Can we Just Skip the Cotton Field Photos?

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It’s the South in Fall! It’s 70 degrees, but we’re all out here wearing boots, jeans, sweaters, and scarves! Pumpkin everything is everywhere. Fall mini sessions are in full swing, but this year (and every year after), let’s skip the cotton field photos. Look, we get it. They’re pretty. They’re as close as we’re going to get to snow pictures. And they’re seasonably appropriate. 

But they also elicit strong, mostly negative and painful reactions to a large population here in our city. One of our owners posted this question in our writers’ group:

“I never thought twice about cotton field photos being racial until last year when we had a few (5) moms email or PM us about how disappointed/offended they were that it was one of our ‘100 Things to do over Fall Break’ items. (If you notice, this year it’s take a family picture in a pumpkin patch.) Can you speak to this? Are you offended? Is it a big deal?”

cotton pictures

The answers our writers gave were so well thought out and reasoned that we wanted to share them with you so we can put cotton field pictures in the past, where they belong.

“I’m not going to speak for anyone else, but I can tell you as a white person who had cotton stems in a vase on my mantle because I liked how they looked— my very good friend who is black sat down and explained to me why it hurt her so much to see cotton field portraits, cotton as decoration, cotton on smocked dresses. It was absolutely a perspective I appreciated and I felt enlightened to know and also sheltered that I didn’t even think about it. I took it down.”

I’ve always found them off-putting. While they can look very nice, I think there is a very deep and morbid history of cotton fields in the South. It is directly related to slavery and old money.”

“There is an enormous pain + trauma associated with cotton for obvious reasons. It’s unfortunate that it is a fall crop and it’s intertwined with the fall aesthetic. It is yet another token of this country’s history that most try to ignore or sweep under the rug. I get anxious and feel immediate sadness when I come across them in home decor + craft stores or when we’re driving. I don’t think of happy families when I see cotton. Although it is not the intention, we can’t receive cotton attached to anything other than hurt.”

“I spent a lot of my childhood in ‘the country’ and walking the same land that my ancestors did as slaves, because my family is still in the area. I remember picking cotton for the first time and tears ran down my face. At first I couldn’t understand why something as simple as cotton could cause such an emotional reaction, but we are connected to that. I personally don’t get offended by the pic but I can see how some people would. And also we are in such a sensitive culture…everything is a topic of racial debate.”

“We just drove by a cotton field over the weekend and my son instantly started talking about slavery and the history surrounded by cotton fields in general. I personally don’t get offended when I see other people’s pictures, but I wouldn’t have any pics done for myself, because, although the family looks beautiful in the picture, it’s hard to associate a cotton field with beauty if that makes sense.”

“The cotton field itself does create an imagery of the oppression and torment experienced by our ancestors. When we would pass the fields headed to my grandmother’s church, I could see the past: dark skinned and tired under the blazing sun and singing in a language that only they could understand but would soon be erased. It creates a stir of emotions that one would think the world could understand without needing an explanation. It’s an easy and familiar reminder that this country was built on and continues to survive off of the forced brutal labor from our people.”

It’s easy to choose another location for your fall family photos. It’s not as easy to put yourself in another’s shoes. Segregation was outlawed less than 60 years ago, and slavery’s wounds are still fresh. Our cotton fields are so tied to slavery that we should respect their significance and take family photos elsewhere. Not one of us would take family photos in front of the 9/11 Memorial, and none of us should pose in front of cotton fields.

Thank you to our beautiful writers for sharing their perspectives. I know that too often you have to speak up in this way and explain your experiences and perspectives to the rest of us. Thank you for doing it yet again. You are so important to this group and this community.