My work for over 40 years in the media in the Tri-Cities has blessed me with rich memories of the intriguing and colorful people of Northeast Tennessee. Along the way, I've taken lots of photos, and that's a thousand other stories.
Recently, I photographed a diverse group of people here in Kingsport. This group are members of Horizon Credit Union. At 90 years old, Horizon was once the City of Kingsport's Credit Union. We wanted to feature some of what we understand as the essence of their Credit Union - the hard-working people of Kingsport.
You may have heard the phrase "The Kingsport Spirit." This statement resonated with me under the mayorship of John Clark. His comment wasn't that new, but as a transplant to our City, his affirmation was an authentic outsider's perspective.
But what does that mean? The word "spirit" in itself is somewhat hard to grasp. This short essay needs more time to dive much deeper. Still, I suggest a characteristic of the Kingsport Spirit, which I noticed on this local photo assignment.
Over the past few weeks, these folks granted me time with me and my camera. After reflecting on each of their images and stories, I was struck by one work - dignity.
It wasn't anything anybody said or a slogan on a social media platform, but rather a genuine authenticity of people doing work that matters, and their actions and presence said it all.
My first photo shoot was scheduled with Ivette Lopez. Ivette is a newcomer to Kingsport and works as HR Manager at Cardinal Glass in Church Hill. They are a local employer of 700 and make glass for industries nationwide.
We planned to shoot a photo next to some of the new robotics at their factory. As we walked past the whirring tech in the factory, Ivette seemed to have a calm and personal relationship with everyone we interacted with that day. She clearly and confidently understood their work and the company she serves.
The next subject was Mike Hass and his team with Kingsport's Public Works. We met on the west side of Kingsport one morning as they finished pouring fresh concrete in a neighborhood on Fairview Avenue.
Mike works for the City of Kingsport Public Works and has one of those hands: when you shake it, you feel the work in the callous hands and that East Tennessee grip.
As Mike's team set the concrete, I got a detailed insight into how they do their job. I learned a few tricks and phrases, but I was most impressed with their teamwork as they worked on the streets early that morning. Furthermore, Mike radiates confidence and commitment after over 30 years of working for City. He also works with his local church, where he's an active member and busy with maintenance projects.
Somehow Chris Bentley got my number too. He worked for Public Works and was my first vision for this campaign. A guy working a sanitation truck.
Chris was more than helpful with the photographs and showed me the rental dumpsters the City provides for refuse removal. It's easy to rent them, and he's that guy that delivers and picks up the dumpsters.
Turns out Chris lived over in my old neck of the woods in Poor Valley. I started asking him about his tattoos when I took his photo. There's one in my future, and he warned me that once you start, you can't seem to stop. I'll remember that for sure - but he provided some great photos for the campaign.
Kevin Mitchell and I met while working for the Kingsport Times-News in the 90s. Kevin was a prep athlete phenomenon from Southwest Virginia who went on to a scholarship at VMI and ultimately Carson Newman.
He worked briefly for the newspaper and quickly became a fireman for the City of Kingsport. After almost 30 years, he's now a Lynn Garden fire department Captain.
Kevin inspired me long ago as I knew he was searching for meaning in his work, and being a fireman is not easy. As we were planning our photo shoot, he was in Nashville advocating for PTSD related to emergency workers.
On my last day, I would meet two new people and snap another 300 or so photos.
First up on the Friday was Ryan Wagner. Ryan was a young man, and all I knew headed to Dobyns-Bennett was that he was the baseball coach. Our text messages would clarify a time and date for a scrimmage.
There were few people on the field that day. Tennessee High was the visiting team, and I asked about the DB coach - they pointed at him on the field - cracking balls on the bat to the players on the field.
Ryan was focused on the game, and having a camera follow you around for a few steps may have been awkward, but he let me shoot a few moments with his team as they prepared for the game. Ryan was focused, and everyone had the same frame of mind.
Later that evening, Monica Swayze texted me that she should be at roll call at about 6pm. She would be on patrol in Colonial Heights, and we agreed to shoot a photo a little later that evening.
Another text from Monica came as I was driving to Food City. A crash on Interstate 81 would disrupt our schedule. Monica had hoped to wash the Kingsport City Police Cruiser, but the accident was undoubtedly more pressing.
In the meantime, I called my Mother to tell her I was waiting on a Police Officer. I thought it was funny. She didn't.
Nevertheless, when Monica arrived, she was focused and delightful. Blond hair in a pony tale with red lipstick. She has been working for the police department for over 38 years. It was a delight to share stories with her under the blue lights - and the pictures say it all.
The word dignity repeatedly echoed in my mind as I edited these photographs. I couldn't help but anchor this word onto the definition of the Kingsport Spirit.
Oh, there's more than one, but after working on this project, the random nature of the people of our City was a good reflection. It made me feel like I'd glimpsed something special about the spirit of the people of Kingsport, and if you've lived here long enough, this reflection may be something you've seen as well.
The people have dignity in work and their service to others. It's authentic. It's quiet. It's commitment and determination for a job well done.