Photographer tells geological history of the Black Belt

Published 10:46 am Wednesday, June 19, 2019

While many photographers have turned their lens on Selma, Washington, D.C.-based photographer Katie Walls is taking a different approach to telling the story of the region – Walls is telling the history of the Black Belt through its geology, specifically the origin of the deep, black soil that lends the region its name.

Walls said her project, which she hopes to turn into a book or exhibit in the future, will look into the ways that the soil has impacted the lives of those who lived on it from its earliest days until now.

“My hope is that I’m not the only person who finds this interesting,” Walls said with a laugh. “I just want to be in this space, talking to people and taking photos.”

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Walls, who has family in Anniston, began photographing the area about two weeks ago – first across parts of Mississippi and later into Alabama – but preparation began about a year ago and research ensued there after.

In Mississippi, Walls photographer Native American mounds in Natchez Trace, as well as farmers and the countryside.

Walls said she was interested in how something that happened nearly 100 million years – the formation of the layer of chalk beneath the soil made from the disintegrated bodies of tiny, prehistoric creatures – could shapes the lives of so many people, from Native Americans to enslaved Africans to today’s farmers.

“I feel like the story in the Black Belt tells the story of who we are as a nation,” Walls said.

According to a geologist friend that Walls consulted while researching the project, the rich soil of the Black Belt is the result of the minerals in the chalk nurturing the soil.

When the area was opened up to white settlers, they quickly realized that the soil was ripe for farming – especially of cotton – and began importing slaves to work the land.

“Plantations were doing so well that the demand for labor fueled the domestic slave trade,” Walls said. “That’s why there’s a dense population of African-Americans to this day.”

Walls said the boom of those days led to many of the problems that plagued the South following Reconstruction.

Though much of the photography portion of Walls’ project is nearing its end – she was mainly focused on a stretch of land about 10 to 20 miles wide that extends from Northeastern Mississippi across the middle of Alabama – she still has a few more stops to make before heading home.

But her time in the region has opened her eyes in a number of ways.

“It’s like there’s two Alabamas,” Walls said. “There are people living side-by-side that are living completely different lives.”

Walls said some of her photos will be in color and more of a “photo-journalistic” style, while others will be in black-and-white and harken back to the photography of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

“That’s been a little bit of a discovery,” Walls said. “Being down here, I’ve been trying to create photos that feel like being here. I would really hope that the art I create here would spark curiosity in anyone to understand the stories of this region and how they impact us today.”