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A rare woodpecker, the communities looking for it and the history of the American south, photographer Dason Pettit explores these unique connections through his investigative project Scattered Feathers.
What wanted you to produce the project Scattered Feathers?
I was searching for a legend to explore that would parallel my own existential crisis, one that
could mirror the fear and wonder of life. I stumbled upon a copy of The Grail Bird by Tim
Gallagher, and found his devotion to the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which the
majority of ornithologists thought to be extinct, drew me into the world of birdwatchers. After that I
started researching the small town of Tallulah, Louisiana where the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had
been spotted last and found it to be a place that fascinated me. Initially rising with a surge of
industry the town fell into disarray when natural resources dwindled and the railroads carrying
these goods fell into disuse. It reminded me of the small town in the Delta where I had grown up
and the people who raised me there. I really enjoyed spending time wandering through the woods
and the town, and I was enthralled by the science of ornithology. So those topics became the
focus of my project.
The project follows the story of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, can you tell me more about this
species’ connection to the communities it lives near?
The most obvious connection between the community and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is the
Singer Mill, the lumberyard responsible for so much of the clear cutting of the hardwood forest
that was the species’ habitat. Their presence was the spark that ended up devastating the land
that the bird so depended upon. There’s an irony in the fact that forest lumber was the foundation
of this grand and proud small southern town and that the depletion of those resources led to the
town’s downfall. The bird and Tallulah are inextricably linked as both followed a downward spiral
over the course of the last century; the synthesis that formed between the bird and the town
became a point of focus in the work. I found that many of the old buildings reminded me of the
husks that woodpeckers had used as homes; their decaying facades mirrored that of the ravaged
trees. Likewise, I found connections between the bird and the people that I met in Tallulah. Many
were desperate for the old grandeur while others continued to inhabit the remains of the town.
When I met a young man on the street, he immediately struck a pose for the camera that was
reminiscent of a bird. That kind of synchronicity is what I’m so often looking for in my work.
Photography and birdwatching have a few things in common, from the waiting for the right
moment to having patience and slowing down time. Was this relation something you considered
when making the work?
I definitely thought about the parallels between these two, even more so as I observed more and
more of what birdwatching entails. I made excursions with several groups of birdwatchers and
began to identify the activity as a metaphor for the act of seeing, especially within photography. I
started to practice not just birdwatching, but nature observance in general as I spent more time in
the forest. For me, seeing with a camera becomes something just shy of a spiritual experience. I
suspect that this is the case for many photographers and I wanted to find a way to express this
feeling. Birdwatching became that visual statement. I identified with all the prep work and waiting
that went into what the birdwatchers are doing and I think in the end gathering so much joy just
seeing the world through a lens is something that we both share in common. By concentrating on
the roles of these individuals in the narrative, rather than their personal histories, I enhance the
mythical quality of the work. I engage with the birdwatchers here as “’characters” in an allegorical
framework. Considered in this sense, these birdwatchers become proxies for myself and my
experience in hunting not just for the bird, but also for the right photograph.
The photographs toe the line between the human and animal and our relationship with the wild.
Can you tell me a little bit about the people and their investment in spotting the bird?
While many people have helped to communicate this story, John Fitzpatrick and Geneva Williams
are central to the narrative. John is the director at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New
York. Stoic and reserved with glasses and a robust mustache, it is hard to imagine him as the
leader of the team that in 2004 obtained footage that they say verifies the bird’s existence. They
continue to spend precious research dollars, invest massive amounts of personal time, and put
their reputations on the line to verify their initial findings. While John registers little of the
excitement he must feel as he shows his blurry footage, his grandfatherly like pride and his
scholarly nature assures on that you are seeing images of the Ghost Bird. And explains why he is
responsible for much of the continued interest in the bird. While many respected ornithologists
are sure that the species is extinct, John is an icon whose belief keeps hope alive in others.
Helping to keep the story of Tallulah alive, on the other hand, is Geneva. Nearly 100, she
remembers the virgin forest and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and she is intimately involved with
the history of the town. Geneva and John Martin run Hermione House, a local museum that is
focused on curating the town’s remarkably rich history that includes the first indoor mall in the US,
and a WW2 POW camp. As her physical abilities wane, her greatest concern is that the museum
remains open for all to see when others seek to profit from selling its relics. I see John and
Geneva as mythic figures, the father and mother of this story.
See more of Dason’s work here = http://www.dasonpettit.com/
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