A Glance on the WorldEugene Richards
The Day I Was Born: Life in the Arkansas Delta

After finishing college and protesting the Vietnam War, in 1968 Eugene Richards joined VISTA—Volunteers in Service to America—a government anti-poverty organization. After working first as a social worker, then reporter, he began to photograph extensively in the Arkansas Delta. He reported in depth on the lives of the residents of this impoverished, still racially-divided region. Richards began photographing the Black sharecropper families of the Delta, who were the poorest of the poor, largely cut off from the rest of society, sick, and malnourished. Hunger and untreated illness were the major concerns. After leaving VISTA and helping found a community newspaper, Many Voices, he photographed protest marches, the increasing violence, the lives of inmates in Arkansas’ notorious prisons.

In 2010, 40 years after his initial visit to the Delta, National Geographic sent him there on assignment. He struggled, though, to find the places he had known so well. The segregated sharecropping culture that once typified the region had been all but eclipsed by industrial farming. There were tractors, where once there were people working in the fields by hand. People had to move elsewhere in search of better lives.

The last time Richards returned to the area was in 2019. He was struck by an overwhelming sense of absence. No men and women picking cotton. The sharecropper shacks that had been there 50 years prior had vanished. Once there had been four or five of them every couple of miles — tin roofs, plastic sheeting over the windows, front yards rutted with tire tracks, littered with rusted-out cars, bed springs, things that once meant a lot to someone, but didn’t any longer.

Eugene Richards, photographer, writer, and filmmaker, was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1944. After graduating from Northeastern University with a degree in English, he studied photography with art photographer Minor White. In 1968, he joined VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, a government program established as an arm of the so-called “War on Poverty.” Following a year and a half in eastern Arkansas, Richards helped found a social service organization and a community newspaper, Many Voices, which reported on black political action as well as the Ku Klux Klan. Photographs he made during these four years were published in his first monograph, Few Comforts or Surprises: The Arkansas Delta.

Upon returning to Dorchester, Richards began to document the changing, racially diverse neighborhood where he was born. After being invited to join Magnum Photos in 1978, he worked increasingly as a freelance magazine photographer, undertaking assignments on such diverse topics as the American family, drug addiction, emergency medicine, pediatric AIDS, aging and death in America. In 1992, he directed and shot Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue, the first of seven short films he would eventually make.

Eugene Richards has authored seventeen books. Exploding Into Life, which chronicles his first wife Dorothea Lynch’s struggle with breast cancer, received Nikon’s Book of the Year award. For Below The Line: Living Poor in America, his documentation of urban and rural poverty, Richards received an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography. The Knife & Gun Club: Scenes from an Emergency Room received an Award of Excellence from the American College of Emergency Physicians. Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue, an extensive reportorial on the effects of hardcore drug usage, received the Kraszna-Krausz Award for Photographic Innovation in Books. That same year, Americans We was the recipient of the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Best Photographic Book. In 2005, Pictures of the Year International chose The Fat Baby, an anthology of fifteen photographic essays, Best Book of the year. Richards’s most recent books include The Blue Room, a study of abandoned houses in rural America; War Is Personal, an assessment in words and pictures of the human consequences of the Iraq war, that was exhibited at the Festival of Ethical Photography in 2011; Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down is a remembrance of life in the Arkansas Delta. Published in 2020, the day i was born tells the stories of six men and women who are living out their lives in the starkly beautiful, memory-laden Mississippi Delta of Arkansas.


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