Credit: Sereena Henderson, Mississippi Today

What exactly is the story of Mississippi’s 200 years? How is it told? And who gets to tell it?

The answers to these questions can be found on images or “photo stories” in storefront windows on Capitol Street in downtown Jackson. The pop-up, open air gallery, billed as the country’s largest, will be unveiled at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday at the King Edward Hotel, less than a mile from the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opening the same day.

Map of the Saturday’s Mississippi Mile “block party”

The “Mississippi Mile” will serve as the welcome party for the opening of “Celebrating Storytellers: a Bicentennial  Gallery” produced by Blue Magnolia Films. The interactive exhibit, consisting of 200 five by five images, will be on display until Feb. 28. The welcome party also will feature an artists’ market, a beer garden and a “Passport to Mississippi” that will showcase the state’s cultural attractions and economic development.

“This is really about celebrating Mississippi,” said Chandler Griffin, co-founder of Blue Magnolia Films. “I think parties are great … but at 200 years, this is about celebrating our story, celebrating who we are, where we’ve been, where we are now and where we’re going in the future.”

Since 2005, in conjunction with the education organization Barefoot Workshops, Griffin and founder of Blue Magnolia Films Alison Fast have hosted workshops in Clarksdale catering to “outsiders” who travel to Mississippi to learn documentary filmmaking and documentary photography.

For the state’s bicentennial, the duo decided to offer a different kind of workshop. “Celebrating Storytellers,” is a statewide project commemorating the state’s 200-year history through photo stories created by residents across Mississippi. Once created, the photo stories are transformed into three-minute films highlighting the importance of cultural and economic revitalization. 

Blue Magnolia Films founder Alison Fast works with Aaron Phillips, right, to record audio of Harry Ross at Port Gibson City Hall as part of “Celebrating Storytellers,” a statewide storytelling project. Credit: Photo by Melanie Thortis / © The 'Sip

“Instead of having primarily outsiders come to Mississippi and help tell our stories in a positive way, we wanted insiders,” Griffin said. “We wanted people from the communities — people who are not professional filmmakers or photographers telling Mississippi’s story and deciding how the story should be told.”

More than 100 Mississippians, ages 14 to 91, from 13 cities and towns participated in this project, including residents of Ocean Springs, Clarksdale, Greenville, Port Gibson, Laurel, Tupelo, Mound Bayou, Hattiesburg, Mississippi Band of Choctaw, Natchez, Oxford, Water Valley and Jackson. Each storyteller will have two to three images hanging in their towns in empty windows. 

“We are proud to be a part of this bicentennial occasion, representing one of only 13 cities to celebrate positive leadership throughout the state, as well as to integrate the arts into public spaces,” said Greenville Mayor Errick D. Simmons.

Once he had the idea of putting all the images in one place, that place being Jackson, Griffin reached out to David Lewis, Greater Jackson Arts Council Project Specialist, who suggested Blue Magnolia Films produce a gallery consisting of 200 images, rather than Griffin’s original intended count of 100. 

“The point was we wanted to celebrate the moment of all these stories being told, and the same time, we wanted to provide a way for everyone who hasn’t been able to get a ticket for the museums to have fun on Saturday and to come enjoy Jackson and celebrate Mississippi. So that’s how the mile got started,” said Lewis.

Along this mile, exhibit-goers will be introduced to a different kind of storytelling. Each image in the gallery is embedded with a QR code that can be scanned by viewers with their smartphones.

“Mississippi is the first to use this technology in a statewide initiative,” said Griffin. “It represents a critical shift in how we develop and tell our story going forward.

All 200 images appearing in the gallery were captured using nothing more than an iPhone.

“Just because you have an iPhone doesn’t mean you wake up in the morning and want to use it to tell a beautiful story,” said Blue Magnolia Films’ Alison Fast. “We encourage everyone to own the tools and put them in service of their life experience. We wanted to make these stories without neglecting the technology we have.”

Photo story images are covered until Saturday’s unveiling event at the King Edward Hotel in downtown Jackson. Credit: Sereena Henderson, Mississippi Today

Call them storytellers, innovators, dialogue creators, or simply Mississippians, 40 of them will be present at Saturday morning’s unveiling. They will do the honors of pulling back the white paper currently covering their images, revealing their personal narratives of the place they call home.

Blue Magnolia Films and Corner to Corner Productions will host a premiere screening of the “Celebrating Storytellers Bicentennial” documentaries 7-9 p.m. Friday at the Dr. Billy Kim International Center at Belhaven University.

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Sereena Henderson managed Mississippi Today’s social media and reported on Mississippi culture from August 2016 until June 2020. She was also a member of the engagement team and curated and delivered the daily newsletter. Sereena, a native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, is a graduate of the Ole Miss School of Journalism and New Media.