A Conversation with Sarah Hoskins

Sarah Hoskins’ time is split between Chicago, IL and Lexington, KY, where she pursues work vested in lifelong relationships with her subjects that result in intimate portraits of unrepresented communities. Her images have been included in over 100 exhibitions and are part of permanent collections at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The Smithsonian Institution, and The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, among other public and private collections. Her longterm projects include “The Homeplace”, which centers on the lives of individuals living in historic African-American Hamlets in Kentucky’s Inner Bluegrass Region. I spoke with Ms. Hoskins to gain insight into her project, “Black Appalachia,” featured in POLITICO in 2017, and learn more about her motivations for “The Homeplace.”

The Benevolent Sisters in their 99th year  from “The Homeplace” ©Sarah Hoskins

The Benevolent Sisters in their 99th year from “The Homeplace” ©Sarah Hoskins

Did you approach your work for “Black Appalachia” with a mindset similar to that of when you were beginning "The Homeplace"?

Yes, with “Black Appalachia” I was asked to go there with a woman who had written a book on the region. She had seen my work and invited me to come. With this and “The Homeplace” both people connected with me as they felt my work would not be disparaging of the region. I try and elevate my subjects not myself. When I was in Appalachia I was introduced to a woman whose daughter I had

photographed in one of the hamlets documented in “The Homeplace.” Most of my projects stem from each other or have a connection somehow.

Where did the desire and motivation to begin photographing "The Homeplace" originate?

I was working for a publication dealing with the “backside “ of horse racing; it was through this publication that I learned about the communities. I thought it would be a good project. I initially thought I’d work on it for maybe six months at the longest.

Over the course of the 19 years that you have been working on this project, can you see a discernible difference in your earlier work versus your later work as the familiarity and trust with the individuals in and around Lexington, Kentucky grew?

My work is always based on trust. The relationships built as time grew. So much so that we now refer to each other as family. My work began in 2000. It was in 2002 that I went to my first family reunion—the Talbert reunion. Uncle Ernest said, “Come Say-ra,” which is how he said my name, “you are one of us now.” I will never forget that. I really don’t think my work and relationships have changed. Except that we just grew closer and maybe the work is more intimate now, but I think it really was like that from the beginning.

Additionally, how did your relationship with families such as the Howards shift over the course of the 19 years you created "The Homeplace"?

I am preparing my lecture on “The Homeplace” and I always tell this story: I first met the Howards in 2002 when a woman named Helen Young told me about her former teacher at a Rosenwald school. Her name was Lena Mae Howard. It was a Sunday and I followed Helen to Lena Mae Howard’s home. Every Sunday after church, the Howards would all meet at “The Homeplace.” Helen pointed to the house and then left. I went up and knocked. I was going there to interview Lena Mae about her teaching. However, I soon learned I was not the one doing the interviewing! I was sat down in the living room by six Howard sisters. I was the one being interviewed, I like to say, although it was more like an interrogation, as I have never been so nervous. I got them to warm up and was even allowed to make a photo of the six of them, after I complimented a photo of their father. There are too many stories to explain, but let’s put it this way: I attended their most recent family reunion the first week in August, as I have been for 15 years. I have a certificate on my wall that states that I am an honorary Howard. There is only one sister still alive, Princess, she is 99. Gwenn, who is the daughter of Mrs. Howard French, flew to my daughter’s college graduation. They are family. The name of my work comes from their Homeplace; I asked all of the residents what they thought the title of my project should be and they all agreed on “The Homeplace.”

How does "The Homeplace" compare to your earlier work in terms of the time you have given it and the connections you made? Do you continue to retain long term relationships with your past subjects?

Some projects actually do end, it depends on the length and if I still see them. I am and always will be involved with horse racing, however, the rodeo work ended years ago so I don’t see a lot of cowboys from my project, “Racetracks and Rodeos.” Yet, The Homeplace is different from any other. The residents are my family, they rescued my daughter and I from a car accident and took my husband in. That community filled my hospital room in the ICU for a week. They were there when I was medevaced in. There are no words.

As you form relationships with your subject(s), have there been instances in which they have provided input for the ways in which they would like to be photographed or how their stories should be told?

I usually ask my subjects. All the Hamlet residents know and approve of where the work will be published and how it is used. There is open dialogue and conversation about the work and where it will go.

As told to Ayesha Kazim