A Portrait Of An Ozark Photographer

“MOST OF this isn’t ours,” says Terra Fondriest, “but it’s sort of shared.”

We’re both hunched over steaming cups of coffee, looking out her back window at the wintry Ozark forest bunched up like a vast comforter, creeks and rivers and the occasional abandoned railroad track tucked in each crease. Only a few houses speckle the green expanse outside the window. Even those, she explains, are recent additions.

Practically free access to such land is, I imagine, the nature photographer’s dream. But Terra’s interest isn’t nature.

Here in the Ozarks, where you could walk for miles without encountering any sign of civilization, Terra uncovers and preserves images of striking humanity: a young woman, body slack with exhaustion, holding her moments-old child; a girl, bored, watching her father start her motorbike; a son lining up a hatchet as his father restrains the chicken. She documents the people around her—their families, their work, their lives—and collects it as part of a project titled Ozark Life.

Terra is the consummate observer, appearing just once in the hundreds of photos I pore over—and even then, only as a hand, reaching from out of frame, gripping a fish by the lip as her daughter withdraws, nose scrunched.

Terra’s reticence at being the object of observation makes sense, then. When I propose writing a piece about her, Terra pauses, then makes a counteroffer: I write the article, but only after she gets to photograph my family. We do, after all, live in the Ozarks, albeit in Fayetteville, one of the largest cities of the region. It’s a story of observers observed, she suggests.

I, too, hesitate.

BEING OBSERVED in daily life is a bit like trying not to think about a pink elephant. It’s easy to find yourself posing just slightly, or turning toward the camera to clarify the image. I recognize these same tendencies in the people I interview, who often speak more loudly, more formally, when I use a microphone, rather than a notepad.

In the Ozarks, though, it’s not just about self-consciousness—it’s about trust.

A few weeks before we meet, Terra visited Marshall, one of the larger towns just south of her, with a population barely topping a thousand. While there, she saw a man reading the Bible aloud on the street and approached him.

The man gladly shared that he was participating in an annual Bible marathon, in which families signed up for 15-minute time slots to read the Scripture cover to cover. It would take four full days. When Terra asked to take a picture, though, the man became uncomfortable.

“I don’t want trouble,” he said.

Perhaps mistrust of outsiders is a cultural hand-me-down of the homesteaders who settled these lands generations ago; perhaps it’s a product of political climate change. Either way, Terra says, the Bible reader’s reticence isn’t unusual.

Although she’s lived in the Ozarks for more than 10 years now, Terra still wouldn’t call herself a true insider. Thus, she enters the culture how anyone in a new place might: She asks to photograph people who feed her dog, strangers she runs into by chance, neighbors who need help plucking chickens. The community members who participate in her project grant her work credibility, making it easier to ask new people for access to their private lives.

Terra’s positioning, straddling the line between insider and outsider, is precisely what allows her images to develop both empathy and incisiveness. Unlike so many others behind a camera lens, she is a participant in her community rather than a voyeur.

TERRA HAS no formal degree in photography: she studied fish and wildlife in college, fought fires in Kansas, taught riding lessons in Minnesota, wrangled horses in Montana—all before publishing a single photo. Yet image has long given shape to her world, her moment.

Terra shows me a photo of a narrow trail carved between trees scorched limbless by wildfire. The trunks jut into the sky like massive chopsticks. Once, she recalls, while she led a hunting team caravan-style across a field of such trees in Montana, a front blew in. The roots had burnt to ash with the limbs, and anchorless trees began to topple all around the hunters. Dozens of already-fallen trunks, which had been cut and removed from the path by various travelers, hemmed in the horses to a single line. Terra describes riding through the field, eyes up, avoiding the tumbling death only by urging her horse forth or reining it in, unable to go anywhere but forward. One tree nearly struck her, cutting a line between her and the packhorse following only strides behind, like a knife tip between splayed fingers.

The way Terra tells it, such experiences predated her passion for photography. Yet her father’s Canon AE-1 film camera (“a tank,” she says) always hung in her saddlebag, along with spare film. With it, she captured landscapes in Montana, fires in Kansas and moments of beauty everywhere between.

“Pictures of streams and dusty horses are cool, but…”  Terra pauses, hands still in the air as though feeling for an invisible form. “I like to tell stories.”

I understand her discomfort in the explanation: Her evolving aesthetic is easier to see than to articulate. The photo from Montana is beautifully composed, but not much is happening. Had she not told me about the trees swinging down from the sky, I wouldn’t have recognized the danger belied in the image. When I look to her contemporary work, I find I need no captions, let alone long explanations over coffee. The image is sufficient.

AROUND TERRA’S town, getting anywhere takes time. So when she heads to a veterinary appointment because her dog has a limp, I tag along. Terra points out landmarks I would never notice—or know to notice—were I driving alone. We pass the horse she and her kids feed carrots to after school. We pass a local woman’s farmhouse, which acts as a hotel for dogs whose families travel. We pass the spot where Terra recently saw a couple loading a dead cow onto a trailer.

The vet’s office is a low-slung building just off the state road. Ahead of the appointment, Terra tells me she’s considering asking if the vet would mind being photographed. She doesn’t know yet whether today will provide the opportunity.

While Terra takes the dog outside to demonstrate his limp, which has suddenly vanished in his excitement to be watched, I sit in the tiny lobby.

On one wall, a floor-to-ceiling built-in shelf displays multigenerational photos of a family—I assume the vet’s. Interspersing the pictures are animal skulls, a jarred bovine fetus and various other preserved wonders. A giant fungus that looks to have been pried from a nearby tree leans beside a sign describing the various fatal properties of mushrooms. A black-and-white frame from the Western miniseries Lonesome Dove, signed by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, occupies pride of place on a central shelf.

As I examine the office, I consider how similar to Terra’s work my own seems to be. I take notes; Terra takes photos. I choose which details merit inclusion in an article—which jars displayed on the vet’s shelf tell the story I want to tell. Terra selects her favorite dozen photos from a hundred or more. In a literal sense, Terra and I are often absent from our final products. Yet the uncomfortable fact is this: The ones we observe don’t get to choose which notes or photos we preserve. The final story is the observer’s to tell.

I wonder if this is why both Terra and I are so hesitant to become the object of each other’s observation: To do so is to relinquish control of our own stories.

Terra buys a few boxes of medicine, and we load the dog back up in the car.

When I ask why she didn’t ask the vet about being photographed. Terra says today just didn’t feel right.

“Maybe next time,” she says.

We return home, find our places in the kitchen once more. The sun has risen, and suncatchers hooked to the curtain rods play in the light, twirling like tiny girls swishing new dresses. There at the table, Terra tells me the whole story of the dead cow.

A FEW weeks ago, Terra passed a cow, hooves-up on the side of the road. She made a mental note to return with her camera later in the day. When she did, she found a couple loading the cow onto a trailer.

“Turns out,” she says, “they hit the cow early that morning. Totaled their car.”

After dragging the animal off the road—no small feat—they called the farmer. In exchange for the wreck, the farmer agreed to let the couple take the cow to the butcher and keep the beef.

“You know, they don’t have insurance for the car,” she says. “But [now] they … have meat for a year.”

Terra tells this story carefully, as might an entomologist overturning a stone to find life pulsing underneath. She lets her first image (in this case, rural folk loading up roadkill) unfold into humanity. The process, the pace of her language, reveals cautiousness learned from observing a private people.

It’s easy for journalists to come from out of town, Terra says, and photograph people in a way that reinforces stereotypes. People around here, even given the inconsistent access to the internet, are painfully aware that an image can spread online, that a face or body captured can be used for almost any purpose.

I think of Amazonian tribesmen making first contact with Westerners decades ago, becoming frightened at the sight of Polaroids, afraid of how their likenesses might be used against them. Then I catch myself and think how popular that very story is, how even a people’s fear allows outsiders to exoticize them.

Terra’s work resists stereotype, as well as exoticism. The Ozark Mountains may be unfamiliar to many viewers, but the people inhabiting them are made familiar by how they run from lit bottle rockets, how they catch their children from the air, how they scan a pantry for inspiration.

“How do you tell the story of a community?” Terra asks. Can you be exhaustive? Can you discover the story beyond the roadkill? Not to mention who ought to be allowed to tell that story.

“Oh,” she remembers, “and the cow was pregnant!”

ALTHOUGH IN recent years, Terra has picked up photography techniques from various sources—the prestigious Missouri Photo Workshop, other photographers with whom she’s connected online, a mentorship through Women Photograph—perhaps most influential was her early feedback from the National Geographic Your Shot Community.

Editors for National Geographic accept photo submissions to the online community, occasionally commenting on standouts. Soon after the birth of her daughter, Terra submitted her first photo: her dog, swimming in the snowy woods. It was selected for the Daily Dozen. Since then, Terra has grown an avid following, and dozens of her photos have earned praise from editors, who often seem impressed with her ability to capture action unfolding from surprising angles.

“[The Your Shot Community] opened my eyes to family documentary photography,” she says. For years, she continued to practice. She found her work, her interests, changing.

After shooting her daughter’s recent birthday, for instance, Terra discovered she hadn’t thought to snap the usual picture of her daughter blowing out the candles. Instead, she found a reel of moments dictated as much by lighting as the day’s schedule.

“The everyday documentary stuff just speaks to me more [than clichéd photo-worthy moments],” she says. It’s underneath the mundane, she finds, that the stories of real people begin to come into focus, to sharpen.

THE WEEK after I visit Terra, I invite her to my apartment. She comes during a weekend, when our schedule is determined by our children’s moods. My wife and I have a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old, and we spend our first hours together making breakfast and talking. Our baby, Atticus, plays peekaboo with Terra behind a chair. Our oldest, Idris, keeps taking photos on her camera, watching his family materialize on the viewing screen.

Soon after she arrives, though, Terra becomes nearly invisible to the children. It’s a skill I recognize: a requirement for careful observation. She sits on chairs, on the couch, on the floor, and snaps photos, sometimes aiming from the waist, sometimes using the viewfinder to frame the shot.

“[I take photos] if I see something about to unfold,” she tells me. “You have to watch people, or study them in a way, to know something is going to happen.”

She is already lifting the camera as I pour a glass of wine and my son teeters on a stool nearby. The next moment, I catch him midfall around the waist with one hand, holding my glass aloft in the other, and the camera’s shutter captures the moment with a sound like cards shuffling.

TERRA SNAPS one picture at our apartment in which I’m pouring out the water from a pot of boiled eggs. A window lights me from behind, and steam turns the room around me gauzy. It’s beautiful.

While Terra follows us, though, I wonder if we’re like the dog at the vet, hiding our limp. We cleaned the apartment before she arrived. It was no more than we would clean for any guest, but even that calibration feels artificial. How much cleaning is the “real” or “right” amount?

The fact that motivates all this introspection: When Terra enters our apartment, thousands of eyes follow. Perhaps that’s appropriate, though, since thousands of eyes follow me into her home.

I wonder, too, about the Bible reader in Marshall, or the couple loading up the dead pregnant cow on the side of the road, or any number of the people Terra has photographed. The exchange between Terra and them isn’t so balanced. Terra and I can each tell our stories of the other. For farmers, factory workers, hunters, teachers, the question remains: Can she tell their story for them without taking it from them? Can anyone?

A week after she visits us, when she sends me my family’s “story”—12 sequential photos capturing our life—Terra has kept the frame right after the hazy one: the steam has dissipated, and my arms, holding the pot of eggs, create a frame for my children playing at the table in the background. Looking at the photo, I think I understand why she has earned the trust of so many neighbors and strangers. Terra’s work resists the obvious; it waits patiently for the illuminating. When she captures my son throwing a tantrum at the grocery store, me ladling ramen into a bowl, my wife cocooning her face in her hands as our children scatter toys across the just-cleaned apartment, I realize we are not made objects for observation; we are made human.