Essay: Jerome Foundation Fellowship

by Tia-Simone Gardner

(This essay was written for the 2021-22 Jerome Foundation Early Career Artist Fellowship exhibition catalogue)

When does place begin? Allan Pred tell us that place is process. The physical, sentimental, and political structures that produce place, he writes, “cannot emerge fully formed out of nothingness.” They cannot “stop, grow rigid, indelibly etched in the once-natural landscape.”(1) Place. Not place as in the longitudinal data we gather from cartography but place as an always shifting set of intimate relationships and meaning. To describe a place, or inscribe a place, as Sarah Sampedro does in her work, we have to find ways to know it both within and beyond the boundaries of those indelible histories that are etched into the landscape. The photographs of place in her work are a part of a longing to know the unknowable, ultimately, the unphotographable, the duplicity of settler arrival stories that have insisted in their accounting as the beginning of place.

In a series and sequence of images, Sampedro shows us the beloved, the idyllic, the idealized, and profane landscapes of southwestern Minnesota, landscapes she has known for much of her life. Photographing in Nobles, Rock, Pipestone, Murray, Cottonwood, Watonwan, Blue Earth, and Nicollet Counties, in her work she uses the camera not only as a tool of evidence and witness but as a vehicle to unknow the familiar, or the familial, to allow her self to sense a metapast and question its mythography. In the United States, the violent space-time of settled and settler histories becomes the beginning of one place and the ending of another. We enter Sampedro’s work slowly, cautiously, as witnesses to her witnessing, witnesses to a testimony of settlement. Through her lens, Sampedro images the present life world of a region born out of accumulation by dispossession.

The American landscape is full of stories, travel stories, horror stories, ghost stories. As we move through the landscape through Sampedro’s images, we find ourselves in tension with the idea of home in a place. We are made aware of the incompleteness of the story, and we become audience to and participants in its mythography, the writing of its fictions and truths. Origin stories in the settler landscape are never complete; they are riddled with (w)holes, wounds, and unaccounted transactions. Landscape photography has been an important part of making origins of places, making myths. Seeing the vast landscapes in these images of the American West void of human presence fed the fervor for expansion and conquer. In Sampedro’s work, the still images invite us to see again, aware now of how seeing can leave us wounded, questioning, and speechless. We are haunted by images that implicate us in the past.

In her photographs, Sampedro’s images trace her family stories of origin in Nobles County, and the human, the earth, and everything in-between hold stories. The images of rolling green pastures live beside images of amber waves of grain, a literalism of a lyric from the song “America the Beautiful.” Sampedro’s personal genealogy is merged in her photos with other histories, particularly the passage of the Homestead Act, a policy signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The Homestead Act gave settlers rights to more than 270 million acres of land that were federalized after decades of signed and broken treaties. The sandy, unpaved paths that slice through the green plains are a part of a visual narrative that Sampedro tethers together through her sequencing of images, turning our attention back to the Homestead Act. Over a series of images we become spectators to a long process that transformed indigenous land into federal possessable property, and then into the private possessed property of settlers.

As images, Sampedro’s photographs allow us to understand Nobles County through her eyes. The objects, the events, the people tell us something about what this place means to her. They tell us something about how she wants to remember this place. She presents us with a way of seeing the Minnesota landscape that locates both her pleasures and grievances alongside her joy and shame within these scenes. With a critical sensibility, she attempts to hold on to her attachment to this place. She holds on to a task, to represent the unrepresentable, how this place came to be. She is haunted by it, as we are too. Avery Gordon writes, “To be haunted in the name of a will to heal is to allow the ghost to help you imagine what was lost that never even existed, really.”(2) In images without a fixed sequence, Sampedro leans into the many ways that she is haunted by the spoken and unspoken stories of these places. The photographs she makes are a part of a challenging practice of speaking with ghosts, picking up their traces, and asking with reverence for their stories of how a place came to be.

Notes

  1.  Allan Pred, “Place as Historically Contingent Process: Structuration and the Time-Geography of Becoming Places,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 74, no. 2 (1984): 279–97.
  2. Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 57.