Mississippi Delta: Through the Lens of Peter Stephan
I met Peter Stephan at a book signing I did in Lexington, Kentucky. I found out he taught in the Mississippi Delta and took some photographs while he was there. When I checked out the images online, I was riveted. They are gorgeous. Revealing. Intriguing. Peter not only let me share his pictures with you, but he also told me about his experiences living and teaching elementary school in Mississippi.
You’re such a good photographer. When did you start taking pictures?
I first started in ninth grade. My grandfather had dabbled in film, and he actually helped start the first television station in the United States. He was a technician. He loved film and got into photography at the end of his life. When he passed away, he left his camera to my mom and she let me use it. In high school, I took random photos around my neighborhood. Then I was photo editor for my college newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, and later, I did freelance work for the Miami Herald and some other papers.
Have you had any formal lessons or training?
I never took any classes. I just kind of experimented.
I went to the Delta in 2006 because I wanted to join Teach for America. I had lived in Chicago for the last four years, and I wanted something different. I really thought going somewhere rural would be a different experience. I was attracted to the history of the Delta. There was so much history, so much intrigue. A lot of people don’t understand it. I wanted to understand it. It also happened to be in the worst performing state in terms of education. So for both of those reasons, I wanted to go there.
How would you describe your experience?
I lived there for two years from August, 2006 to June, 2008. It was very difficult. My first year, I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped in the classroom. If you don’t get your kids involved in the first couple weeks, you pretty much lose them. That’s what happened.
The next year, I taught second grade and I finally got the hang of it. That year my principal gave me Teacher of the Year, not just for my classroom work but for the soccer league I started and other extracurricular activities that I led.
Living and teaching in the Delta was both deeply enlightening and maddeningly frustrating. A lot of what really struck me was the poverty and the lack of development.
Sometimes my students would ask, “When is lunch?” Ninety seven percent of them were on free or reduced lunch. So I’d ask what they had for dinner last night. They’d say, “I don’t know.” I’d say, “Oh did you have noodles?” Noodles was the politically correct form of saying “nothing.” And they’d say, “Yeah, noodles.”
Stuff like that made me want to cry because I couldn’t really do anything about it. You have a lot of power as a teacher to influence the future, but you don’t have a lot of power to influence life conditions in the present.
Well, I loved seeing my kids outside of school. I was really interested in getting to know them. I saw them at events like the Crawfish Festival in Leland. It happens every May. They have a lot of crawfish boils and blues bands. They close off one of the streets, which is a big deal for Leland because they only have two streets running through the town. I saw my students and said hi and mingled with them and their families. It was great to be in a small town because I knew everyone—Molly from the coffee shop and Vernice from the upholstery store.
What did you learn from your students or from being there in general?
I learned a lot about some of the issues that affect our country, not just education, but race relations and the socioeconomic gap. I feel like I aged 10 years even though I was only there for two, just because I learned so much.
You said you learned about race relations. What did you learn?
There’s an open and honest discussion to be had. I grew up in an all white school. Even though I lived in a pretty diverse neighborhood, I never really associated with other ethnic groups. Being in Mississippi, I got a sense of black culture. I just felt more comfortable understanding black people. I always felt an invisible barrier between me and black people, but there wasn’t any of that in the Delta. Most people were very open and more willing to interact across racial lines than in cities like Chicago, which is incredibly racially divided.
Are the neighborhoods in Leland segregated?
Well, Leland isn’t divided so much by the railroad track as by the creek. People refer to it as the “white side of the creek” and the “black side of the creek.”
What about the schools?
Most of the white kids go to private schools. Usually those schools are as bad as or worse than the public schools. It’s one of those underlying currents of racial tension that still is a rub in the Delta. My first year, one of the black students at my school transferred to a what was an all-white private school, because his family had the money to do it. I heard through the grapevine that his going to this “private school” caused a huge uproar among the white parents there.
What is your favorite picture that you took in the Delta? Why?
In terms of story, the photo of my students in the classroom acting wild. That was in my first year. There’s a paper ball in midair. There’s another picture of a kid who caught a bird in his bare hand. He wasn’t my student. It was bizarre. I’d never seen anyone do that before. Luckily the bird was not hurt. He let it go.
In terms of beauty, there’s the iconic photo of cotton. Everything in the Delta is based on or relates to cotton, at least in some way. Also, I like the picture of the magnolia flower. Magnolias are the state flower of Mississippi. In the photo, you can see the stamen clearly and the different shades of white, the hint of the petals.
What if someone wants to own one of your photographs?
My website is: www.peterlstephan.com. When you click on one of the thumbnails on my website, it will show the picture in a frame. Most of the photos appear with a yellow button on the bottom left that says “Print Photo.” When you click it, you can specify the size and see the pricing. They’re all high resolution, and you can order prints up to poster size. Of course, they won’t have the watermark when they’re printed. Once you place your order, a professional company prints and ships to you.
So what are you doing now?
I still love photography as a hobby. But now I’m at law school. I want to affect a lot of change.