Photographers enter people’s lives for periods as short as minutes or as long as weeks. Constrained by deadlines and journalism’s compressed time, the assignment ends and we leave. We never stay, we rarely know what becomes of the people we photograph. Editors may permit an anniversary special or the occasional follow-up, but rarely the follow-through.
West Athens is different. With this work I have a personal commitment to return — to accompany this village through time, to follow the children of the children I first photographed years ago. For me, this project is a history. I seek to document the life cycle of this community over real time.
The first time I walked down the dirt road into West Athens in 1982, I could tell I wasn’t wanted. Suspicious, light blue eyes peered out at me from trailer doors and from behind curtains, watching the stranger in their closed community. But with time and persistence, I began to be accepted. Eventually people extended their trust, allowing me to witness more of their lives.
Life there is defined by isolation and unrelenting poverty, yet it is lived with energy and ingenuity, affection and laughter. This is a rural ghetto with few opportunities or escapes, where even menial jobs are scarce and the only reliable sources of income are government benefits. Perennial poverty, outlasting the eternally promised recovery, never changes in West Athens, where indoor plumbing is a luxury.
People don’t leave. There are other places where opportunities are greater, winters less harsh. But who would trade a life with grandparents down the road, cousins just up the hill for the unknown, an unrooted world that just pays a little better?
Twelve years later, West Athens looks frozen in time. The dirt roads, the fallow overgrown fields, and the faces that live in these sagging, rundown shacks appear to be straight from Depression archives. Yet, every time I appear, people relate the changes since I was last up: Gregory got a haircut, cousin Lori rearranged the furniture, Sonny’s pig is big enough for slaughter now, and the Averys re-wallpapered.
There are universal passages: old timers die, and others age prematurely to replace them. Children grow up quickly, put down their toys, and have children of their own. The cycle of life continues.
©1995 Steven Rubin
Steven Rubin is a freelance photographer, now based in Baltimore. He has been examining rural poverty in Maine for the foundation.