Click the play button to hear Sarah Hoskins talk about her work in Central Kentucky and see a slide show of her images.
Equine photography brought Sarah Hoskins to Lexington. African-American hamlets around the city and in Central Kentucky made the Bluegrass feel like home.
“I was introduced to one woman named Lydia Talbert, and I was introduced to Maddoxtown Church,” Hoskins, left, says of her friend from the New Zion community who has since died. “And from there, what happens is, it gets to be a trust thing. I met one person and they led me to somebody else, and they led me to somebody else. I never thought I would be doing this for 10 years.”
Now, the results of her decade of visiting New Zion, Uttingertown and other communities are on display at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky. Hoskins will give an address at UK’s Worsham Theatre on Friday as part of the Robert C. May Photography Endowment Lecture Series.
“I think it’s really important that it is in Kentucky,” says Hoskins, who lives with her family north of Chicago. “I’ve always given lectures, and this work was incorporated with other projects. This is the first time I will give a lecture solely on this project, and it’s an honor to do it in Kentucky.”
She says she talked to residents of the communities where she worked to make sure they were OK with having their pictures displayed at the museum. Many residents plan to come to the lecture. When she has spoken before, Hoskins has ended her lectures with a photo and recording of the Jimtown Male Chorus, and her camera can be heard clicking in the background. The group will sing at Hoskins’ lecture.
Her appearance bookends this year’s Robert C. May series with strong Kentucky themes; the first one, last fall, showcased the photography of The Washington Post’s Jahi Chikwendiu, who grew up in Lexington and started his photography career at the Herald-Leader.
Janie M. Welker, curator of exhibitions and collections for the Art Museum, said having two such Kentucky-rooted exhibits in the May series “is kind of unusual. But in the last year, we have made a commitment to bring in more regional photographers and their work.”
She said the museum had wanted to bring in Hoskins’ Central Kentucky images for a couple years.
“Sarah does the kind of documentary work you don’t see anymore,” Welker says.
That, she says, is the kind of work in which a photographer revisits a subject over many years, getting to know the community.
Hoskins, 48, started taking pictures in high school.
“I was that kid who always had a camera,” she says. “I had a 110 Instamatic.”
She initially wanted to become a fashion photographer. But in the early 1980s, she says, getting any kind of work was a priority. She came to Kentucky, shooting for equine magazines, including Spur and The Backstretch.
She had read an article about African-American hamlets in Central Kentucky, and she thought they might be an interesting photo project. In 2000, she found herself standing on Frogtown Lane with a map.
“I didn’t know a soul,” she says.
The people she started to meet were open to her.
“I would come back and bring a photo to someone, and then they would say, ‘OK, you need to go here,'” she says.
Take Bill Thomas.
“I was in Little Georgetown photographing Bethany Baptist Church,” Hoskins says. She remembers that the 2002 encounter with Thomas started when she approached him and said, “‘Excuse me, sir,’ and he ended up taking me to an old slave cemetery, and then he introduced me to his parents and he introduced me to someone in Cadenntown, and then the people in Cadenntown introduced me to someone in Uttingertown, and it just spiraled. And once people began to trust me, they would say, ‘Oh, you need to go here.’ Derek Talbert would call me and say, ‘Daddy’s killing hogs tomorrow night. Do you want to come?'”
“People learned what I was interested in, and then they would think of things and they would call me. That’s how it kept going. When I started, the University of Kentucky had a list of 27 of these communities. I’m up to more than 40.”
The images she has shot document the everyday lives of workers at tobacco and hog farms; church traditions, including communion and collections; and family reunions and other celebrations.
A few years into her work, the Rev. John C. Travis of Maddoxtown First Baptist Church wrote a letter of recommendation for Hoskins, saying, “She is so highly favored because she did not come to take away from us, as so many do, but she has unknowingly restored a sense of pride once again in our African-American heritage.”
Hoskins says, “For me, financial reward isn’t the reason to do this. It’s something like that.”
In fact, the project has been a financial struggle, particularly because even after digital photography became the standard for professional photographers, she has continued to shoot the project on black-and-white film, incurring the costs of developing and printing. She has received some contributions, including a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Alice Rosenwald Flexible Fund for Rosenwald Schools.
For Hoskins, the payoff has been in the relationships she has built in the communities, which she visits every six weeks or so, and in people telling her she’s family. She has had some prestigious honors, including having her hog-slaughter images acquired by the Smithsonian Institution for its permanent collection and a feature on the project in American Legacy magazine.
Eventually, she says, she would like to get all the photos printed and publish a book from the project. This exhibit comes as she says she is bringing the project to a close.
That’s what she says.
“I know I could be done,” she says, “but I’m always going to come back.”
And she will always have a camera with her.