Aaron R. Turner uses photography as a transformative process to understand the ideas of home and resilience in two main areas of the U.S., the Arkansas and Mississippi deltas. But in his exhibit "Yesterday Once More," on show through April 3 at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, he's also selected books related to his subject and his inspirations that will be available for patrons to review in the space, and he has curated a playlist that can be accessed via a smartphone while visiting the exhibition.
"A lot of times people move through an exhibition quickly," Turner says, "but by providing curated music and books, I hope to encourage people to stay in the space for an extended, immersive experience. Even though the exhibition contains all photography, it's really not about photography, but more so about the way in which we all move through time and have shared experiences."
Turner received his M.A. from Ohio University and an M.F.A from Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, and is now an assistant professor in the School of Art at the University of Arkansas. He received a 2021 Houston Center for Photography Fellowship and a 2020 Artist 360 Mid-America Arts Alliance Grant, among other honors.
Turner took time to answer four questions for What's Up! Answers have been edited for space.
Q. Where did you grow up? What was your family like? What was your everyday life like?
A. I grew up in the Arkansas Delta, right on the edge of it if you consider a specific geographical location, in West Memphis, Ark. The area is close to Memphis, Tenn., and northern West Mississippi, so I spent a lot of time in those areas.
My family was similar to a lot of people in that area. Both my parents worked, and economically we were somewhere in the middle; my mom worked in the medical field on the admin side of things, and my dad was an architect with his small firm out of Memphis. He worked all over Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi.
I remember going places with my parents and running into their old friends from high school, college and church. You always stop to say hello and see how people are doing. The conversation could be brief or at length, but from that, I learned what it meant to have a community of people you're familiar with. My parents also never really met a stranger, especially my dad. He'd always go out of his way to talk to anyone, it seemed, and I saw my mom make lifelong friends with people over the years. I always remember driving out to Marion, Jeanette, Lancing, Earl, Turell, Proctor, Hughes, Crawfordsville, and Parkin on a larger scope of family. The family occupied all of these places. They were people who farmed, school teachers, factory workers, retail, entrepreneurs, doctors, you name it. Like everyone else, we tried our best to treat everyone right, help when we could, and find some honest way to care for ourselves and our family.
Every day involved everyday things such as going to school, church, grocery shopping, including the small farmer vendors you'd see on the side of the road in those gravel parking lots. It was just about resilience and survival, the passing down of traditions and values, faith and love.
Q. How does the land tell the story of humanity in a way portraits of people can't?
A. One way I can answer that from my perspective is the sense of familiarity you get from being in a place you've occupied for a significant amount of time. There's nothing I enjoy more than driving around or walking around without the use of G.P.S. There is a sense of independence or comfort when traveling without those things. You can use landmarks and react to your instincts that come from memory. This is what I experience when I visit the Arkansas Delta region now; this is what motivates me to take pictures of the land. I'm sitting around, and I remember that one gravel road we used to travel down to get to this family member's house. You remember textures, smells, the light and time of day, evenings in that same place. All of my senses come into play, and my desire to make images is for other people to experience the same things or be a reminder of their sense of place regarding the landscape.
Q. Talk about the books and music you've added to the exhibition. What inspired that choice? And what do you hope they add to the viewing experience?
A. The idea of how things relate or influence is the motivating factor behind the music and books from several different perspectives. ... I included all three of Eugene Richards' books about Arkansas to date in the exhibition, which are: "Few Comforts Or Surprises: The Arkansas Delta" (1973), "Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down" (2018) and "The Day I Was Born" (2020). ... Knowing about Eugene Richards' work is essential for me and, I think, the state of Arkansas too. That's why I further contextualize his photographs with other photographers that made pictures in Arkansas, Geleve Grice and Mike Disfarmer, [and] another photographer from the Northwest Arkansas area, Deborah Luster.
As for the music, it's the thing the images can't do -- put you in this immersive sense of feeling. Some of the songs reference the title of the exhibition, "Yesterday Once More," so I included the song "Yesterday" by Big K.R.I.T., in which he speaks about the memory of his grandmother and the lessons she taught him. The song reminds me of the one grandmother I did grow up with and is still living. ... Songs like "Tribute" by Robert Glasper and "How Many Years" by Yebba extend those thoughts on grief and losing someone close. My parents are no longer living, so those songs help contemplate specific experiences.
My hope is for viewers ... to build a space to slow down and consider, apart from all of our busy daily lives.
Q. What do you hope viewers take away from seeing the exhibition?
A. I'll bring up those words again -- resilience, music, love, grief, and empathy. If they take away any of the terms in some form, that would mean a lot to me. I also hope they take away the fact that their community matters. Don't be afraid to get out and record the story of a family member or neighbor through images, an audio device, or music. Collect it, and pass it down. ... The photos will have much more meaning or an entirely different impact in the future.