WMA had a chance to sit down and chat with artist Sydney A. Foster this past January while she was in Dothan installing her current exhibition, Walks in the South.
In 2016, while walking through downtown Montgomery on her lunch break, Sydney was compelled to begin photographing people she met along the way. The series, which began with meeting a woman named Ms. Annetta, has evolved to include other neighborhoods around Alabama’s capital city. Through her work, Foster gives each person the opportunity to shine through their portrait, letting go of the stereotypes that separate us.
Enjoy the interview and come see Sydney’s beautiful, narrative photographs for yourself. Walks in the South is on display in the Coleman Gallery through March 23.
What made you pick up a camera for the first time?
I would say, being a kid, my sister would buy me fashion magazines. And I would just go through them, and I was like — man, this stuff is so cool. I have to do this. I wanted to build a whole magazine, produce a whole magazine. I wanted to lay it out; I wanted to take the pictures; I wanted to figure out how to do the hair and the makeup. I haven’t really mastered that part yet, but I’m working on it.
And I was like I’m going to start with photography because I knew how to do the graphic design part because that’s what I was going to school for. I was in high school for graphic design.
And that’s how I started picking up the camera. That’s how it all started for me.
Tell me about Ms. Annetta. Can you tell me about her and how you met her?
(deep exhale) So, um… Ms. Annetta. So, my friend, Sallie, and I were walking downtown, and we kind of plotted it. We saw this lady for the first time and I just remember thinking, “I want to take her picture! I want to take her picture! But I’m scared.”
And, at that time, Sal was like, “Just go walk up to her and ask her. If she freaks out about it, OK. At least you tried.”
So, we go up to her and I say, “Ma’am, do you mind if I photograph you?” And she goes, “Oh, yeah. Sure. I don’t care!” And she was just very open about it, and we started a conversation. Like, we would talk about the future and war. And she called herself “the Creator.” She was like, “I’m the Creator,” and she was pointing out to buildings and stuff like that.
It was a very supernatural experience. And that’s how I met Ms. Annetta. I still think about her to this day. She’s like a guardian angel, I would say. Seriously. And she’s the reason why all of this started — this series, Walks in the South.
And where did it go from there? Did you just continue to walk around and try to encounter people and have conversations with them and engage with them? How did you choose the subjects and the things you took photographs of?
I would say things that caught my eye. At the time, I was doing a job that I really didn’t care to do. So, every time I would get a lunch break, I would just get in my car and drive around for like an hour and go to parts of Montgomery that I had never been to. And I got intrigued with it because I wasn’t from that certain area of town, or I couldn’t relate. So, I wanted to know, how are these people, you know, living like this or moving around the way they move around, and they’re so happy?
So I would just say driving around and seeing things that captured my eye– colors of things, rustic buildings, urban decay. Things like that are the things that catch my eye. And I try to capture things that other people wouldn’t see because that’s not their norm either — so they can feel and know, like, these are real things going on. Don’t ignore them. They’re real people — real homes that people have to live in, just like you have to live in your house. So, that’s how I choose things, to make people be abreast and aware.
You were talking about being in school and studying graphic design. Was there a certain thing (school-wise) or a person that you knew — a family member or a teacher — who encouraged you to go into a creative field?
Yes, I would say my god-sister. She was actually going to BTW (Booker T. Washington Magnet School in Montgomery, Alabama) at the time. And I made her my god-sister because one of my family members, my close first cousin, knew her. We just started to bond and I would see her creating stuff, and I’m like — I want to know how to do that!
So, she would come pick me up from high school and we would go back to her job. And I would just watch her design shirts and make fliers, and stuff like that. That was really the start of how I got into it. And from there, you know, just having mentors, just continuing to encourage me — my mom, and sister, and close friends. That’s why I’m still going, because of that tight-knit support system.
Tell us about your military experience and how it has influenced and informed the art you are making today.
My military experience has molded me into the person I am. I hate to say that so vaguely, but it has — from the discipline portion, to being overseas, and being deployed. And although you deploy with your home station, it’s like you’re by yourself. You have to figure out how to fend for yourself. It’s almost like moving out of your mother’s house for the first time. It opened my senses and it made me aware — just even being able to be overseas and see how other cultures were living. It’s like, man — could I live like this in America? You know?
But being in the military has definitely inspired my art. Because, even my supervisors,…I look at them from a psychology/art perspective, and I was like, I can create a photo with you. I’ll go up to them and say, “I need to take this portrait of you. And I’m going to call it ‘Cowboy’ or ‘Ammo God’.” Or just something crazy.
So, the military does inspire my art, with a lot of things I want to depict in the future with my docuseries, or stories like that. And actually I got in the military to catapult or fund my art supplies. That was a part of it for me.
Were you surprised when something you were interested in, maybe from a purely creative standpoint — your photography in particular– turned into a professional life? Was it natural that it evolved that way?
It was natural, but I didn’t expect it. I knew I wanted to be in the arts because I originally wanted to go to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, GA). And I went off to basic training (Army), came back, and I lost my stepdad. And he raised me.
So, I was like, I’m not going to go to SCAD; I’m going to stay here. And when I stayed here I was able to get my first camera. And that just turned into me working at my university — and, some kind of way, I got paid for it! And it turned into more paid gigs. I met people who needed work, and then I wanted to be challenged more. I was like, well, let me see if I can create some of those shoots that I envisioned when I was in high school.
Can you talk a little bit about the commonality of this series? What do these works say as a group?
I would say, you feel joy. You feel pain. You feel sorrow. You definitely get to see that part of America that people don’t like to talk about. And it’s not your traditional art, especially for the South.
Do you think that right now in Alabama, living in Montgomery, that you have a lot of freedom to express who you are as an artist or a even a venue to do that?
I would say for the longest, no. That’s the reason why I started the show I did. And at first it was supposed to be a solo show for myself, but I was like, I want to include people who haven’t had an opportunity, because I know there’s more people out here like me. That was the beginning.
And I feel like, after my show, if I can recall, spaces started to open up, but it wasn’t frequently. It wouldn’t be like your major galleries there. But that’s going to change soon. And recently here, I was in a show, and that started to open up more opportunity just for your local artists there who aren’t all white or aren’t all older, you know? It started to diversify, which for the longest in Montgomery, you didn’t see any of that because there wasn’t any opportunity for it.
I guess now, in this moment, being able to be in a show at Kress, it opened up an opportunity like this because I’ve never been in a museum, never had a solo show. And it just shows you, when you get out there, and you just start creating opportunities for yourself, people will catch on. And you start to set a new trend. So, I feel like the opportunities for artists will be from self-starters like myself.
Are there any artists or photographers that inspire you?
So many! I would say, to start off, Gordon Parks. I really like his style. He has really inspired me, even through this current series, Walks in the South. Some of my mentors — Keith Major, Danielle Levitt, Cartier-Bresson — he was the “decisive moment” guy. He’s inspired me. Platon — he took the famous picture of Bill Clinton, and he also got a photo of Obama. Just his portrait style — like, he shoots with a wide-angle lens and he makes it look so elegant.
Those are some of the people, to name a few. I’m trying to think about who else. Hank Willis Thomas — he’s really dope and he’s a photographer.
Is it important for you to capture the current moment or a current moment in your work? Are you documenting? Do you see your work as documentation?
Yes, because … I feel like everything that I have in here, it is in Montgomery, and it’s the part of Montgomery that you don’t hear about. You know, the part of Montgomery that your officials don’t want to talk about. And it’s life in these parts. I feel like if they were to get out and actually talk with the people, a lot more could happen. My photos are like a freeze frame in time, you know?
Yet you have Ms. Annetta. She fell down on her luck, but she’s not scary; she’s not a monster, you know. Maybe if you took like two to three minutes out of your time to just talk to people that you don’t see every day you could help them out — and you could help yourself out, too.
So, yeah, I would definitely say this is a freeze frame in time. This lady (in the photo) right here behind me, she actually worked in Kress back in the day, during the segregation time.
And that was a moment that I can’t get. And probably back in the day nobody photographed her. Of course they didn’t because it was segregated time. But now, this lady has accounts that only I have now. So, I guess I’m kind of a historian, too.
Did you meet her from the show? How did you come to know her?
No! She didn’t even know Kress was back open. And that’s not good because she cooked when she worked at Kress. And she would tell me, like, they would come through the back side of Monroe (Street), they would go downstairs and cook, and they couldn’t be seen. Their only job was to cook — and that was it.
But no, I didn’t meet her at the show. I photographed her whole family, and then I found out who she was. And I was like, “I need to take pictures of you. Why aren’t you at Kress? Why don’t you know that’s open?”
And she was like, “Kress is back open?” And I was like, “Yeah, it’s back open. You should come!” And she was like, “No, I don’t want to go back to that place.” Because it was a scary time for her.
And I was like, wow, this is a part of history that you’ll never hear. You won’t ever be able to feel it, especially my generation. I can’t imagine living through that, or having to survive through that. So, just getting a chance to talk to her alone, it was huge for me. It was a very momentous occasion for me.
I met this lady at a laundromat, and she was like the liaison of the laundromat on Madison Avenue, right before you enter the main downtown. And I was telling her about it. I walked up to her and I was scared and stuff. I was like, “Can I take a picture of you, ma’am?” And I told her where I worked, and she was like, “Kress is back open?” And I told her yeah.
And a lot of the black people back in the day — from what I know now — they lived in the “PJs,” the projects. So, they would have to walk from, like, Centennial Hill, which is where Martin Luther King’s home is. And a lot of other civil rights people, they would walk from those areas near Alabama State to downtown where Kress is now. And that was the place for black people to go. But they could only enter from Monroe.
What do you do to recharge or find inspiration that might be surprising to someone?
I would say I would get out and create images like you will see in the Walks in the South series, just to be able to see people from different walks of life that I don’t see every day in my circle. Being able to travel and go to New York — I’m going to L.A. next month, so hopefully that will help because I’ve been burnt out. And really just doing personal projects — passion projects — outside of commission work.
And I like to eat. I definitely like to eat!
Do you have a favorite place to eat in Montgomery?
Yeah, the Juicy Seafood — it’s a seafood place that we just got. It’s pretty good! It’s different, because you don’t get to eat that every day.
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