Several months ago, I attended Ringling College of Art’s Senior Photography Thesis. Among the projects students spent weeks and some months on, was Ari Gabel’s photo series of the people of the Mississippi Delta. I enjoyed peeking at the folks that he’d captured and the interview clip he provided, but also that the project didn’t go as planned, he’d described. He originally headed to Mississippi to photograph the place that had given the world the blues, music he was very inspired by. However, upon his arrival he found something very different. I introduced myself to him that night to compliment him on his work, but also knowing that not too far down the road I was going to ask for an interview. And sure enough, here we are. Thanks for your time, Ari.
*Also, today I have a little something different for you: the actual interview recording. I finally have a digital recorder, one with sound quality good enough to share with the ears of others. I hope you enjoy seeing and hearing Gabel’s words.
**Also, also, Gabel is slated to speak about his travels to Mississippi in January during one of our Travelogues. Stay tuned for details.
Okay, when did you first pick up a camera?
I first picked up a camera that my stepdad gave when I was a sophomore in high school, at an air show in Dayton.
My stepdad thought I would enjoy having a camera to fool around with and it ended up becoming something I really enjoyed.
Uh, was it digital?
It was a film camera. A Minolta 35mm.
That’s awesome. Did you have access to a darkroom?
Or you just–
–in my high school class I did.
Which I took the next year. And quit playing sports, and found that the arts were more important. So it was pretty, pretty cool.
Yeah. Um, do you take more photos with your camera or your phone on a daily basis?
Your camera? Do you carry it around with you?
For the most part, yeah.
Every once in a while I will leave it at home. I’m scared of it getting stolen. In my car.
It’s a big worry.
What are the kinds of things that strike you enough to pull out your camera?
An interesting person, I would have to say. Yeah.
What was the last thing that you took a picture of?
Your girlfriend? Was it today?
I haven’t taken any pictures today.
No? Before, a couple minutes ago, you mentioned you haven’t been shooting lately. Why would you say you haven’t been?
Um, well, to be honest I guess it would be lack of interest in Sarasota for the most part. And really interested in continuing my two series and being able to work on those. But being here, kind of prevents that for now. And when I go out shooting here, I just really want to be shooting there and actually working towards a body of work that I want to finish.
How do you think being a photographer affects the rest of your life?
[Laughs] How do you think being a photographer affects the rest of your life?
Wow. That’s a pretty hard question. Um, I guess I’ll always be seeing photos that I will be wanting to take. I don’t know. That’s a hard question. Let me think about that one.
I’ll think of a better answer.
Sure. [Laughs] I mean, we can always come back to it. Can you tell me a bit about your thesis project?
My thesis was, started out as a series about the Mississippi Delta, but mostly about the blues. That’s what interests me in the area, I would have to say. After my first trip to Mississippi, um, I found out that no one was really interested in the blues, that still lived in Mississippi. And it was a really big bummer. I almost didn’t continue the project after my first five days there. I came back and my professors and a visiting artist from Chicago, after talking to him, he told me your first time you ever take a trip somewhere for a project it is full of failures. So, I decided to take one more trip. And my second trip was amazing. And I continued photographing it, and then it evolved into, uh, photographing the area and the people that influenced such an interesting genre of music, at least for me, before it left for Chicago. And it’s still around a bit, but it’s dying off. So, that’s a brief preview I guess about what the series is about.
An area of people. And music.
Do you think that the second trip being more successful was because you knew more of what you were looking for?
Most definitely. It was a matter of knowing where to go and having a little more research into why I failed the first time, and being able to contact the people I met the first time who helped me out on my second trip a lot more. So, it was a big help researching ahead of time, I guess.
And knowing where the series was really gonna go instead of having really high expectations for something that doesn’t exist anymore.
Um, what like, who would you say was helping you out on the second time around?
Um, a gentleman named David Caldwell in Holly Springs, Mississippi. He uh, I met him on my first trip. It was the most successful like, time, I guess I had on my first trip. He introduced me to a lot of nice people, and then the first place I went to on my second trip was right back to his home slash record store-thing. And, again, I met amazing people. And people who were friends with him helped me a lot. So, I think David Caldwell–
–would be the best person.
Just a member of that community that you were kind of floating around in.
Yeah, I actually saw him in a documentary–
–from 2000, called The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen. And I was like- after my first trip, I was like, ‘we have to go here.’ My friend and I. I was like, ‘I don’t think it exists anymore, but let’s go see.’ The first place I saw, driving into Holly Springs was his studio in an alley. I was blown away that he was outside. He’s a great guy.
That’s awesome. Um, I feel like I have a general understanding of why you say the first trip didn’t work out as planned, but do you want to tell me in case I’m assuming the wrongs things?
Um, the first trip didn’t work out as planned. I, well, I thought of the series laying in bed one night listening to music and I was like, well, this is kind of what I want to do for my thesis. So, I decided to call my friend during my winter break, I had a month like, without school, and him and I decided to drive to Mississippi overnight. I had a little bit of research, had some places I wanted to go to, but no people lined up to talk to, like nothing. I had an idea of what I thought I would find. And when I got there, I didn’t find any of that. So, I think that’s why I got really bummed out. And it was raining the whole time.
Which didn’t help it.
Yeah, a damper on things.
Um, so in one sentence, what were you looking for?
People playing the blues.
In one sentence what did you find?
A lot of sad people. I think a group of sad people. But, I don’t know if I like that answer. It makes it sound really sad, but I found a group of strong people holding together each other. Great communities.
Definitely. Um, I’m sure that, you know, there’s a lot of joy there as well.
Looking differently than you thought it might look, you know, people they’re not one-sided.
And it’s a different kind of happiness that, that neighbors in a community of people give each other. It’s a lot of holding together, I guess. That’s how, I think they all stay happy. A gentleman, I think, the best, like, conversation I had was actually a guy who didn’t remember me the second trip because he was so messed up on drugs and alcohol, but he told me the reason he left Chicago was because he’d rather be poor and be with his family in Mississippi than be poor and lonely in Chicago. So that’s why, his reasoning for moving back to Mississippi and leaving Chicago. And I think that was really, a really strong statement that he’s still poor but at least he has his friends and family.
That hold him together.
That’s interesting. Um, what was it like getting these folks to trust you enough to let you take their photo?
Um, I think it took time. Like, I wouldn’t say that much time, but time actually showing interest in their day to day life, and not just like, trying to exploit somebody for their look or their color or a lot of other things, but actually being genuinely interested in who they are. And the area they live in and grew up in. The music they all grew up with.
That makes a lot of sense. A little bit of time to take down that wall.
That’s really interesting. Um, what does it feel like for you when you’re trying to take a stranger’s photo?
Um, I’m actually really shy, so it’s really hard for me to break down my own wall to go and ask somebody to take their photo. Like, I can think of a lot of photos that I probably missed out on just because I was really shy or too scared of asking somebody, but I guess it gets easier every time you go out and do it. So, I guess it’s really hard for me to, uh, ask stranger’s to take their photos. But, for some reason a lot of people end up trusting me to do it. So. Which is nice.
Maybe the shyness translates to earnestness.
Yeah, I guess it could.
Uh, what are you working on currently?
[Laughs] Or thinking of working on currently. What do you have up in the attic?
Finishing my Ohio series. The Ohio River Valley series that has currently been on my mind since I- almost finished my thesis. I wouldn’t say it’s done, because it’s not. The Ohio series is more comfortable for me. I guess it’s a level of comfortness of knowing the area a lot better than knowing Mississippi. So, right now, that’s what I wanna finish.
Okay. And will that be covering, um, people- is that involving people as well, or can you describe that a little bit more?
Yeah. The, um, the Ohio series is about, I guess, well, it’s about the Ohio River Valley. And I did it for my independent study, so I did it for like, one semester last year for my thesis. It originally was gonna evolve to my thesis. And then I realized it was more important to me to like, hold off on it, because what I really want to get out of it is to being able to spend time with families for longer periods than like, a weekend or a day. And actually gaining a lot more trust in communities than I could’ve gained while being in school. And that series is about, well the Ohio River Valley runs from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to southern Indiana where it empties into the Mississippi. And the areas along the river from Pittsburgh, to- Pittsburgh, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, that whole area has been, like, I guess has been declining in livelihood and becoming more impoverished year after year after year from loss of coal mining, loss of other jobs and, like, Ohio’s agriculture and the use of the Ohio River has like, I guess gone down in, in time. Like, it used to be super highway into the Mississippi and coal and I guess natural power sources would be sent to the south, but the past years have been so polluted by nuclear power that a lot of families either have nowhere to work or nowhere to live and it’s a pretty interesting issue in the area that like, I wouldn’t say I support coal mining, but in a way, the decline of coal mining is ruining a lot of people’s lives. Especially in West Virginia and southern Kentucky. Like, these people have nowhere else to work in these one mile, two mile towns that a coal mine is the only place you can get a job. And a grandfather and his dad worked in a coal mine and now, what’s the son supposed to do, work in, like, a pizza place because he’s too scared to leave the only place he’s ever known. And that’s, like, a big issue in these areas that, like, they’re so used to growing up in these communities that are one mile, two mile, three miles long that a big city is so overwhelming and scary to them. And they have no money to go to a big city, and the education isn’t really there. So, I feel, I guess, very strongly about that series because I’m from Ohio, and I wouldn’t say I’m from anywhere near where these people are from, I guess, three hours west, to the closest area. But, I started that series because I would drive through that area every year, like, five times a year and be so amazed by the nuclear power plants and the river, and these little, tiny, beautiful towns. And I see them as I get older, dying off and becoming worse and worse, and people, meeting so many sad people that I feel like I, hope that’d I’d be able to help or at least show their stories and represent them in a nicer light than I think the media and other people represent Appalachia in a way. Yeah.
Thank you. So, that’s what I wanna work on.
That’s really great. I, uh, one of the things I was thinking of when you were saying, coal mining, I recently watched a documentary, I think it’s called, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.
I actually had a chance to meet the Whites–
–but I had to go back to school.
Ah. I, uh, just, you know, there’s an interview with like, one of the sister’s, like, husband or ex-husband and, like, his cousin or something and they’re taking about being coal miners and how their fathers were and they are and that’s what you do. That’s what they know, and that’s really interesting.
I mean, yeah, that’s what a lot of people know. I spent, I think, one of the most interesting ladies I spoke to, her name was Wilma Rose and, uh, in Pennsylvania. She was having a garage sale and her garage was, like, super interesting. It was full of old coal mining equipment, and her husband died a couple years back and he was a coal miner. And he got his GI Bill after World War II and he still didn’t need to work anymore. He was getting paid coming back from the war and he was like, ‘Nah, I’m gonna go back to the coal mines.’ She told me stories and stories for hours and him coming home before the coal mines had showers and all she could see were his teeth and–
–the white of his eyes. He would shower and ruin their white, porcelain shower. And it was just great hearing these stories from people that experienced such an interesting time in America. But, she wouldn’t let me photograph her.
No? But you did ask her?
I did ask her. She wouldn’t let me. She said that she’s too old and that’d I’d break her-she’d break my camera. But she let me take a picture of the garage and I think the picture of the garage says everything that I really wanted to say about her.
That’s wonderful that you got to spend a chunk of time with her.
And hear these bits that she gave you.
Yeah. A lot of really nice people in that area. A lot of really nice people everywhere.
People just don’t give places a shot.
It seems like you have a thing for places.
Where do you think that came from?
I’ve talked about this. After a long conversation with my teacher last year, him helping I think figure out where, like, my work would go after graduation and, like, what I’m actually, really interested in, um, he started calling me a ‘preservationist’, and I think things that are dying off or almost nonexistent are more interesting to me than things that are easy to access and still around. And I think the places aspect of it, I guess not really experiencing those things where I grew up. I grew up in a town that’s full of middle class to wealthy people in Columbus, Ohio, and I wasn’t sheltered, but I didn’t grow up in these amazing places and meet all these incredibly interesting people that, or at least that I find incredibly interesting, who have these stories of generations and generations of families and real middle America. I guess. I think that’s what really intrigues me, to kinda preserve somebody’s story that might not be here in the next ten years.
Um, so we’ve talked about, or you’ve told stories about some really positive interactions you’ve had with people and gaining trust and everything, um, is there anything that stands out to you that, like, a negative experience you might’ve had along the way?
There’s always the–
In, uh, in Mississippi, I would have to say the racism really bummed me out. It’s really, people don’t really realize it. I mean, everyone knows in Mississippi the racism used to be really bad, but like, people think it’s changed but I don’t think it really has changed very much. I think the same families that have run Mississippi still run Mississippi with their wealth, and you cross one side of train tracks in these little towns of Mississippi and it’s completely segregated. I went to a cafe for lunch complete, like, right next door to the alley right where David Caldwell’s shop is and this white family owned this cafe and she told me that I was brave for even going into the alley. Because she clearly decided to never even venture into that alley to talk to anyone that’s not her color. I was like, I looked at her and I was like, ‘Im brave? What do you mean? They’re the nicest people I’ve ever met.’ Like, they didn’t know who I was. They welcomed me in. They allowed me to go to a funeral. I wouldn’t say I was brave. I think that’s just ignorance or being scared and hearing stories of Mississippi, like, from David about the racism that’s still around and that he still experiences every day. I think that it’s just really sad. And also, uh, I was driving in Mississippi and I stopped at a gas station and two white gentleman growled at me and told me to leave.
Oh my gosh.
Because they clearly weren’t- I wasn’t welcome in their town.
It was interesting. I don’t know. I guess they don’t really like visitors. And then in Ohio, I wouldn’t say it’s a negative experience, I mean, I guess kind of, a lot of people weren’t really into me taking photos of a lot of things that I wish I was able to, like inside this bar in Ravenswood, West Virginia. It was a bookies bar, so I wasn’t allowed to take any photos because a lot of illegal things happened in it. But one gentleman allowed me to take his photo outside. So, a negative–
Something still positive in there.
–balanced with positive. Yeah.
Um, what is something that you hope to accomplish in the next two years? I don’t know why I chose two instead of one, but for this–
A better mass of time, I think. Um.
[Laughs] More wiggle room.
Yeah. I’d like to be able to finish at least one of the series. Probably the Ohio series. Find somebody to possibly give me a show. And lately I’ve been really interested in book publications. Either publish a zine or publish some sort of book that’s not Blurb. a real, nice book. Hopefully do that. We’ll see. High hopes.
Yeah. And zines have come a long way. You can put together something really nice these days.
Oh, yeah. I agree. I tried to start a zine last, two years ago and I ended up doing most of the work, so..
Same here. It’s really hard.
So, I had to stop because school, and the people who I started doing it with didn’t help me much, so I just couldn’t handle to workload. But, yeah, I’m very interested in zines and a lot of my friends, at least in the photo world are publishing zines and that’s pretty much what they do for- they don’t even take that many photos anymore. They have blogs and zines and things like that.
Interesting. Uh, what about five years?
Five years, wow. It’s hard to even imagine five years down the road. Hopefully be working as a photographer and being able to support myself with photography instead of another job, but It think that’s really the goal. Be able to have my passions support my life. And, yeah. I think that’s it.
And have all that stuff finished, and hopefully people are interested in it. Which, I hope. I don’t know. There are a lot of people that aren’t really interested in the work I do. Or at least, I haven’t found that many people interested in it. Europeans are interested in it.
‘Cause they like seeing Americana. And Americans aren’t really interested in America. They’re interested in other things. That’s an opinion, so..
[Laughs] No! Um, I guess you’ll find your audiences as you go along.
I’m not trying to, like, tell you– I’m telling myself as much as I’m telling you, you know? Like, uh, not everyone is going to want to hear what you have to say. Maybe it’ll be a smaller group, but they’ll really be listening.
You’ll find larger groups elsewhere. Like Europeans. [Laughs]
Yeah. That’s what I’m hoping for.
Um, do you wanna circle back around to that question, that was, uh, ‘how do you think being a photographer affects the rest of your life?’
Hmm. I’m really thinkin’ about this one. How being a photographer affects the rest of my life. I think it’s interesting to be able to work on something I love. and be passionate about something that I’ve been passionate about for, since I was in high school. And do that instead of, hopefully do that instead of another job or to be able to meet so many interesting people. I think that’s a big thing for me. Using photography to meet a lot of interesting people. And amazing people being photographing them, or just in the art world, or just in general. I feel like it’s let me meet a lot of people that I probably wouldn’t meet any other time. So, hopefully, that’s how it will affect my life. I get to meet a lot of people, and a lot of benefits from being a photographer, I think instead of another job that I might not be that interested in. Or it might venture into something else. And then, go back to your five years, I hope to be in my, I hope to do a Master’s program somewhere.
Yeah. Not positive on what I wanna do. Not sure if photography is really what I want to get my Master’s in. Uh, so, yeah. I guess add that to the five year plan.
[Laughs] Slide it on in there.
I’m sure whatever you get your Master’s in, you’ll definitely gonna be able to apply with photography. Im sure they’re gonna–
Yeah, that’s the plan.
They’re definitely gonna overlap. Um, what was I going to say? Oh– you saying that photography has allowed you to meet a lot of people, and then also, in the beginning talking about that you’re pretty shy. Do you think that photography has helped given you an outlet– in that way?
Oh, yeah, definitely.
–in that way?
It’s, uh, I think that the people who are also involved in photography or in art or making blogs or graphic design or any of those things, I think it gives us a common, a common subject to start conversation or talk about and maybe we realize that we have a lot of other things in common. It’s like, it’s a good thing to break down the barrier of shyness. I think a lot of artists are really shy. And I think their art allows them to, like, break out from that shyness or their own little shell for that little period of time. So. I think that’s really cool.
Definitely. Okay. Uh, finish these sentences. ‘I am always…’
[Laughs] Oh, man. I’m really bad at this.
I am always… listening to records, I guess. Or looking for records. I buy a lot of records.
What was the last record you bought?
The last record I bought?
Uh, Canned Heat – Future Blues. I think that was the last record I bought. I’ve had records given to me in the last couple days.
But, the last record I bought was that and Ray Charles.
Awesome. Uh, ‘I can’t stand when…’
People are judgmental.
‘I wish I would…’
[Laughs] I wish I would… um, let’s see. I wish I would take photos more. I think that’s a good goal. I haven’t– I don’t really take photos ever, anymore. I’ve been taking a break from it.
I took, like, two pictures all summer. That’s, like, three months. [Laughs] It’s bad.
I think this is my first interview since, like, December.
So, sometimes you need it. Not like you’re not doing anything creative or artistic during that period, but you’re not working on the thing that you’re usually working on.
Mmhmm. And I also wish I’d stay more organized.
Also an admirable goal.
I’m pretty bad at it. Yeah.
Awesome. That concludes the interview. Thank you, Sir Ari.
Photo by Kenneth Sterling Gronquist