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Center for Documentary Studies founder Alex Harris's new project 'Our Strange New World' blurs the line between fact and fiction

The “South” is an evolving concept with a seeming dichotomy of histories. In 1874, Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady coined the term “The New South,” attempting to distinguish the region from its roots. But with a history embedded in racist institutions and shaped by an unequal sense of progress, many Southerners have struggled to understand the place they call home. 

In his most recent project, photographer Alex Harris captured film sets in the American South, exploring the role of storytelling and perspective in our perception of reality. Working alongside his wife, photographer and designer Margaret Sartor, he compiled the images into an exhibit for the High Museum (Nov. 27, 2019 - May 3, 2020) and a book entitled “Our Strange New Land.” The work was part of the museum’s “Picturing the South” project: commissioning “a current perspective on Southern subjects and themes while building the Museum’s collection of contemporary photography.”

Harris’s inspiration for the work came over a decade before. Harris was invited onto the set of Steven Soderbergh’s biopic “Che” in 2007. There, he was granted complete freedom to photograph the filmmakers and actors. 

“I was struck by how real it was for them and how engaged they were,” Harris said.”What a great experience it was for a photographer. I could get close to the so-called action.”

Working with 41 independent filmmakers across the South, Harris experienced a unique ability of being able to capture the intimacy that is often out of touch in photographing real moments. 

“It would take me months to years to be a part of a community,” Harris said. “Whereas, on a film set, once [I was] accepted as part of the crew, I was allowed to photograph anything I want[ed].”

When creating the book, Harris and Sartor were tasked with digging through the thousands of images to create an open-ended narrative. The book opens with sketches of movie scenes to immediately remind the viewer of the imaginary world they are going to experience. According to co-editor Sartor, “If you look at the opening sequence, it tells you you’re stepping into a new world, parting the curtain. The book tells its own story.”

The title itself points to the element of imagination and the importance of perspective. Harris had initially seen the middle school history book that became his title in one of the sets he was photographing. It described the history of the American colonization through the perspective of the Puritan settlers, leaving out Native voices that existed there for centuries. 

Harris writes in his afterword, “‘Our Strange New Land’ became my title for this book, a phrase I’ve attempted to turn on its head, to indicate new and different stories of life in the South being told by contemporary filmmakers.” 

When exploring the book itself, the photographs are neatly juxtaposed, scenes from films placed alongside to create a contrast within our imagination. Others show the thin veil between the emotion on scene and the camera itself. While the intimacy itself carries its own legitimacy, we are reminded, as viewers, that there exists a framing on each moment. Pages fold out to allow the viewer to fully escape into the narrative world Harris and Sartor created with the aid of dozens of filmmakers. It has a simultaneous layer of intentionality coupled with the freedom granted by the viewer’s own imagination. 

Though, as Harris claimed, photographing films offered a new sense of freedom into intimate emotional expressions, the editing process unearthed new ethical considerations. His daughter was brought onto the project to look over images and cut those that were deemed too upsetting.

“We have become astonished to rethink our childhood and what we were taught about our history, particularly as Southerners," Sartor said. "It was so great to have the perspective of a 25-year-old because she is living through what these images mean, particularly images that deal with policing and the Antebellum South.” 

Inspired in part by the conclusion of this work and relooking at decades of photographs, Harris’s next project will chronicle his own family. 

“What I have done is turn back to my archive of photographs over the years. One of the things I have photographed the most in my life but haven’t shown is our family,” Harris said. “My goal as a photographer was to get inside a world so that I can photograph life in a way that is meaningful and intimate and where I am part of the story in some way.” 

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