Full admission: I didn’t always love Spartanburg. As a kid, all I saw here was a place stuck in the past and showing its age. Being the kid I was, I didn’t understand the town my grandfather — Papa— obviously loved. It took far too long to discover that on my own.
Spartanburg: Hub City
It’s 6:30 PM. I’m standing near where the rail crosses Main just below Daniel Morgan Avenue, hoping to see a train crossing here. The usual Friday night crowd is bustling around, ignoring the guy standing there with a tripod. It’s after sunset, which means I’ve missed the valuable “golden hour” but there’s still some nice views. Following that golden hour is blue hour, after all. Plus, I’m ready to take advantage of the lower-light hours to do some long exposure work.
The idea I’m chasing is to get a picture that resonates well with the identity of Spartanburg as “Hub City.” It’s something I had been thking about for a long time. This is the town that grew up on iron rails, a well-placed center for local industry and opportunity. I wanted to show Spartanburg the way I see it: a town reaching for its future without forgetting its past. A town ready to step into the next generation while never denying its roots.
It’s this quality that I admire the most. This is what I’m talking about when I say that Spartanburg has authenticity and a sense of ownership. It’s a contagious local pride which I’m now glad to be a part of.
This love is something I’ve learned out of an effort to get to know my grandfather better. He died before I started to really figure myself out, so my memories of him are all set through childlike eyes. Burnnie Holliday was a remarkable man. He went to Europe at the close of World War II to begin the rebuilding effort. When he came to Spartanburg, he not only became a minister but a building inspector. I remember as a child when he would go to job sites not only to find issues but help resolve them. In retirement, he built himself a wood shop, where he would spend hours on any given day. If he wasn’t building something, he was thinking about something he could be building, I’m sure. I could spend hours reflecting on how he built a community of compassion around him.
It’s fitting that in those days that I resented carrying the name. I couldn’t see him for who he was. I couldn’t see Spartanburg for what it was. And I definitely couldn’t really see myself. Burnnie is an odd, unique name I thought was attracting bullying. Probably closer to the fact is that I was — and still am — an odd and unique person, and that attracted attention. There were cruelties, and I was eager to place blame somewhere outside of my control. Not all of us are square pegs, after all, and learning to own that is hard. Hard enough that it took me too many years to do it.
I wasn’t yet in love with Spartanburg, or any place for that matter. I hadn’t learned who I was, who he was, or what the community he fiercely loved was. But when I grew to know myself, and became able to see through his eyes, I couldn’t help but to love it here. Every place I look, I see a little of him there. So when I go stand in the freezing cold on a street corner to take a picture of a train, I feel like I’m continuing what he started. I might not know much about buildings. But building communities? I’m willing to take stab at it.
It’s after 7 before I hear the tell-tale whistle of an approaching train. I’m joined by a new friend: a worker at the store I’m parked in front of. He’s a train enthusiast, wondering if I share his passion. I explain myself, how it’s simply a love of this town that has driven me here. He stays with me to wait for its arrival, entertaining me with conversation about both trains and cameras until we can see the engine’s lights cutting through the darkness. When it comes around the penultimate turn crossing over St. John before stopping traffic on Main, I ready myself behind the camera.
It takes only minutes for the train to pass. I can barely contain my excitement as I snap away, just happy that a shot I had envisioned time and time again had come to fruition. Before I am able to get more than a half dozen pictures, it’s all over. I say my farewells to my compatriot of the last twenty minutes, pack my camera, and head home. I think the pictures reflect pretty well on what I was trying to accomplish. I’m proud of them, and looking at them reminds me of how I feel. That’s what it’s really all about for me.
Capturing what light looks like from a certain perspective is relatively easy. Putting thoughts into coherent sentences comes pretty naturally. Laying the emotional foundation that makes these things carry meaning, that’s what is difficult. That’s what I mean when I say that a portrait can be more than just a record of what somebody looked like at a certain moment. With the right work and the right context, it can carry a deeper meaning, and accomplishing that is worth the challenge. It lets us connect with who we are, the community we live in, and the future to come.
This year, I want to get to know more people in the community. I want to connect. I want to learn all I can manage and maybe, if I’m very lucky, show what a portrait can be. Because it’s not just about a side-hustle or paying bills or buying a nicer camera for me. It’s about delivering a value to my town and my community, being a vehicle for others to be able to build on their story. That’s something to think on as we all go about our day-to-day. Our stories, told in words, shown in pictures, are attempts to make our memories less fleeting. They deserve consideration and effort, to be made grand and fondly recalled. We should each of us know what we want our stories to say.
Further Inspiration: “Oh Me! Oh Life!”