“Portraits of strangers: It is so hard at first. My hands shook, my voice cracked, but I survived and realized that most everyone says yes and enjoys it. Now I am addicted to the surprise of photographing someone.”
Tammy Mercure is a contemporary photographer from the USA. In her work she’s dealing with the cultural and social identity of the South. Her series “Cavaliers” is an ongoing visual exploration of her surroundings. Tammy Mercure recently received the honour to be mentioned as one “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine. For Tammy Mercure photography is like a ticket to get in contact with people she finds interesting.
“The South is what we started out with in this bizarre, slightly troubling, basically wonderful country – fun, danger, friendliness, energy, enthusiasm, and brave, crazy, tough people.”
Bill Maxwell, “There’s no place like the South”
“Since 2008, I have been photographing some of the louder events in the Southeast United States. They have ranged from NASCAR races with 160,000 attendees to a group of 20 people recreating the stations of the cross. These events seem to show this area’s collective love of history and the land and their fierce independent spirit.”
Interview with Tammy Mercure
Tammy, in an ongoing project called “Cavaliers” you are dealing with the South of the US. Why did you decide to take on this subject and what it is about?
I moved to Tennessee in 2007 and have continued to photograph what interests me and is around me. It changes, but right now, I really enjoy going to big events that revolve around a singular aspect like a car race or cosplay. My favorite thing about this area is people tend to be really passionate about a hobby or their thing. I plan on living in the Southeast for the forseeable future. I find it easy to be myself around here.
After you’d decided to take on the subject, how did you decide on the question of how to resolve it photographically, so that form would match content?
I don’t really come up with a project first. I try to go along with anything I am interested in. I don’t do well if I have preconceived notions while I am out photographing. I want to engage and react when I am out and then think about it when I get home. I do my best to let the photos guide me to the next thing.
Being from the South yourself it’s also an investigation of your own identity. What have you learned about yourself and your roots along the way?
“I think it is becoming harder to stay in small areas and I think a lot will be lost because of this.”
I am actually from Iowa. I often have older people here tell me I sound like their newscaster because of my nasally accent. I lived in East TN for over six years and thought about the similarities in being from a smaller more rural community. It is an interesting time for small communities because of the economy and culture. I think it is becoming harder to stay in small areas and I think a lot will be lost because of this.
When considering regional dispositions, I am attracted to the performative aspects of Southern culture. Midwesterners, on a whole, tend to be a little more quiet.
At the beginning of each project one often has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Is that the case with “Cavaliers”?
With this project, I actually stopped thinking about an over-arching theme for a while. It has been pretty liberating to shoot whatever catches my fancy. Then weeks or years later, I can group the work together in different ways. For example, I can put my photographs from bull riding together with MMA photos to look at extreme athletics or the bull riding photos can go with images of the Kentucky Derby to look at how we interact with animals. It is really fun for me this way.
Susan Sontag once said “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”. How has photography changed the way you look at the world and what have you learnt about yourself?
“I like having a genuine moment of exchange with someone, however brief it may be.”
I love photography because it is an easy medium to relate to. Everyone has taken a photo before and see so many. I hope that the work engages people to spend a little time with them in some capacity. It is probably both photography and being in my 30s that makes me more interested in people. I like having a genuine moment of exchange with someone, however brief it may be.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
I think going to grad school was the biggest step. It gave me the time to really devote all my energy to photography and figure out what I could cut out of my life to have time for it. Once I got into the groove of shooting so much, I’ll never go back to less and I am willing to fight for my time.
Another landmark would be deciding I was going to be okay taking portraits of strangers. It is so hard at first. My hands shook, my voice cracked, but I survived and realized that most everyone says yes and enjoys it. Now I am addicted to the surprise of photographing someone.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
Q: What other photographers do you get excited about?
A: There is so much great work going right now and luckily it is easy to get in contact with people. I love the work of Zak Arctander, Elle Perez, Tara Wray, Noelle McCleaf, and Stacy Kranitz; just to name a few.