It started simply enough. Twenty-two years ago, during a visit to friends in Athens, Ga., photographer Vaughn Sills went in search of a new project. She wanted to use her camera as a "divining rod" to help her find a subject that would "call" to her. In particular, she recalls, she was eager to learn "what life in a small house that sat in a hot field was like."
So on a gray Friday in November of 1979, Ms. Sills loaded a camera, film, and tripod in a pickup truck and headed out of town with her friend.
As the city gave way to low hills and a semirural environment, she found what she was looking for: a cluster of 20 small wooden houses, their porches so jumbled with furniture, plants, and toys that they resembled outdoor living rooms.
The two women stopped. Sills gathered her courage and began photographing several children and their mother. She returned the next day to take pictures of other members of the Toole family, a large clan living a hardscrabble existence on the irregular earnings of the father, a carpenter.
More than just the camera clicked that weekend. Sills won the family's trust, and they allowed her to come back - not only into their house but also into their lives and ultimately into their hearts.
Since then, Sills has returned almost every year, creating what she calls a "cultural documentary" of four generations of Tooles. Now she has collected 143 black-and-white portraits in a book, "One Family" (University of Georgia Press, $29.95). Accompanying the photos are texts of conversations with family members, as well as poems written by one of the daughters, Tina.
Sills, who teaches photography at Simmons College in Boston, became fascinated by "the idea of who we are because of our family. One of the things I've learned is how important family is. I did not grow up with that." She saw her grandparents only once a year and seldom saw her few cousins.
Seated at an oak desk in her cozy, windowless office at Simmons College, where shelves are crowded with photography books and photos of the Tooles line one wall, Sills reflects on her lengthy, multifaceted family portrait.
"It captures more of the complexities than one picture does," she explains, "showing who we are as an individual, who we are because of our family, how the relationships within a family are. Sometimes you feel close to your mother, sometimes to your father, or your siblings. A lot of that is so much a part of who we become."
In some ways, Sills says, the Tooles, with seven children (two others died in infancy), 17 grandchildren, and a growing brood of great-grandchildren, were a "very disorganized family." Yet shining through the disorganization and deprivation is a strong sense of love.
"They really take care of each other," Sills says with admiration. "They help each other in all kinds of ways, from fixing cars to helping take care of kids. Family is very strong. They've always told me how important that is, even though they have disagreements and don't always see eye to eye on things."
What most interested her was watching the two youngest children - Tina, who was 9 at the beginning of the project, and Jo-Jo, who was 7 - grow up."They were clearly bright, curious, and appealing children, but they were living in a situation that was really difficult," she says. "I wanted their lives to improve. I wanted them to have a good enough education so they could have a more organized life."
Today that wish is coming true. Tina has started her own business, hanging wallpaper, and employs several people. Her husband works with Jo-Jo, a mason.
Still, a troubling sadness shadows some of the pictures. Lois, the mother, struggled with emotional problems. Joel, the father, drank too much. Adult children married, divorced, and remarried. Not surprisingly, some viewers of Sills's pictures tell her that for them, the predominant image is of poverty.
Sills sees it differently. "I don't like to think about this as a book about poverty," she says. "What I care about is the individuality. I see them as having qualities and characteristics. I see a lot of intelligence in the faces. I see it in the eyes, in the way they hold themselves." She adds, "I've just come to care about their inner selves."
Her students, too, tell her that when they look at the pictures, they see happiness. "What they're responding to is the closeness of families. They'll say, 'Not everybody has that.' "
A native of Quebec, Sills spent her early years in New Hampshire. When she was 9, her family moved to Louisiana, where she soon felt an affinity with the people, the climate, and the terrain. She picked up her first camera, a Kodak Brownie, as a child.
Sills took most of her photos of the Tooles with a Polaroid camera. Because of the slow shutter speed, she asked everyone to sit very still - a request blithely ignored by dogs and small children, who sometimes appear blurred. She never asks anyone to say cheese.
"A smile is a bit of a social mask, if your picture is being taken," Sills explains. "I wonder, 'Who is this person?' I don't think the smile tells me the inner person."
In a time of unprecedented American prosperity, the backwater world the Tooles inhabit has become increasingly invisible amid media coverage of wealth and consumerism.
"Our society right now, we're so materialistic, with big cars, big houses," Sills says. "Too many people measure the worth of their success by how much they acquire. It won't work. It can't work."
Although Sills continues to record the Tooles' lives, she has begun another project, photographing African-American gardens in the South. Ever the English major that she was in college, she is also working on a series of pictures about beauty and language.
Noting her love of words and dictionaries, Sills pulls out a striking photo of a dictionary surrounded by artfully arranged sea urchins. Even the best definition, she says, "would not fully describe the beauty of these things." Similarly, she adds, "Open a dictionary up to [the word] 'spruce.' It doesn't say what a marvelous thing spruce is."
For now, the Tooles remain firmly in Sills's heart. Reflecting on her long association with them, she says, "I feel utterly enriched by it. I feel I was given something through this family."
She adds, "We all have our own story. We all have such complicated inner lives. I've learned it from my students, I've learned it from this family. We just don't know what people's experiences are, and how complicated they are, unless we sit down and listen."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor