grew so hot that everyone on his work crew was dripping with sweat. When the men all around him began to cover up against the sun and mosquitoes, Billy pulled his shirt off, as if he could assert his power over the elements. And I saw him right then not as a fieldworker but as an aging prizefighter, a spirited, even fearsome man whose chances for a better life were beginning to dim, no matter how hard he fought. Billy stood motionless for maybe five seconds, trying to catch his breath, then got back to work slashing away at the pesticide-resistant weeds with such force that clouds of dust rose up.
Photographer Eugene Richards, a frequent contributor to National Geographic magazine, began his career over 40 years ago as a VISTA volunteer in the Mississippi Delta of Arkansas. The people he met and the photographs he made of them became the basis for his first book, Few Comforts or Surprises: The Arkansas Delta.
The land and its stories have stayed a part of him, and in 2012 Richards published a new story, “Arkansas Delta, 40 Years Later,” in National Geographic magazine.
Now, thanks to a recent Kickstarter campaign, the story will continue in the form of a new book, Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down, scheduled for publication in 2014. As part of the fund-raising process Richards has been keeping a journal, Notes From the Road, part memory, part new experiences, discussing the Arkansas delta photo stories, then and now.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Proof will dip into this stream and share Richards’s stories with you. To see all of his posts and to learn more about his new book, visit Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down. —Keith Jenkins, director of photography