MH: This is a big question, but what do you think is the overall significance of this project, beyond just the photography?
CM: I think it’s just really timely. I hear and read a lot about division, nation-wide, and finding a way to bridge the experiences of Black people in urban and rural spaces, it’s important to really have that conversation now.
The summer of 2020 was intense everywhere, particularly in Minnesota, and especially in the Twin Cities. Differences among Minnesotans were starker than ever, and the toll of the pandemic made connection in all ways feel increasingly difficult. I wanted to know how the intensity of current events shaped or changed the way that Chris approached doing this project.
CM: Well, cautiously is probably how I would describe it. It was an election year. So there was nothing but large Trump flags everywhere I went. It gave it a sense of weighty heaviness, what we were doing, and it underscored the importance of doing a project like this.
MH: We’re talking a lot about the types of people who will be seeing this exhibition, and who will be being exposed to it virtually across the state. What do you hope people see when they look at these photos?
CM: I think the big thing is that Black people, people of color, aren’t a monolith. We’re in rural areas, urban areas, suburban areas, we come from all different walks of life, and we have varying viewpoints on all sorts of things. I hope this really fleshes out the Black experience.
I could tell that this was not just another job for Chris, that there was a contemplativeness about Outer Experiences that was pure and personal. Everyone who views this exhibition or listens to these oral histories has the opportunity to approach them with that same level of thoughtfulness. No picture of Minnesota is complete without understanding the deeply-rooted history of Black history in the state, and these stories are part of that history in the making.
CM: One thing that I really loved about this: just driving out to different locations. There was just a sense of being really contemplative, and I had a lot of time to really think about what this project meant. But also, a lot of time to think about my experience, as a Black person in a very cosmopolitan area, in an area that is extremely diverse. And then being in a space where you remove a lot of that diversity and culture is like, oh, I have a deeper appreciation for Black folks that are in rural areas!
So, when you look at the portraits of Black Minnesotans who participated in Outer Experiences, in a lot of ways you are also seeing Chris McDuffie’s experience on the other side of the camera. His intention, his presence, and his ability to, in his words, “be open to whatever magic or unexpected things come up.”
CM: I’m just really hoping that people receive this with all the attention and care that many people put into it. There are a lot of folks whose experiences are really close to this, and I’m really hoping that the public at large receives this in that way.
Outer Experiences is a fiercely tender project full of humanity and love. It is a direct reflection of the strength and vulnerability of the storytellers themselves, those pictured by Chris McDuffie and those whose voices we have the privilege of hearing in the oral history recordings.