© 2003, Tony Arruza, All Rights Reserved
The assignment from Endless
Vacation magazine was to photograph the Gullah and Geechee people of
the sea islands off Georgia and South Carolina. "The magazine
was interested in portraying a people who live and work in much the
same way as their ancestors," says Florida-based commercial and
editorial photographer Tony Arruza.
The Gullah and Geechee are
descendants of West African slaves who were brought to America to work
the cotton plantations and develop rice crops. Because of the relative
isolation of the sea islands, much of their culture is intact today, especially
on Sapelo Island, Georgia, and St. Helena Island, South Carolina.
Finding the people wasn't the hard part; the islands are tourist
attractions, after all. It was gaining their confidence that took some
time. "The hardest part of the job was getting people to accept
me," Tony says. "When I made my initial phone calls there
was skepticism and some refusals, and I knew I'd have a hard time
breaking through. But I found that the more time I spent on the islands,
the more comfortable the people got with me."
One of the locals on Sapelo
Island gave him some good advice. "He told me not to carry my cameras
at first. He said to spend a few days just walking around Hog Hammock,
which is the area where most of the locals live. Talk to the people, he
said, and get to know them. Let them see who you are, and be honest about
what you want to do."
Little by little Tony became accepted. "I'd go to their homes
and sit and talk with them for a long time before even mentioning pictures."
From their stories and the research he'd done, Tony learned about
their lives. "They were good at planting rice and cotton,"
he says, "and they were the first people to use indigo to create
blue color for fabrics. They were the first to show us how to weave casting
nets for sea fishing. After the civil war and emancipation, many of the
people were offered the land for the cost of the taxes, and they settled
there. The families there now are the direct descendants of those people."
A Delicate Balance
The fact that Tony was working on an assignment and was not a tourist
made it a little harder for him. "The people were not sure who was
publishing the pictures and what they would be used for. They were scared
that people would see the beautiful place they lived and developers would
want to come and take the land from them. It's always in the back
of their minds that something like that could happen." In fact,
it has happened on other sea islands where resorts and tourism have made
the land so valuable that the residents can no longer afford to live there.
"St. Helena and Sapelo are two places where they've retained
their land," Tony says. "They fish and farm and they make
sweetgrass baskets they sell to tourists, so it's a fine line for
them: they need help in keeping and preserving their land, so publicity
is important, but there's always that fear that the land will be
developed and they'll have to leave."
Tony made three trips to the
islands, each lasting about two weeks. On the third visit he attended
a Sapelo Island festival and brought prints to many of the people he'd
previously photographed. He plans on going back.
"I love going there," Tony says. "It's a beautiful
area, and the people are wonderful."
can see more of Tony's photography of the sea islands on his web
Check under "Recent Work.
About The Photographs
The black and white images were made with a Hasselblad 500C, fitted with
either an 80 or a 150mm lens, on Kodak T-Max 100; the color with a Nikon
F5 and lenses from an 18mm up to a 300mm, on Fujichrome Velvia 50 (RVP)
or Ektachrome 100S or 100VS.
Why medium format for black and white? "For the discipline of it,"
Tony says. "When I want to work slower, to take my time, I work
with the larger format. I'll even use 4x5.
he adds, "but when the magazine first contacted me they said they
wanted the story entirely shot in color. After I did my research, I thought,
some of the people I'm going to be photographing, if I can get to
them, will be close to 100 years old or more, and I'd love to do
black and white portraits of them. I thought the black and whites would
look a lot more intimate. So the magazine said shoot in color for the
most part, and if you want to add black and white, go ahead. When they
saw all the pictures, they ended up doing the story in black and white."
Tony also carried a Polaroid SX-70 camera with him. "When someone
gave me permission to photograph, I'd take a few Polaroids and hand
Once Tony became known among the people, weather was his only problem.
"I ran into a little bit of everything. The hot, bright days were
the toughest because of the contrasty situation when you're working
with dark-skinned people. I much preferred overcast and gray.
"Rainy days I don't mind because rain showers are usually
followed by beautiful light and everything is shiny and clean. It's
like a nice softbox over the entire sky."