• November 16, 2015

10 Powerful Portraits From Small Town Missouri

Becky Harlan
Dennis Dimick

You pass a lot of cornfields as you drive into Perryville, Missouri. After you enter the town, those cornfields turn into churches, diners, schools, and homes. Bordering on sleepy, Perryville fulfills the conventional image of Middle America.

If you weren’t looking closely, you might even miss the fact that a superhero lives here. His name is Treven, and he’s eight years old.

Picture of a young boy hanging from a red playground implement against the backdrop of a blue sky
”He’s s-m-a-l-l,” says Bettina of her son Treven Comstock, who lives large with a rare developmental disability called translocation Down syndrome. Treven is lucky: He has loving parents, a supportive community, and a room full of superhero costumes to help him navigate his world.
Photograph by Lindsey Leger

This September, 41 photographers (including myself) from 18 states and seven countries arrived in Perryville, each in search of someone—like Trevan—with a story to share. We had one week to discover that story and photograph it to the best of our ability as part of the Missouri Photo Workshop.

The result is a rich tableau of experience—the tension between a man’s faith and his sexuality, a widower reorienting his life after his wife’s passing, and an eight-year-old boy living with translocation Down syndrome who feels most at home dressed as Superman. These exact stories can’t be found anywhere else, but these kinds of stories are everywhere—if you’re looking for them.

Portrait of a man wearing glasses and buttoning up his shirt taken from slightly above
Jim Maloney’s lifelong dream was to become a preacher. Raised in a devoutly Catholic family, Maloney attended seminary school when he was young, only to be forced away when he came out as gay. Still dedicated to his religion, Maloney struggles with reconciling his faith with the community that cast him aside.
Photograph by Chet Strange

Since 1949, the Missouri Photo Workshop (MPW for short) has captured and catalogued the breadth of life in 46 of Missouri’s small towns (sometimes returning to the same place after a number of years has passed). Founded by the Missouri School of Journalism’s Clifton C. Edom, the workshop is amassing a growing archive of images shot by more than 2,500 photographers.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say those photos show the evolution of small-town Missouri, and America, over nearly seven full decades,” says current co-director of MPW Jim Curley.

Photograph of a woman plucking another woman's eyebrows while a young boy plays in the background
Chlorissa Stortz relaxes while her younger sister Miranda plucks her eyebrows and her son Conner plays in the background. Chlorissa shares a trailer with her boyfriend, 20-year-old Nathan Arrington, who she says can’t say no to anyone. Arrington’s son, best friend, younger sister, aunt, and three nephews also share the trailer.
Photograph by Loren Elliott
Picture of a teenage girl in a drugstore matching foundation to her face with the help of her grandmother
With the help of her grandmother, 14-year-old high school freshman Maddie Meyer picks a shade of concealer that best matches her complexion. Self-esteem issues are a signature aspect of the teenage years and can be difficult for anyone. Meyer is no exception, but her problems stem from early childhood medical trauma. When she was a little over age one, Maddie underwent chemotherapy—seven months sooner than medically recommended. Two battles with retinalblastoma claimed her right eye; the latent effects of radiation too early on has led to cartilage deterioration. In a few months Maddie must decide whether or not to undergo reconstructive facial surgery. She risks complete blindness and potential brain damage.
Photograph by Melissa Bunni Elian
Picture of a tough-looking man with a shaved head and beard in a tank top with tattoos leaning across the veterinary table to take a look at his patient, a Boston terrier
Doc Freeman (left) is one of Perryville’s two veterinarians. Whether it’s a cow destined for the dinner table, a stray cat, or the family mutt, he treats every animal as if it were his own. Here, he begins an examination on a recently adopted dog. He works closely with a local no-kill shelter to treat the animals brought in and to help identify homes for them. Doc’s life revolves around his work: “I drink beer, play softball, and take care of animals. If you call me, I’m coming, because that’s what I do.’’
Photograph by Chris Occhicone

Part of the magic of MPW is the ability of workshop participants to generate intimate imagery in such a short period of time. When else would you ask someone you just met if you can photograph them sleeping, going to a therapist, or taking a bath, if not for the sort of crucible this workshop creates? (It probably helps that the workshop coaches are some of the best photographers and editors in the business, and they’re eager to help students push the boundaries of their visual storytelling skills.)

Picture of two people, one in a wheelchair, walking up hill through a vast green field
Twins Matt and Mike Schamburg, 28, traverse the land that has been in their family for generations. The two have always had a special relationship and share a love of sports. Although Matt is older by two hours, he lived his early formative years looking up to his younger but larger brother. Roles were reversed 11 years ago, when Mike’s car accident changed both of their lives forever and forced Matt to take on a new role as the bigger brother.
Photograph by Ralph Pace
Picture of a man holding a calf around his shoulders like a necklace
David Rhoden carries a newborn calf over his shoulders as he transfers the calf from one barn to another. Calves are natural herd animals, so this one will soon be introduced to a pen with four others. Rhoden works at one of the last remaining dairy farms in Perry County, Voelker Swiss Farm. Charles Voelker owns the farm and works with his three employees: his son Chad Voelker, David Rhoden, and Stephanie Rhodes, who work together to keep the dairy thriving.
Photograph by Lauren Schneiderman

These portraits show people who were living remarkable stories long before a band of photographers recorded them for a week. These are the people who animate a town that might appear commonplace to newcomers but reveals itself as remarkable to those willing to look a little longer.

Picture of a man lying on a couch taking a nap under a portrait of him and his wife, who has passed away, her face in the frame illuminated by a patch of light
Don Giesler was once a highly sought after realtor. Aging, retired, and living on his own after losing his wife last year, he is still reflecting on what to do with his life. He’s been taking care of his stepdaughter as she temporarily stays with him due to health problems. As his past starts to fade away, Giesler is being shaped into a new person. He remembers spending time with Norma in the days before she died. “I spent every day with her. When she was sick, I was sick with her.”
Photograph by Hannah Yoon

Explore more stories from the 67th class of the Missouri Photo Workshop here and follow along for updates on Instagram.

Discover photographic gems from the nearly seven decades of the MPW archives here.

Editor’s Note: This post originally included ten photographs, one portrait has been removed at the request of the subject.

There are 7 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Mel
    November 17, 2015

    It’s sad to see your publication beating drum of the GBLT diatribe.

  2. Ashley
    November 17, 2015

    Great work! Would love to see Cabool, Missouri highlighted during one of these workshops.

  3. Cally
    November 16, 2015

    Beautiful pictures, but the caption on the picture of the trans woman ignores her proper pronouns and name. I’m very disappointed that National Geographic did not fix this problem.

    • Becky Harlan
      November 17, 2015

      Thanks for pointing this out, Cally. When the photographer Gabrielle was working with the subject, she often referred to her as “he” since her mother was not yet aware of the transition and since the subject is still comfortable using both “he” and “she”. These captions were pulled from the original workshop captions, but since a conversation with the photographer, we have updated the post with “she.” Thanks again for voicing your concern.

      Note: This caption was edited to remove the subject’s name at their request.

  4. Jim
    November 16, 2015

    Thanks Becky for reminding us of our roots in small town America.

  5. Susan Hayek-Kent
    November 16, 2015

    all of these photos taken in this small town in missouri are tender and beautiful and evocative.
    congratulations to the photographers.

  6. Tiffany Rhoden
    November 16, 2015

    Thank you for capturing an awesome photo of my little brother, David Rhoden! It sends a powerful message, it’s my new favorite of him & makes me smile everytime it flips through the screensaver on my computer.

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