John Hathaway received his MFA in photography from East Tennessee State University in Johnson City and is a lecturer in photography at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. He has garnered awards and nominations for his work, including being a semifinalist for the Duke Honickman First Book Prize in 2012, when he was also the recipient of an individual Artist Fellowship Grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission. His major projects to date have focused on the Lowcountry of South Carolina and on Carter and Johnson counties in the Cherokee National Forest in Upper East Tennessee.
For Hathaway, these region-specific projects are as much about the people as they are about the land, and he notes that it is rare to look at landscapes anymore and not see some evidence of human interaction with the land. Hathaway considers his work to be both documentary and fine art in nature because of the reality of his subject matter as well as the subjective perspective and narrative he brings to his interpretation.
His series Archaeology of Water documents the unique land and culture of South Carolina’s barrier islands and saltmarsh communities. Backman’s Seafood (2013), for example, shows a scene from an African American, family-owned seafood shop on Sol Legare Island in Charleston County. Thomas Backman, whose grandparents had been enslaved on neighboring James Island, began the business in the 1950s, and it has continued through the decades as a small, local shop selling only fresh fish caught nearby. Hathaway’s image depicts one of the proprietors holding up an expertly filleted fresh catch. Hathaway boldly centers the fish, obscuring the man’s face, though his aged hand is in full view, suggesting a long life of hard work fishing and selling at this small shop. The photograph presents an image of an authentic daily moment in a life deeply embedded in the history and land of the South.
Hathaway’s other project, One Foot in Eden, focuses on the people of the Cherokee National Forest in northeastern Tennessee. Hathaway embarked on the project conscious of the stereotypes of the region, specifically the region’s higher-than-average rates of unemployment and poverty. He did not want to deny this reality, but he also did not want to overemphasize it. For him, the more interesting pursuit was the people’s deep connection to the land and its role in the region’s collective identity. His photographs document how important the land is for people of all ages, from the very young to the very old. Little Stony Creek (2011), for example, depicts a mountain lake seen from the shore of a family’s campsite. Tents, tarps, bungee cords, coals, and a small grill are scattered across the small section of shore, showing the camping essentials the family has brought to their site. The only person visible in the image is a toddler who peeks out at the camera from a portable crib that has been set up inside the tent on the left. One of the child’s eyes is partially obscured by the edge of the crib, which contributes to the feeling that the viewer is almost intruding upon a family’s private retreat. This effect subtly adds a level of viewer self-consciousness to the work that might dampen any quick critique of the family’s economic status or child-rearing choices and instead encourages the viewer to consider the family’s casual, easy comfort with the land. Hathaway’s images seek out this powerful connection between people and the local environment.