A local photographer living in Mebane, Chris Sims, recently participated in a unique collection of photographs titled Southbound: Photographs of and About the New South.
The photography has been on display at the Halsey Institute in Charleston, South Carolina since October, and will continue to be on display until early March. The display will come to N.C. State and Duke Universities next year.
Sims was born in Michigan and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He has an undergraduate degree in history from Duke University, a master’s degree in visual communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a M.F.A. in studio art from the Maryland Institute College of Art. He worked as a photo archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and currently is the Undergraduate Education Director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. At Duke he also teaches in the Duke-in-Berlin summer program and in the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts graduate program.
Sims made his way to Mebane approximately twenty years ago for a meeting with another photographer, and fell in love with the charm of this small community. He is honored to be a part of this special photography project.
“I first came to Mebane in the late 1990s for a meeting with Bill Bamberger, who had just finished his photographic work for Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory (https://documentarystudies.duke.edu/books/closing-life-and-death-american-factory)," Sims said in a recent interview. “I admired Bill’s work and what it showed about the history and present-day life in the town, and was charmed by Mebane and moved here soon after that. I currently work nearby as the Undergraduate Education Director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where Bill also teaches, along with another Mebane resident, our NC poet laureate Jaki Shelton Green.”
“While I don’t photograph in Mebane for my art work, I do work elsewhere in North Carolina as well as in other parts of the American South,” Sims continued. “It’s been an honor to be included in Southbound and to have my work shown alongside so many of the photographers I’ve admired for a long time. The exhibit will be traveling to NC State and Duke next fall.”
Sims’ recent exhibitions include shows at SF Camerawork, Cambridge University, the Zagreb Museum of Contemporary Art, and the North Carolina Museum of Art. His project on Guantanamo Bay was featured in The Washington Post, the BBC World Service, Roll Call, and Flavorwire. He was selected as the recipient of the Baum Award for Emerging American Photographers in 2010, chosen as one of the "new Superstars of Southern Art" by the Oxford American magazine in 2012, awarded the Arte Laguna Prize in Photographic Art in 2015, and named an Archie Green Fellow at the U.S. Library of Congress in 2017.
Sims was invited to take part in the Southbound photography project through his photography work in a project called “Theater of War: The Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan.” http://www.chrissimsprojects.com/#/theater-of-war-the-pretend-villages-of-iraq-and-afghanistan/.
“In recent years, I have been making photographs within fictitious Iraqi and Afghan villages on the training grounds of U.S. Army bases, places largely unknown to most Americans,” Sims explained. “The villages are situated in the deep forests of North Carolina and Louisiana, and in a great expanse of desert near Death Valley in California. Each base features clusters of villages spread out over thousands of acres, in a pretend country known by a different name at each base: Talatha, Braggistan, or “Iraq.”
The villages serve as a strange and poignant way station for people heading off to war and for those who have fled it. U.S. soldiers interact with pretend villagers who are often recent immigrants from Iraq and Afghanistan, who have now found work in America playing a version of the lives they left behind. The remainder of the village population is drawn from the local communities near the Army bases, including spouses of active duty soldiers as well as military veterans of America’s wars in Vietnam and Korea, some of whom are amputees and who play the part of wounded villagers in their new identities.
“The villages are places of fantastic imagination,” Sims said. “The actors continue playing their roles as police officers, gardeners, and café owners during the long stretches of day between training exercises. Some villagers plant crops that they harvest months later for food for their lunches and dinners. Others pass their leisure time painting murals on the interior walls to beautify their surroundings, or making arts and crafts to trade with other villagers.Sometimes I visit the villages with access provided by the military’s public affairs office; other times I am a role player myself, playing the character of a war photographer for the “International News Network.””
“Here, backstage in the war on terrorism, I see insurgents planting a bomb in a Red Crescent ambulance; American soldiers negotiating with a reluctant mayor; a suicide bomber detonating herself outside of a mosque; and villagers erupting in an anti-American riot,” he continued. “The designers and inhabitants of these worlds take great pride in the scope and fidelity of their wars-in-miniature. By day’s end, hundreds of soldiers and civilians lay dead—the electronic sensors on their special halters indicating whether friendly fire, an improvised explosive device, or a sniper’s bullet has killed them.”
Additional work from Chris Sims can be seen at ChrisSimsProjects.com.