All photographs by Melissa Lyttle
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An older woman drives a beat-up old yellow Cadillac past a backdrop of palm trees and colorful buildings in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida.
All photographs by Melissa Lyttle

The Quest to Find the ‘Real Florida’

Some people say that Florida is a state full of hopefuls—people who flock there in hopes of realizing a dream, an idea, or a lifestyle. Photojournalist Melissa Lyttle is not one of these hopefuls but a native Floridian. After years of living in Florida, the state and all of its nuances have become the central character in Lyttle’s storytelling. She says she wants to show people that her home state is more than meets the eye—it’s not something to be stereotyped by outsiders but instead revered by its residents.

When Lyttle became a staff photographer for the Tampa Bay Times, she lived less than a mile away from the hospital in which she was born and felt she had “truly gone full circle, and [that it was] a huge honor and privilege to be tasked with covering ‘home.’” However, this privilege had unique challenges. “In a place where preservation of land or history is not a priority, and tourism is king, finding what’s real and authentic is a challenge unique to this state,” she says.

When I found out Lyttle was curating a selection from her body of work on her home state, I was intrigued by her unique perspective and emailed her to learn more about the project, which she describes as “a visceral reaction to others’ views of Florida.”

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A 10-year-old boy takes a break from swimming in the pool of the Mosley Motel in St. Petersburg, Florida. He and his family have been living at the motel for a few months, but his aunt pretends they are on vacation. Photograph by Melissa Lyttle, Tampa Bay Times

MALLORY BENEDICT: What does Florida represent to you?

MELISSA LYTTLE: Wonder. The how and whys of its very existence and the mystique surrounding that fascinate me. For a lot of people Florida is either the happiest place on Earth—a place to bring your family on vacation or retire to and spend your golden years in—or it’s a place where people come to lose themselves in sunbaked anonymity. As a native Floridian, both of those ideologies are like one big sociological study and are totally intriguing to me.

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“Diamond Jim” Kopernick, a perpetual bachelor, readies himself in his bathroom before going out in Sun City Center, Florida. His calendar is dotted with happy hours, ladies’ nights, and a weekly date with locals at a country karaoke bar. Photograph by Melissa Lyttle, Tampa Bay Times

MALLORY: How important are characters to your stories and your work?

MELISSA: The characters in my stories are the stories. It’s their lives I want to be let into, their moments I hope to capture, and their faces I’m try to put on an issue in the hopes that people will care about it.

My approach to getting to know the people in my stories is simple. I’m honest about my intentions. I stress my desire to spend time with them. And I have long conversations with the people I’m photographing about what they think their story is. I find it helpful to remember that it’s not my story… it’s theirs. I’m just the conduit.

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Almost 80 people call a spit of land underneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway home, most of whom are sex offenders with nowhere else to go. A strict law in Miami-Dade County says they can’t live within 2,500 feet of schools, playgrounds, parks, and school bus stops. Photograph by Melissa Lyttle, Tampa Bay Times

MALLORY: Did you examine Florida in a different way once it became a subject instead of solely your home state?

MELISSA: I think it’s changed over the course of my photographic life. The older, wiser, more seasoned journalist would love to go back in time and tell young Melissa that context is incredibly important. I think once I realized that, it was an aha moment and my pictures changed for the better. They got more complex, and there was storytelling because I understood that this event or situation I was photographing couldn’t happen anywhere else but in this place. And this place is very much a character worth capturing.

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While a line forms, one of the six actors playing Jesus at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando pauses from taking photos with tourists to pray with two patrons at the Christian theme park. Photograph by Melissa Lyttle, Tampa Bay Times

MALLORY: There are certain stigmas about Florida—the people are old, the weather is humid, and there are alligators and sinkholes at every turn. How have these stereotypes affected your perception of your home state?

MELISSA: Sure, those things are all accurate. You’re also leaving out the blood-sucking mosquitoes, the blood-sucking real estate developers, hurricanes, sunburned tourists wearing Mickey Mouse ears, and every character out of a Carl Hiaasen novel.

Stereotypes are based in some semblance of the truth. And they exist for a reason. They’re easy. It’s human nature to want to lump something into a category in order to understand it. To say Florida is “weird” lets people feel like their home states, whatever their deficiencies, are somehow normal. Getting beyond those stereotypes is the hard part. That takes time and understanding.

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Standing in the bed of their pick-up truck, a young couple kiss outside of the rodeo grounds in Tampa, Florida, where they hang out on Friday nights to watch their friends ride bulls. Photograph by Melissa Lyttle

MALLORY: Do you aim to change your readers’ and viewers’ perception of Florida?

MELISSA: As a native Floridian, I find myself getting defensive when people make fun of Florida. It’s low-hanging fruit and always good for a cheap laugh. I just hope that maybe through my pictures people can realize that it’s more than that.

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Postal worker by day and Creek Indian by passion, James Allen has been involved in reenactments for the last 20 years. Photograph by Melissa Lyttle, Tampa Bay Times

People are drawn here for a reason. People that visit as tourists come back to live. Retirees and snowbirds are on the quest for their own mythological fountain of youth. Immigrants come looking for work because there’s a huge demand for cheap laborers in the construction, agriculture, and service industries. Homeless people are seduced by the warmth and sunshine. Wealthy people and con artists are seduced by the lack of taxes. All are tempted by the quality of life. Make fun of it all you want, but people keep coming here and there’s a reason for that.

Putting together this work and wanting to build on it is really just a visceral reaction to others’ views of Florida. I want to acknowledge that yes, it is all of those things you think it is, but it’s also deeper, darker, and a lot more real than it appears on the surface. I’m here to document and to show people this state isn’t any one thing.

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Lori Smith holds a chicken that she found wandering around in her front yard and adopted. Smith has adopted many animals, including a blind baby raccoon, a blue heron, and over a dozen koi fish. Photograph by Melissa Lyttle, Tampa Bay Times

Melissa Lyttle

A Photo a Day



Mallory Benedict is an assistant photo editor for National Geographic News. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.