Since the Great Recession in 2007, rural employment rates have been steadily increasing. According to a 2020 United States Department of Agriculture report, rural unemployment has been at its lowest in over a decade. However, such aggregate trends overlook an important aspect of work—its meaningfulness. In many small towns throughout the Southern United States, much of the available work pays little and demands much on the body. As a result, meaningful employment is often out of reach for some men living in the rural South.
The lack of meaningful work opportunities undercuts conventional masculine roles, leaving the traditional “bread-winner” and “head of the household” looking for alternative ways to maintain a sense of agency and selfhood. In lieu of gainful employment and secure families, many adopt identities as “dangerous men” who, by creating, entering, and navigating chaotic situations, can test their mettle, establish a sense of self-worth, and situate their masculinity in culturally recognizable terms. Such performances frequently combine proclivities for drug use, fast living, and violence—actions appropriated from mainstream entertainment and familiar to a broad audience—that provide opportunities for the enactment of one type of masculine power.
While these identities can provide men a means to status and respect among the like-minded, a tension between fostering outlaw identities and a desire to be accepted among conventional people may still exist. As these dangerous men witness others afforded the opportunity to have more structured and acceptable lives, they are faced with a dilemma: adapt and find ways to live more traditionally or resist and indulge life on the margins. But, not all who wish to adapt are able, leaving them in a liminal space.
As part of a year and a half long photo-ethnography of people who use methamphetamine in the rural South, we examined how such men respond to these dilemmas. The video introduces us to one such man: JC, a long-term methamphetamine user and dealer living in precarious conditions with his wife and stepson. Unable to find work, they had recently lost their home and were staying with JC’s mother in a small-town public housing apartment. JC struggled to reconcile his desire to be respected by dangerous men and conventional citizens alike. He portrayed himself as a man who confronted danger—even regularly seeking it out—but also as someone who wished to be emotionally available for his family and a conventional member of society. This tension pervaded his thoughts and shaped his interactions with us.
JC’s commentary reflects the mindset of many who live in similar places and who have turned to crime and drugs to gain a sense of empowerment. His simple question, “Y’all ever met anyone like me, man? Have you?” points to his alienation from conventional others and his desire to live outside the norm while also seeking recognition and power. He is aware of how he “profiles” to others, which, in turn, shaped his often aggressive responses to ward off potential slights to his character. Accordingly, he believed that he was caught in-between the dangerous men who engage in violence and use drugs and the “good people” on the other side of the law. Although brief, this glimpse into his life highlights the tension that many living on the margins experience as they seek to live up to social expectations.
Heith Copes is a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He graduated from the University of Tennessee with a PhD in sociology in 2001. His primary research agenda uses qualitative and visual methods to examine criminal decision-making and narrative identity.
Jared Ragland (MFA, Tulane University) is a fine art and documentary photographer and former White House photo editor. Utilizing a range of photographic tactics, Ragland's collaborative, socially-conscious art practice critically examines Southern identity, marginalized communities, and the history of place. Ragland is the photo editor of National Geographic Books’ "The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office," and his work is found in collections including the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, Birmingham Museum of Art, Contemporary Art Center New Orleans, and the Phoenix Art Museum. His first film, SOME MILLION MILES (co-dir. with Adam Forrester), received the Reel South Short Award at the 2019 Sidewalk Film Festival and is distributed by PBS. He is currently at work on a long-form photographic survey across the state of Alabama as a 2020 Do Good Fund Artist-in-Residence and 2020 Magnum Foundation Fellow.
Adam Forrester (MFA, University of Georgia) is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and video artist based in Atlanta. His work has been featured by NPR, PRX, ArtsATL, AEON Magazine, VICE Magazine and exhibited at the Historic Center of Kalamata in Greece, Bunkier Sztuki Contemporary Art Gallery in Poland, and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. His films have been distributed by PBS, and screened at DOC NYC, IFF Boston, Sheffield Doc/Fest, New Orleans Film Festival, indie grits, and many more. Forrester currently serves as a co-director for the Atlanta Chapter Video Consortium, and Lead Cinematographer for Emory Libraries at Emory University.