Photographer Visits Past, Place Once More

The Arkansas Delta’s changing landscape and residents are the subjects of an exhibition at the Walton Arts Center.

slightly flooded row crops in the Arkansas Delta
"Yesterday Once More" is on display at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville through Apr. 3. Photos courtesy of Aaron R. Turner.

For photographer Aaron R. Turner, the Arkansas Delta is home. Born and raised in West Memphis, he’s familiar with the region’s people and its landscape.

“The land holds memories,” he says.

Turner focuses on the landscape to reflect his “relationship and understanding of the transformative process to understand place” in his exhibition Yesterday Once More, which is on display at Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville.

The Arkansas native originally honed his photography skills as a journalist, working at the University of Memphis’ student newspaper and interning for The Commercial Appeal. While continuing his education at Ohio University, he grew more conflicted about maintaining objectivity and distance from his subjects as an unbiased reporter.

“As a journalist, after a while it was hard for me to tell other people’s stories when I hadn’t told my own first,” he says.

Discovering the work of photographers LaToya Ruby Frazier and Eugene Richards altered Turner’s career path. In her first book, Frazier explored the legacy of racism and economic decline in America’s small towns by photographing her Pennsylvania hometown. Richards, a Massachusetts native, published three books in which Turner discovered photographs of West Memphis, Earle, and Parkin — places where he grew up.

“So I’m like okay, where I come from is important, so why don’t I turn the lens on the Arkansas Delta from an insider’s perspective,” Turner says.

headshot of photographer Aaron R. Turner

Nearly a decade ago, Turner began taking portraits of his family and Arkansa Delta residents, as well as some photos of the Mississippi Delta. In addition to exploring the changing landscape, the ongoing project offers a story of migration. Turner’s immediate family no longer lives in the Delta so he documents them in their new homes, in places like Texas and Virginia. 

Turner noticed there weren’t a lot of opportunities in the Arkansas Delta growing up and it’s because of that that he decided to return to his home state to produce art and to work as a teaching assistant professor of art at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

“I want to be an example that there is stuff here,” he says. “You don’t always have to leave, or if you do, you don’t have to leave so long or never return.”

In his work, Turner returns over and over again to the same places, the same subjects. By displaying a series of portraits of the same space or person over a few minutes, hours, or years, Turner is able to reflect on change and the passage of time in this exhibition.

Series of photos of a Black woman in a teal shirt

As guests walk through the gallery, they can look at books selected by Turner or download a special playlist he curated on Apple Music or Spotify. The music acts as a connector, he says, filling in the gaps of emotions like grief, resilience and hope.

“The playlist is just to evoke thoughts about reflections on the past and then also to bring hope for the present,” he says.

Yesterday Once More is on display at the Walton Arts Center’s Joy Pratt Markham Gallery through Apr. 3. An artist’s reception is scheduled for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Mar. 18. More information about the exhibition is available at www.waltonartscenter.org.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.