Living History
Tony Arruzas Offshore Interests

Photos © 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.

Getting Familiar
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."

Note: You can see more of Tony's photography of the sea islands on his web site, 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.

"It's funny," 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 them out."

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."