Chris Wilson is rummaging through her refrigerator looking for meat to feed an alligator.
“Do you think a hambone would work?” she asks her boss, Bonny Parham, who says it just may well do the trick.
Wilson hops into Parham’s car, and they hurry to the waterway. The newspaper journalists have a deadline to meet and a dog-eating alligator to find. It is the early 1980s in Amory, Miss., a town of about 7,000 people in Monroe County, and they are dedicated to their mission.
At the site, Parhams tells Wilson to throw the hambone into the water to lure the alligator out so that they can get a photo of it. “So I threw the ham, but not far enough,” Wilson recalls now. Parham tells her to fetch the hambone from where it submerged and throw it again.
As Wilson wades into the water to grab the ham, Parham turns the ignition key. “I heard the engine of that old, brown box we always drove around in, and I knew she was gone,” Wilson says.
Parham returns a few minutes later, fully satisfied with the prank she pulled. The alligator never appeared, so they moved on to a different story to anchor the front page of the weekly edition of the Amory Advertiser.
Wilson was a staff reporter for the paper, and Parham, more than 20 years into her tenure, had risen to the rank of editor-in-chief.
‘Everything Had to Be Airtight’
Chris Wilson moved to Amory from Ohio in 1980, and when she couldn’t find employment as a teacher, she applied for a job at the newspaper. On her first day, Bonny Parham gave her a camera and a notepad and sent her to cover a board of supervisors meeting.
“I had no clue what was going on,” Wilson recalls now. “I couldn’t understand their southern accents.”
When she got back to the office after the supervisors meeting, Parham asked what topics the supervisors discussed at the meeting. Wilson didn’t know, and Bonny went berserk. Under her leadership, failure was not an option. Everything had to be airtight. Every photograph featuring people had to have correct names, and each quote had to be tape-recorded.
Local journalism was natural for Parham. Her grandfather, T.D. Harden, founded the Amory Advertiser in 1917. But it wasn’t Parham’s childhood dream to work in local news. After graduating high school, she moved to Birmingham, Ala., to work as a phone operator for the Southern Bell telephone company.
Deciding she wanted to see the world, Pamham quit her job and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. There, she met her husband, Arthur Cuthbert. While stationed in California, she became pregnant with a baby boy. The pregnancy allowed her to be discharged from service, and she went on to divorce Cuthbert and leave California behind to return home.
Parham started as a reporter at the Amory Advertiser in 1963. At the small-town paper, she had to be both writer and photographer for her stories.
A Railroad Town
The Kansas City, Memphis and Birmingham Railroad founded Amory in 1887 as a planned city halfway between Memphis and Birmingham, and the town still remembers its connection to the tracks. A train car that FDR rode through town sits ceremoniously in the city’s downtown Frisco Park, aptly named after the Frisco Railway. Thousands of visitors come for the annual Railroad Festival, a weekend-long fair in the spring that gets students out of school.
Amory is a city built on tradition. The people who grow up and leave either long to return one day or go away with the spirit and memory of Amory in tow.
Parham’s photographs lie within this tradition. She sought adventure outside of home, but she ended up back where it all began for her: Amory. Sure, her photographs document the daily occurrences of a small southern town from the 1960s to the 2000s. The alligator in the water. The outcome of the latest court case. The first snow in a decade.
But they also show something greater: a woman wrestling with the passage of time, attempting to hold the power to account, documenting the survival of a community, and trying to build a life for herself and her son.
A Hard Drive in a Museum Corner
I grew up in Amory. I had my picture made with the Spider-Man background in the Walmart Photo Studio. I sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” on the Amory High School football field to my brother’s National Guard Unit before they deployed to Afghanistan.
I picked up a camera for the first time to photograph a high-school basketball game in 2017, and comparisons to Bonny Parham followed. I never Googled her or saw her work, but I picked up the knowledge that she photographed for the paper through the numerous mentions of her that I heard.
After I graduated high school, I moved a thousand miles away for college and forgot about Parham—until I came home for a break and was scanning my film photographs.
“You know I heard Bonny Parham’s photographs ended up at the museum,” my mother said. “I wonder if they need to be digitized?”
I reached out to Amory Regional Museum Director Wayne Knox, who told me the photos had been digitized but that the museum had no current plans for the collection. In November, I got a copy of the drive.
My mother and I sat down at the kitchen counter and looked through the nearly 10,000 images. Usually, only a name or a date accompanied each photograph. Mom seemed to always know the names.
“Save that one! Her daughter will want that photo,” Mom constantly interjected.
Photographers from and photographs of Mississippi have achieved tremendous acclaim, from both homegrown talents and parachute documentarians alike. William Eggleston. Eudora Welty. Birney Imes. Norman Mauskopf. The list goes on.
Bonny Parham had a consistent presence and a personal stake in the community. Amory was her home, and she documented its happenings for 40 years, from the 1960s to 2000. She had to make good work not only for the newspaper’s survival but also because she needed the meager small-town newspaper salary for her and her son to eat and have a roof over their heads.
Telling Every Story in Amory
Parham spent around 60 hours a week at the newspaper office.
“She would go into the office when I went to school, come home to make dinner for me, and then go back in to finish the paper,” her son Doug Cuthbert says. In her 2013 obituary, the Monroe Journal—formerly known as the Amory Advertiser—credits her with having written more words and taken more photographs of Monroe County than anyone else in history.
Those in town revered her work. People would commonly line Main Street waiting in anticipation to get their paper and read the articles she wrote.
“Everyone knew her,” Wilson told me, “Some people liked her, and some didn’t, but she was always fair.”
Running a small-town paper meant seeing the people she wrote about and photographed. In the store. At the high school. Stopped at the red-light. Parham had to be accountable for the work she did. Readers often called the paper with questions, concerns or anger about recently published stories.
Bonny Parham took the calls herself.
“She always diffused the situation,” Wilson says, telling me that Parham would paint the situation as an issue of fairness. “She would say something like ‘Do you want me to treat everyone like this and only cover the bad news of other people’s kids? Would that be fair to them?’”
She held that view firm, especially when it came to race. When Parham arrived at the Advertiser, the paper primarily included Black residents when publishing articles pertaining to crime. Parham changed that when she ran a photo of David Hadley, a Black football player who graduated from West Amory High School and went on to play for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Many Black families in Amory lived on the west side of town, and they built a self-sustaining community there. The area had and still contains barbershops, restaurants and markets in west Amory that are predominantly Black-owned. Until 1970, Amory had a segregated high school for only Black students, West Amory High School, which is now closed.
Parham made it a goal to give representation to long-ignored communities. Often when she looked for feature photographs of everyday life, she made it a point to go specifically to Black neighborhoods. She didn’t worry about any backlash.
“It probably never even crossed her mind that people might get mad,” Wilson told me, “She always was fair in telling every story, regardless of race.”
The community still remembers her for it. When Doug stopped into one of the corner markets a couple of years ago, the owner made a point to tell other shoppers about his mother’s dedication to reporting on west Amory.
The newspaper and her son Doug were the centers of Parham’s life.
“The newspaper was her life,” Wilson says. “She just had Doug at home, and, when he left, it was just her.”
When Doug was young, Parham would designate Saturday mornings as a “no-knocking” time she would spend with Doug. It was common for people to come to Parham’s house or the newspaper office to show off their latest farm-grown vegetable or hunted animal.
“We thought it was so funny,” Wilson says, “Bonny always said she was going to make a book out of all those pictures of people with their plants.”
Parham’s photographs often prioritize humor. On one snowy day, Parham loaded a young Doug in the car and headed out onto the icy streets to photograph. When she came across a wrecked car in a ditch, she parked her Barracuda in a driveway and had Doug get out and pose by the wrecked vehicle.
In a portrait of a woman at a desk, Parham took the photo precisely as the woman pushed her finger up the center of her nose. When a car crashed into a downtown storefront, Parham stepped back just far enough to fit a woman into the frame.
The Camera, The Printing, The Cropping
Bonny Parham used a Rolleiflex Twin-Lens Reflex camera for the first two decades of her photography. The camera is a vertical, box-shaped machine with two lenses: one for seeing and composing, and one for exposing the film to light with the opening and closing of a shutter.
These cameras typically have a waist-level viewfinder, so the photographer must look down to compose and take the photo. Because Parham had to tilt the camera up from her waist to take photographs, subjects often appeared taller, more confident or otherwise exhibited a more prominent presence.
The process creates a separation between Parham and the camera. When photographers use an eye-level viewfinder in a rangefinder or single-lens reflex camera, they must lift the camera to their eyes to compose. This means that the subject looks into the lens and into the photographer’s face at the same time, which might blur the distinction between the machine’s eye and the photographer’s eye.
As Parham looked down through the viewfinder to compose, she signaled to the subject that the camera isn’t exactly her perspective. The act of photography becomes an exercise of two people mediated through a machine, not one person and a machine imposing their collective view onto another person. By using a TLR, Parham was able to humanize the photography process. She wasn’t the shutter. She just decided when to open and close it.
Parham didn’t take the waist-level finder as a limitation, either.
“She would sometimes lay across the ground to get the angle she wanted,” Wilson told me.
In one photograph of a man sitting in a chair at her portrait setup (a single white sheet of paper stuck to a wood-paneled wall) in the newspaper office, she changed her positioning to have the lens lower than he was sitting.
The camera also made her less conspicuous. She could be fiddling with the dials on the camera, adjusting the shutter speed or aperture, or taking a photograph. It would look the same to anyone in front of her lens. The camera’s leaf shutter was quiet, which allowed her presence not to intrude or affect the moment through sound.
Parham printed and developed all of her early photographs and most of her entire career’s work. Eventually, other staff members began helping her complete the development or printing, but she trained them in the darkroom.
In her printing, Parham remained flexible to meet the needs of the photograph. She developed photographs of cleaners scrubbing the town pool’s floor silhouetted against the bright white pool floor with dark puddles of water. She developed a photograph of a young girl standing on the trunk of a car downtown watching a parade full of gray tones.
“She was a perfectionist,” Doug says. “It had to be right for the story.”
Parham brought complex topics into daily photographs through the use of composition. In a picture from a pageant, three young girls stand together against a brick wall. At the edge of the frame, an older pageant participant looks on, transforming the photo into a commentary on age instead of solely a document depicting the cuteness of three participants.
How It Ended
After Parham became editor-in-chief of the Amory Advertiser in the 1970s, the paper went through a series of sales. First, Parham moved up to the position of publisher. Eventually, Parham fell back down to the title of managing editor.
“I never thought they were really fair to Bonny,” Wilson says. “New people always came in and thought they knew better.” Her final years working at the paper were in sales. “She hated it,” Wilson remembered. “But she was good at it, so they kept her there.”
In 2000, she retired from the paper at age 62. But that didn’t mean her inner journalist left. Even after Parham’s retirement, Wilson would often pick her up and take her to various newspaper gatherings until Parham’s passing in 2013.
“She always wanted to know what was going on,” Wilson recounted.
The Revival of Bonny’s Photographs
A Facebook group called “You might be from Amory, MS if you remember…” boasts more than 2,200 members who often share Parham’s photographs. Members, from teenagers to elderly town residents, pitch in comments to name unknown people, places or dates.
Parham donated her boxes of news clippings, negatives and prints to the Amory Regional Museum. With grant funds, an archivist at the museum digitized the entire collection in 2019. The museum is still working out the most effective way to share them.
“She knew it was the history of our town,” Doug says. “She wanted it to live on.”