Since 2009, Danea Males and Derek Rankins have been working on a collaborative photography project about the town of Treece. The collaboration evolved into a website that features contributions from other photographers, documentarians, and the residents of Treece themselves. More than just an online gallery, TreeceKansas.com includes recorded memories from the townspeople written accounts of life in Treece, and a link to the Treece Kansas Facebook Group established to keep the community connected. We talked with Danea about the experience of documenting a vanishing American town.
The Recollective: What prompted you to start photographing the town of Treece?
Danea: In the fall of 2009 my friend and fellow photographer, Derek Rankins, directed my attention to the New York Times Article, “Welcome to Our Town. Wish We Weren’t Here” by Susan Saulny. That story was the first time I learned about the mining history of Treece, and the hazards of living in that community. Derek was particularly interested in this story because he is originally from Kansas, and had previous knowledge of Treece. He knew that he wanted to create a series of portraits of the remaining residents, and he invited me to come along to photograph the town and its surrounding landscape.
The Recollective: Were there any people to whom you became particularly attached?
Danea: Yes! As a result of our project, we have met some wonderful people. Pam Pruitt, Jan Leatherman, Bill and Judy Blunk, Dennis and Ella Johnston were all incredibly welcoming, and championed our project. About a year after we starting going to Treece, we created a Treece, Kansas Facebook Group. That Facebook Group has grown significantly. It’s amazing to read the stories from the former residents, and start conversations with people. I love the fact that people from that community stay connected with one another because of the technological innovations of social networking.
The Recollective: How long have you been photographing or otherwise documenting Treece, Kansas?
Danea: We started photographing Treece in 2009.
The Recollective: At what point did your individual photography projects evolve into Treece, Kansas 66778, the website that is now a hub for all things Treece?
Danea: In July of 2011, Derek and I were experimenting with how we wanted to present our photographs. At that point, we were considering how we could bring awareness to the story of Treece, and how we could connect with others who shared our interest and concern.
The Recollective: How did Treecians initially react to your interest in documenting their town?
Danea: Once people got to know us and understand our intentions, we received a tremendous amount of support and interest in our work.
The Recollective: What have you been most surprised by in creating the website and the Facebook Group?
Danea: The connections that we have made have been the most surprising and rewarding part of creating the website, and the Treece, Kansas Facebook Group. We have met other photographers and documentarians, like The Recollective, that have their own projects about the same topic. Also, creating the website has been a great learning experience.
The Recollective: Is there an end date for this project or do you see it continuing to evolve?
Danea: I’m not entirely sure. Derek and I have continued to work on this project because we have enjoyed its evolution. This was the first time that either of us worked collaboratively too. We are still exploring ways to make the website a resource of information about the town of Treece.
The Recollective: Can you talk a little bit about the other contributors to Treece, Kansas 66778?
Danea: Shelly Cervantes is a friend and fellow photographer who also created a body of photographic work about Treece. She started travelling with us in the beginning, and was able to collaborate with us on this project. She is a commercial photographer in Dallas, TX.
Vaughn Wascovich is a photographer who created a series about Picher, Oklahoma. Picher is the sister city to Treece, and has suffered the same fate. Vaughn is a photography professor at Texas A&M University-Commerce.
Dina Kantor is a photographer from Brooklyn, NY. She also created a series about Treece, Kansas. Her environmental portraits show some of the last residents of the town.
Pam Pruitt is former resident of Treece. Her words and memories became a vital part of the website, and were the primary reason we began to start collecting written and oral histories from other residents of Treece.
The Recollective: Can you briefly describe how your individual approaches to documenting Treece differ or are complementary?
Danea: When Derek, Shelly and I started photographing in Treece, we knew that we were going to take different approaches to documenting the same story. For example, Derek made portraits that did not contain an environment. I photographed that landscape, and the homes in Treece. Our work is complementary because our images were created to support one another. As we began to find other artists exploring the same topic, we were really interested in sharing the different projects, experiences and perspectives.
The Recollective: Can you describe how your perceptions of and feelings about Treece have changed over time and how you feel now?
Danea: In the beginning, it was challenging for me. When I started photographing in Treece, I was outside of my comfort zone. The act of pointing my camera at the homes of strangers forced me to interact with people. As a result, I got to hear stories, make friends, share experiences, and learn from others. I will be forever grateful for that opportunity. At first, I was an outsider. Now, I feel like I am forever connected to Treece. I love being an artist and documentarian. I feel fortunate that the people of Treece allowed me to photograph their town.