Chris McDuffie’s Photo Mission to Find Yourself in Outer Experiences
Communications Specialist Meredith Heneghan spoke with Outer Experiences photographer Chris McDuffie in March, 2021.
“Oh, it’s amazing,” Chris said of the Outer Experiences: Black Life in Rural and Suburban Minnesota exhibition, drawing out the word “amazing” to emphasize what sounded like genuine glee. “I was surprised, I didn’t realize that it was going to be blown up so big, but it’s great.”
Heading toward the corner of Robert and 4th Street from any direction downtown St. Paul, you will be faced with images of Black Minnesotans Chris McDuffie photographed last summer, the summer of 2020. I wanted to know more about that process and his involvement in this project.
MH: Look at your portfolio — Lizzo, the Lynx — are you kidding me?! You have got a lot of skills; you are a multifaceted artist. Have you ever worked on a research project like Outer Experiences before, or was this a first?
CM: I think this was the first in that world, which was really interesting. [JoJo Bell, Outer Experiences curator] and I have been friends for a little while, and she approached me some time ago just kind of with the idea of what she wanted to do, and I was fully in. I was like, you know, however I can help, I’m on board.
This was a collaborative effort to be sure, and Chris made a point of giving JoJo Bell and Jeremiah Ellis of AAICM credit for the work they did conducting the oral history interviews and planning the creative direction when it came time to make images that represented the oral histories.
CM: I was just there to make that vision come alive. Coming from being in the city, it was really interesting getting out into a lot of the rural areas and places in Minnesota that I had never been to or seen. Just a new perspective for me.
MH: The locations and subjects of these photographs have to do with some of the stories the participants were telling in the oral histories, right?
CM: Right, exactly. I’m going to be making a few trips back to really soak up some of that, because they had done the interviews and I did the photos afterwards, so I want to get the full impact of this project.
AAICM conducted oral history interviews with 21 Minnesotans with backgrounds in a rural or suburban area, and their stories inspired the entire Outer Experiences exhibition. You can listen to these oral histories at aaicmn.org and read excerpts alongside the photos on Robert and 4th streets.
CM: It was interesting hearing about those struggles of kind of being isolated in those areas. But also, a sense of community. Like, Cheniqua telling me about how diverse Worthington was was mind-blowing to me. Learning how people who had been in that town for generations really showed up for the Black people that were coming into town was really cool. So getting the broad spectrum of what people’s experiences were was really interesting.
“Getting the broad spectrum of what people’s experiences were was really interesting.”
MH: Do you feel like the exhibition gives people a window into what you learned? That complexity?
CM: Yeah, and I feel like in addition to that, the location is really important. [The exhibition] is here in an urban area, it’s downtown St. Paul, and I think that’s really important to introduce folks that are in the city to people that aren’t here, who are coming from rural and suburban areas.
The exhibition and the stories that go along with it are proof, if nothing else, of all the nuances and specifics that go into how each of us grows up, learns, and becomes who we are. It can feel hard to relate to people sometimes, but listening to people’s stories with empathy and curiosity is a first step.
MH: What similarities do you see in the Outer Experiences stories to your experience growing up in St. Paul?
CM: I think that we all struggle with a sense of identity. Finding yourself in these spaces. Even growing up in the city, I have been the only Black kid in plenty of spaces, so it’s always a matter of who are you and how do you show up when you’re the only one?