Intimate and striking, Whitten Sabbatini captures portraits and quiet landscapes primarily between Chicago and Mississipi Delta. His book Another Day in Paradise (2018), reflects on the beauty in the mundane. Sabbantini explains, "my early work was a response to and challenge of a certain type of ideology that I wasn’t interested in participating in" - referring to miscroagressions.
Until 18th September you can see Whitten's first solo exhibiiton at Mississippi State university. His project There’s Worse Things Than Being Alone was featured on Oxford American’s website as a part of their series Eyes On The South, which explicitly aligns Sabbatini with a re-balancing of cultural power to the often subjugated south. We talk about his relationship with the American South.
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For those who might not be familiar with your work at the moment, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi, I’m Whitten — I was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1990. I feel as though I wasn't quite conscious of the world until I found photography on the internet, just prior to attending a local community college after high school. My dad was adopted from Italy into an Italian American family living in the Mississippi Delta not too far from where my mother grew up in Shelby, MS. He drove a truck for the potato chip company FritoLay before managing a McDonald's, where he met my mother. My grandma, Dixie, was the postmaster and married a cattle farmer — she gave me my first camera.
I'd never been exposed to the idea and potential of making art when I was younger and I’d certainly never experienced a studio art setting prior to my early drawing and design courses at community college — I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. The first time a framed photograph of mine was exhibited, my dad walked over to someone else's work, tapped on the glass with his wedding band, and said, "I like this one." I hope that this is all informative or helpful in some way as to who I am or where I came from and my early relationship to photography.
Between 2014-2017, I attended Columbia College Chicago's then three year MFA program. While in graduate school, I worked through several different ideas, all of which had varying degrees of success and failure — attempting to photograph the saddest bar in Chicago, independent wrestling, and the work that eventually became Another Day in Paradise.
How did you first start becoming interested in photography?
My interest in photography came from quite a naive place. I had such a small conception of what photography could actually represent beyond the cliché and I certainly had no understanding of how photography had been consumed or leveraged in the past. Initially, I was fascinated by the mechanics of the camera, simply how it operated and how you could control certain aspects. I was looking at a lot of pictures on the internet, primarily posted on blogs by other inexperienced people my age — needless to say, I made really bad pictures for some time.
I became a bit more serious and intentional with photography when I moved to North Mississippi for the last two years of my undergraduate career. I had a very supportive and knowledgeable teacher who, for the first time, recognised my particular set of interests and abilities, and was able to share both historical and contemporary examples of work that supported my own sensibilities as a photographer. It was during this time that I was given a very influential book: Birney Imes’ Partial to Home. Birney’s work deeply resonated with me for several reasons, but one simple revelation occurred to me that I’m not sure I was very conscious of previously: in order to make a certain type of picture of the world, you actually have to be there, looking at whatever it is you want to photograph.
My early work, which primarily consisted of portraits in people’s backyards, took place in a small neighbourhood of Black residents. I wasn’t fully aware of what I was attempting to make with a camera yet or quite know how to articulate my interests — something I’m sure I still struggle with, honestly. The truth is though, I distinctly remember being in the car with my mother (bless her, and please forgive me) when I was younger, most likely headed to or from church, and there being a Black man asking for change at an intersection. I remember her using the automatic lock button in the car.
Rather than focusing specifically on my mum, placing any guilt or shame, I’m more interested in simply thinking about that action (whether conscious or not), the implications of it, and how common I felt that sort of microaggression to be at the time. So perhaps in its most basic sense, my early work was a response to and challenge of a certain type of ideology that I wasn’t interested in participating in.
What is the relationship your photography has with the South, specifically with Mississippi and Memphis?
I think my relationship to the South and how that influences my pictures has slowly changed over time. Initially, I saw the “Southern-ness,” of my work potentially functioning as some sort of simple label or category that my work could fit within that has a very distinct lineage — thinking of it in this way seemed pragmatic. I still think that works and it’s easy, but that perhaps I’m more interested in something else now. It’s an idea and identity that can be intentionally played with — visually subverted, perpetuated, and contradicted in order to make something more meaningful and interesting.
I feel as though living in Chicago, and more generally, the Midwest for six years also influenced my perception of whatever the South represents in several ways: firstly, I photographed a lot of rural farmers in Corn Land, USA for The New York Times that looked and talked a lot like rural farmers in Cotton Land, Mississippi. Secondly, travelling between Chicago and Mississippi while working on Another Day in Paradise, despite wearing my camouflage, the local folks at McDonald’s in middle America knew that “I wasn’t from around here.” Thirdly, aspects of Chicago felt far more segregated than any place I’ve lived in the American South.
This is a difficult question for me to fully answer — I think because to some degree, I care deeply about this topic and I feel as though my ideas aren’t fully resolved. My observations out in the real world, separate from the context of Art, and my interactions and conversations with the lady at the gas station or the homeless man with a cross necklace, completely contradict traditionally accepted patterns of thought.
In an attempt to make sense of this, I feel as though that in reality, most people and most places are quite similar in a lot of ways. However, it also feels as though there is an ever growing divide and lack of understanding and care between people that goes far beyond simply where someone was born. Perhaps this answer doesn’t quite get to the question, but I guess what I’m attempting to say, is that the world isn’t quite as simple as it’s often portrayed.
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Your series, Another Day in Paradise, was partially influenced by McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, as well as the music of Jr. Kimbrough. Why did these works speak to you in this way? Did a homesickness pull you to creating this series and draw you to these influences while being in Chicago?
It’s been a few years since I’ve re-read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and I’m quite bad at remembering books I’ve read and films I’ve watched unfornutately — perhaps it’s because I’m more interested in a certain residual and emotional response as opposed to the specific details. But in terms of McCullers’ book, I’m quite sure it was simply how she described this small, rural town in Georgia and the types of people she depicted: the rejected, forgotten, and mistreated.
And as for dear Jr. Kimbrough, two of his record titles are Sad Days, Lonely Nights and Most Things Haven’t Worked Out — that shit deeply resonates with me. Junior is from North Mississippi, just south of Memphis, and is well known for his contributions to The Hill Country Blues. The track, Most Things Haven’t Worked Out, is an instrumental — I love this idea that he’s given you a thought, a line of poetry, a declarative view of the world and leaves you to deal with interpreting it.
I think what ultimately led me to make the pictures though, rather than a feeling described as being homesick, was a genuine interest in the South and a desire to depict the region with as much curiosity as possible. For me, making the work acted more as an excuse to have a certain type of experience with a camera in the American South — to interact with the people and explore the landscape.
You mentioned that the title was inspired by something your dad said, about “being grateful for the day’s simple blessings”. How does this series of photographs capture your interpretation and feeling of ‘paradise’?
For as long as I can remember, my dad has always said the phrase, “it’s another day in paradise,” kind of casually as a way of conveying his general well being. I’m not sure how much thought he actually gives it, but I love thinking about it in its most literal sense.
Paradise is in some sense religious in nature. It seems to be generally thought of as being or representing a place of Holiness and perfection. But I think the way in which the idea of Paradise functions within this body of work is more closely aligned with being a place of contentment or acceptance — it’s the setting. This is to say, it’s often easy for me to feel as though this world is unjust, but I think to some degree the work is made in an attempt to challenge that perspective, rather than affirm it. What if in fact, each flaw and every tragedy that takes place, is in fact beautiful and perfect?
As I somewhat mentioned earlier, I grew up going to church — once on Wednesdays and twice on Sundays for almost two decades. The ideas of love and grace are what stuck with me and since, have influenced my relationships and how I tend to live. So, because that’s some part of who I am, within the book there are subtle, if not completely esoteric references to some notion of Paradise / Religion: a tree that looks as if it’s on fire, a man’s flaming skull motorcycle head wrap, a portrait of two men at a tire shop whose fingers uncannily resemble Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, a man looking up towards the sky wearing a lanyard that reads “Saints,” and a picture of a former Hells Angels member making out.
I enjoy working within the context of the book because it allows for the images to have a sort of cumulative effect, where the images slowly build upon one another. Part of what I find interesting beyond their ability to point to a singular idea, is how the images can be manipulated within a particular sequence in order to shift the meaning or allude to other ideas that I’m interested in. I’ve been struggling to write about this for too long now, but what I’m attempting to convey is that the work isn’t singularly about Paradise — maybe that’s obvious and understood, but that’s what I worry about. There are sections in the book that are just a way for me to joke about sex or think about camouflage.
I’m interested in what happens when you juxtapose a Nike Jumpman logo with a church’s cross and asking what does it mean for two Black men working at a tire shop to reference The Creation of Adam? What’s the significance of a white man’s tattoo of a black panther?
I’m not sure what it all adds up to in meaning or if it’s successful in the slightest, but it’s my hope that it’s as fun to look at and to consider as it was for me to make it.
What is the significance of the collaboration with Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, who wrote the textual pieces for Another Day in Paradise?
Ashleigh and I had become distantly familiar with each other via the internet many years before the book was published. When I was in the process of finalising the book though, I didn’t actually have a relationship with her. I didn’t really know who she was or know that she was interested in writing until I stumbled across a short story of hers called The Bass. It turned out that similarly to me, she’d just earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina. After reading that story, I read another and so on. I realised quite quickly that whoever she was and whatever she was making, was the absolute truth — I felt it.
I started working on the book when I received a very surprising email from Adam Bell, who I’d never met, saying that he’d nominated me for Mack’s First Book Award. Another Day in Paradise, was just a dummy at the time. To me, this felt like a huge opportunity. Rather than sending my dummy, which lacked any text outside of the title, I quickly decided to make something that looked more official. I immediately reached out to Ashleigh and asked if she’d be interested in contributing text to the project. We had a few conversations over the phone (I’ve never heard anyone with more of a Southern accent) where I rambled about some of my ideas, shared the work with her, and told her she can write whatever she wants — no rules and no expectations.
Here’s a link to a collection of short stories she published last year under the title, Sleepovers.
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Why did you choose to shoot in black and white, even though both your previous collections had been shot in colour?
I’m not sure this answer goes much further than it being a pragmatic and aesthetic decision, honestly. I think to some degree I had a desire to simply work in a new way — to challenge myself to see if I could successfully work in black and white. I fear that I’m a terrible and boring photographer all too often, and it doesn’t help that I make so many pictures at the worst time of day. So, to some degree, at the time I was working on the images for the book, it felt as though working in black and white was a bit more forgiving and aided the overall cohesion of the pictures.
I want to be careful here not to put too much emphasis on this topic, because I’m not sure how important it is to the work and I don’t want to accidentally perpetuate some idea I don’t fully believe in. I think that generally, though, the response to black and white images is slightly different than the response to color images, in that it adds this subtle, extra layer that separates it just that much further from reality or a specific time. I think that, potentially, eliminating colour can evoke a slightly different emotional tone as well. If any of this is true, I think that the work operates well within this context.
Could you briefly guide us through the other series you previously worked on, There’s Worse Things Than Being Alone (shot in Memphis) and The Indies (shot in Chicago)?
There’s Worse Thing Than Being Alone was essentially a continuation of my early work, only now I was in an unfamiliar and bigger city. I was still learning how to make pictures and thinking a lot about racial identity. The truth is, I didn’t know what I was doing and I certainly didn’t know how to articulate it, but I knew that I wanted to make photographs about it. I found myself walking and riding my bicycle a lot, trying somewhat to familiarize myself with my surroundings, but I was also just looking for photographs.
The pictures, again, primarily consisted of portraits of African-American people, something that feels a bit strange and difficult trying to explain now. I’ll say this, though: unlike New York or Chicago, the public transportation in Memphis isn’t very diverse — you won’t find many white people riding the bus. And when I lived in Chicago, I encountered white people for the first time who didn’t grow up going to school with Black people. These observations aren’t the work, I know, but I think to some degree they motivate me to live and work a bit differently. I can choose to either engage in a certain separation of realities like so many people do or I can attempt to learn from and relate to someone who doesn’t necessarily look like me. If anything, that’s what I was attempting to achieve with There’s Worse Things Than Being Alone.
The Indies is a series of photographs looking at independent wrestling I made while in graduate school. I needed to find a new way to make pictures during a Chicago winter, rather than continuing to wander about hoping that the outside world would provide a picture. For the first time, I knew when and where I’d be photographing, contacting local promoters asking for access and using artificial light.
I grew up as a wrestling fan in the nineties during the height of the “Monday Night Wars” — a time in television and wrestling history when Sting was on one channel and Stone Cold Steve Austin was on another channel. For simplicity’s sake, professional wrestling is more or less a long form theatrical performance whose plot relies upon the classic trope of good vs evil, one of the initial ideas I was interested in attempting to translate photographically.
I was particularly attracted to photographing these men and the people that came to watch them for several reasons: the events themselves, which typically took place on a Friday night at a local VFW hall or highschool gym, served as a hub for these small rural communities to gather. The crowds ranged in size, but often the wrestlers would perform for a very small audience, which meant they were getting paid very little, if anything at all, to put their bodies through a significant amount of pain. What I found beautiful though, despite this, was how evident their passion was for perfecting their craft. In many cases, they admire and study tapes of past wrestler’s performances and dream of being someone like The Rock. The truth is though, that most of the guys I was photographing will never earn a valuable contract or get recognised by a larger audience. I found this dynamic to be both beautiful and sad.
The pictures I made don’t quite do a good job of documenting anything tangible or factual about independent wrestling in the Midwest. I photographed in a way, both by how close I was to the subject and how I used a handheld flash, that often completely eliminated any environmental context. This resulted in highly descriptive images, but not in the same way you would find if you were watching wrestling on television. A lot of the pictures consist of men lying face down or yelling inaudibly in pain. I think the work was ultimately my attempt at visually subverting (not with malice) and having fun with the common conception of masculinity.
Is there anything you’ve been working on at the moment that you would like to highlight?
After finishing graduate school in Chicago, I stayed for a couple of years making work for various editorial clients and teaching. Looking back, for the five years that I was there, I was extremely busy and simply juggling a lot of different things. I moved back to Memphis a little over a year and half ago with the hope and intention to continue making personal work within the American South. Unfortunately, due to Covid, I haven’t been as productive as I’d like and I don’t quite know what’s next. I try to live somewhat slowly and patiently, without putting too much pressure or expectation on either myself or the outside world. For now, I’m grateful to be alive and healthy, with the opportunity to share my pictures, truly.
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