I was taking photos in downtown Snyder, Oklahoma, when a man approached me and said, “If you want to learn about the history of this town, go in that store and talk to A.J. He knows everything about this place.” The man proceeded to tell me that the building across the street used to be a hotel and is now haunted by a ghost, and about the three different defunct theaters in the town, demonstrating his own local knowledge.
After our short conversation, I went into the Toma Discount Food store and asked for A.J. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Woodward,” I replied. “You only think you had a big tornado,” he said. He then trash-talked our infamous 1947 tornado, one of the most powerful and deadly ever recorded, and said the 1905 Snyder tornado was much more lethal. He reached under the counter, pulled out a folder filled with black and white photos, and told me all about the devastating tornado that killed 150 of the 800 residents.
I ended up talking to A.J. for an hour. He told me about his family history, how they immigrated from present-day Lebanon, and about the 20,000 people of Middle Eastern descent in the area. He talked about Oklahoma history and gave his thoughts on the future of his hometown.
In Africa, they say, “When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.” When A.J. dies, a library will indeed burn. His knowledge and passion for the history of Snyder is likely to be unmatched by anyone else.
When I travel overseas, I’m used to locals offering me tea, beer, snacks, or stopping to chat. Visiting America for the first time in three years due to the pandemic, I had dozens of encounters with locals as I photographed the small towns in my home state. Meeting locals came as a big surprise and, like my travels overseas, were some of the highlights of my trip.
My strategy for photographing the small towns of Oklahoma is likely what caused the locals to approach me, often with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. I usually drove through town, making mental notes of photogenic buildings, then parked at the end of Main Street and explored on foot. It isn’t every day, after all, that a stranger walks around snapping photos of defunct gas stations, empty storefronts, and little liquor stores.
In Drumright, Oklahoma, a lady pulled up to me and said, “I want ya to know that you are all over the Facebook. The whole town is wonderin’ what yer doin’.” I explained to her that I enjoy photographing small towns and that her town is one of the most beautiful I’d come across. ” I’ll let ’em all know what yer doin’,” she said, satisfied that I wasn’t a thief, criminal, or pedophile.
My brother-in-law said I missed an opportunity. “You should have told her you were scouting locations for the next Wal-Mart.”
Of course, I felt suspicious of a few people I met. In Guthrie, a family I talked to told me that ghosts haunt nearly every downtown building. “Do you see the ghosts?” I asked. “Nearly every day,” one of the ladies said earnestly, as the others nodded in agreement.
I felt nervous and suspicious as I saw the numerous LET’S GO BRANDON signs, Trump T-shirts, and confederate flags, a stark reminder that although Oklahomans are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, most of them think January 6 was a good idea. Just in case I ran afoul of any deranged Trumpers, I kept a red MAGA hat (made in China) in my car. Luckily, I never had to break it out for an emergency, but I was ready.
In Freedom, a young man viewed me with no suspicion. He pulled up to me in a four-wheel-drive truck and enthusiastically said, “If you want to get a good picture, I’ll take you somewhere cool.” When I visit foreign countries, I never turn down help from locals, so I crawled into the truck, and he drove me down a pot-hole riddled dirt road to the top of the bluffs, where I had a commanding view of the plains to the north, the mesa lands to the south, and the Cimmaron River below.
The view and photo opportunity were great, but I most enjoyed chatting with the young man as we drove. Freedom has a population of 90 people, and he graduated with one other person. He said they often drove up on the bluffs while making a campfire and looking at the stars when they were in high school. He seemed happy and content with his simple life.
In Shattuck and Beaver, locals invited me into their garages to show me restored cars they were working on, and in Salina, a man emerged from a derelict storefront covered in dust. He was renovating the dilapidated structure, making it ready for a coffee shop. On the next block, a man burst from the God Project with an open bible balanced in his left hand and his right hand extended for a handshake. He had the intense fire in his eyes of a true believer, a look I’d seen before from friends who’d just returned from church camp or from people trying to interest me in their multi-level marketing scheme.
When I told him that I was photographing small-town Oklahoma, he said, “This town has so much history. Bonnie and Clyde holed up in that building across the street when one of them got shot, and a veterinarian patched them back up. You see what it is now – no judgement,” he added quickly. Now, the old brick storefront is a marijuana dispensary.
I plan to return to Oklahoma again in a year, and I hope to meet more people like A.J., who possess a love of history and Oklahoma. These encounters make travel special, even if I’m traveling back to my home state.