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  • March 30, 2015

The Quest to Find the ‘Real Florida’

Some people say that Florida is a state full of hopefuls—people who flock there in hopes of realizing a dream, an idea, or a lifestyle. Photojournalist Melissa Lyttle is not one of these hopefuls but a native Floridian. After years of living in Florida, the state and all of its nuances have become the central character in Lyttle’s storytelling. She says she wants to show people that her home state is more than meets the eye—it’s not something to be stereotyped by outsiders but instead revered by its residents.

When Lyttle became a staff photographer for the Tampa Bay Times, she lived less than a mile away from the hospital in which she was born and felt she had “truly gone full circle, and [that it was] a huge honor and privilege to be tasked with covering ‘home.’” However, this privilege had unique challenges. “In a place where preservation of land or history is not a priority, and tourism is king, finding what’s real and authentic is a challenge unique to this state,” she says.

When I found out Lyttle was curating a selection from her body of work on her home state, I was intrigued by her unique perspective and emailed her to learn more about the project, which she describes as “a visceral reaction to others’ views of Florida.”

Picture of boy in goggles pool side
A 10-year-old boy takes a break from swimming in the pool of the Mosley Motel in St. Petersburg, Florida. He and his family have been living at the motel for a few months, but his aunt pretends they are on vacation.
Photograph by Melissa Lyttle, Tampa Bay Times

MALLORY BENEDICT: What does Florida represent to you?

MELISSA LYTTLE: Wonder. The how and whys of its very existence and the mystique surrounding that fascinate me. For a lot of people Florida is either the happiest place on Earth—a place to bring your family on vacation or retire to and spend your golden years in—or it’s a place where people come to lose themselves in sunbaked anonymity. As a native Floridian, both of those ideologies are like one big sociological study and are totally intriguing to me.

Picture of man getting ready in bathroom
“Diamond Jim” Kopernick, a perpetual bachelor, readies himself in his bathroom before going out in Sun City Center, Florida. His calendar is dotted with happy hours, ladies’ nights, and a weekly date with locals at a country karaoke bar.
Photograph by Melissa Lyttle, Tampa Bay Times

MALLORY: How important are characters to your stories and your work?

MELISSA: The characters in my stories are the stories. It’s their lives I want to be let into, their moments I hope to capture, and their faces I’m try to put on an issue in the hopes that people will care about it.

My approach to getting to know the people in my stories is simple. I’m honest about my intentions. I stress my desire to spend time with them. And I have long conversations with the people I’m photographing about what they think their story is. I find it helpful to remember that it’s not my story… it’s theirs. I’m just the conduit.

Picture of a tent city under freeway
Almost 80 people call a spit of land underneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway home, most of whom are sex offenders with nowhere else to go. A strict law in Miami-Dade County says they can’t live within 2,500 feet of schools, playgrounds, parks, and school bus stops.
Photograph by Melissa Lyttle, Tampa Bay Times

MALLORY: Did you examine Florida in a different way once it became a subject instead of solely your home state?

MELISSA: I think it’s changed over the course of my photographic life. The older, wiser, more seasoned journalist would love to go back in time and tell young Melissa that context is incredibly important. I think once I realized that, it was an aha moment and my pictures changed for the better. They got more complex, and there was storytelling because I understood that this event or situation I was photographing couldn’t happen anywhere else but in this place. And this place is very much a character worth capturing.

Picture of Jesus impersonator, Orlando
While a line forms, one of the six actors playing Jesus at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando pauses from taking photos with tourists to pray with two patrons at the Christian theme park.
Photograph by Melissa Lyttle, Tampa Bay Times

MALLORY: There are certain stigmas about Florida—the people are old, the weather is humid, and there are alligators and sinkholes at every turn. How have these stereotypes affected your perception of your home state?

MELISSA: Sure, those things are all accurate. You’re also leaving out the blood-sucking mosquitoes, the blood-sucking real estate developers, hurricanes, sunburned tourists wearing Mickey Mouse ears, and every character out of a Carl Hiaasen novel.

Stereotypes are based in some semblance of the truth. And they exist for a reason. They’re easy. It’s human nature to want to lump something into a category in order to understand it. To say Florida is “weird” lets people feel like their home states, whatever their deficiencies, are somehow normal. Getting beyond those stereotypes is the hard part. That takes time and understanding.

Picture of a couple kissing under a Confederate flag
Standing in the bed of their pick-up truck, a young couple kiss outside of the rodeo grounds in Tampa, Florida, where they hang out on Friday nights to watch their friends ride bulls.
Photograph by Melissa Lyttle

MALLORY: Do you aim to change your readers’ and viewers’ perception of Florida?

MELISSA: As a native Floridian, I find myself getting defensive when people make fun of Florida. It’s low-hanging fruit and always good for a cheap laugh. I just hope that maybe through my pictures people can realize that it’s more than that.

Picture of man in native american dress
Postal worker by day and Creek Indian by passion, James Allen has been involved in reenactments for the last 20 years.
Photograph by Melissa Lyttle, Tampa Bay Times

People are drawn here for a reason. People that visit as tourists come back to live. Retirees and snowbirds are on the quest for their own mythological fountain of youth. Immigrants come looking for work because there’s a huge demand for cheap laborers in the construction, agriculture, and service industries. Homeless people are seduced by the warmth and sunshine. Wealthy people and con artists are seduced by the lack of taxes. All are tempted by the quality of life. Make fun of it all you want, but people keep coming here and there’s a reason for that.

Putting together this work and wanting to build on it is really just a visceral reaction to others’ views of Florida. I want to acknowledge that yes, it is all of those things you think it is, but it’s also deeper, darker, and a lot more real than it appears on the surface. I’m here to document and to show people this state isn’t any one thing.

picture of a chicken flying away
Lori Smith holds a chicken that she found wandering around in her front yard and adopted. Smith has adopted many animals, including a blind baby raccoon, a blue heron, and over a dozen koi fish.
Photograph by Melissa Lyttle, Tampa Bay Times
Melissa Lyttle is a freelance photographer based in Tampa, Florida, and is the founder of the online community A Photo a Day. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Mallory Benedict is an assistant photo editor for National Geographic News. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

There are 16 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. The Smiley One
    August 6, 2015

    All you Florida haters can kiss my golden brown a**. Florida, like every state, has its good and bad areas, good and bad people, etc. I am originally from NJ, but I love it here. Sure FL has quite a reputation for weirdness, but our population is greater than the state of NY. You are bound to find a variety of characters and characteristics. You don’t see me characterizing NY by its piss-soaked psycho at the train station with brown liquid oozing out from under his pant leg. (True story.)

  2. June Salvato
    April 12, 2015

    I have lived in Pinellas County(St. Petersburg/Largo) since 1945. Needless to say I have seen many changes, some good, some bad. But there is such a diversity of landscapes that you can visit different beautiful visual areas in an hours time. Yes, there are not so nice areas and beaches that you can no longer even see because large condos now occupy them, but if you look there is more beauty then bad, more wonderful people then greedy rich, criminals, street poor, the unfriendly, etc. Florida is the pearl in the oyster! (:

  3. Rae Zimmerman
    April 12, 2015

    Melissa doesn’t seem to be showing Florida’s downside (with sex offenders, tourists-gone-Disney, and a hotel at every corner! She seems focused on wanting to portray Florida from thê fullness of all vantages. I find her images absorbing, her tthoughts and

  4. Marie Fishman
    April 6, 2015

    I was born in The Florida Keys in the 60’s and lived there 40 years. I grew up crabbing chest deep in water off of Card Sound Road while keeping watch of crocodile eyes burning in the sunset light. I drove with my Dad in a boat to a small island off shore about 1 hr away to hunt for 1700’s old bottles. I scuba dove three Spanish Galleons that my father had Federal leases to five and salvage from age 12 when I was certified by PADI. We camped in the Everglades Cape Sable by boat when there was no facilities and no patrols for days. There we would go to the bathroom over a tree branch, bathe naked in the bay and catch fish to eat. That is the Florida I knew. Today I live on a barrier Island off of Vero Beach. Much different. Thanks for your view on Florida. This is mine.

  5. Butch
    April 5, 2015

    Interesting, but not unique! Those shots and stories could be anywhere in the USA these days. I’m from Philly, then Delaware, Germany, France, St. Louis and finally Florida. I’m in Central Florida, away from the crowds. There are lakes everywhere, and gentle rolling hills. Florida is not flat!

  6. Nathan Ray
    April 4, 2015

    Love your work Melissa.

  7. @ginabegin
    April 4, 2015

    Florida is my native home, where I was born and mostly raised (small stint out west for three years at the end of elementary school). It is where my family all still resides, and where I return for months at a time to my backyard river home, gators and all.

    It is everything mentioned in here, and it is so much more. There is amazing adventure, beautiful marshes and lazy rivers, “jungles” (though small by S. American standards, perhaps), and incredible wildlife. There are fascinating people and cultures.

    But there is also the sordid side with crime, sex offenders, racism, etc. Not unlike other places.

    She did not misrepresent our beautiful Florida, in her words she defends it. But all parts of Florida are the “Real Florida” and the problem here is not that she was trying to show only the bad — it’s that there is only so much space in a post like this. You can’t cover it all, so you follow a theme. It was well done with words and photos, I thought, showing a different side to Florida other than just the beautiful beaches and theme parks.

    I’m proud of my Florida, the weird part and the beautiful part.

    And, by the way, there is nothing wrong with talking about the crime or the downtrodden — it’s how we become aware of situations and recognize a need for change.

  8. Dorothy D
    April 4, 2015

    Sorry if this is what your Real Florida looks like. Been going to the Gulf Coast for 30 years. Has changed for the worse because of the developers, politicians and unrealistic views of both! Still go back because every year we meet more interesting people coming from all over the world who are looking for the Real Florida! It is a state of mind! My daughter and I captured a great many shots of the State that are below Tampa. You live in the crowded part of Florida!

  9. MimiB
    April 1, 2015

    My Florida, where I’ve lived for 27 years, is not overrun by sex offenders, drug deals, rednecks or weirdos. Oh, we have problems, what with the ability of grasping greedy developers to corrupt public officials, being overrun with tourist traffic, the usual heat and humidity and of course, occasional crime … but many if not most Florida communities are very nice places to live.

    I have friendly neighbors, a lake out back with wading birds and turtles [yeah, yeah, the occasional gator too] paved bike paths, beautiful beaches, great restaurants, a nearby university, arts centers, green markets, theaters and no more crime than anyplace else I’ve lived in my long wandering life.

    When publications like Nat Geo and photographers like Melissa go out of their way to emphasize the marginal and odd, one is left with a distorted image that does not accurately reflect the “Real Florida”.

  10. George
    April 1, 2015

    Over 2,200 Artistic photos of what its like to live in Miami, Florida – https://instagram.com/andywarh0l/ Shot with nothing but an iphone.

  11. Melissa Lyttle
    April 1, 2015

    Hey Bill,

    This started out as a 400+ picture edit, and narrowed down to the 48 I showed the Nat Geo photo editors. And as you can see, eight ran… So yeah, it’s a small sampling of the state, but it’s not for a lack of material… only a lack of space here on the blog.

    All the best,
    -m

  12. Luisa
    March 31, 2015

    Wait, so you’re attempting to glorify (or “uncover”) Florida by sharing pics of sex offenders, Jesus impersonators, and the confederate flag?? This is exactly what’s wrong with FL, and exactly why I got out as soon as I could. Nothing new here as far as I’m concerned…

  13. Bill spooner
    March 30, 2015

    I think you only hit a small part of your state , I have seen so much more and haven’t been to miami , I wish I could send you some pictures of what I’ve seen !

  14. Verna Austin Wall
    March 30, 2015

    i met Melissa at Bodie Island Lighthouse Descendents Reunion, Outer Banks, NC; which she and Lane DeGregory covered for Our
    State Magazine and was so impressed with her engaging
    Personality and talented photography
    Persona. She and Lane put me at ease and made the event even more
    Enjoyable ! I truly liked both of them immediately. Later, when I learned more about Melissa’s many accolades, I was not surprised , but
    Very proud to have met her and
    Follow her achievements. I told her
    I’d be proud to have her as one of
    My “daughters”! She is someone to be proud of ! Great coverage of
    “Her State”.

  15. Luana Smith
    March 30, 2015

    Love what u r doing!

  16. Deni
    March 30, 2015

    Florida is a dump. People get lured by the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, but then get stuck in the horrible economy, criminal infested suburbs. Its not where anyone should end up.

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