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The George Ballis Legacy Exhibition

The following exhibition is a celebration of the work and impact of the struggle for equitable, affordable, and stronger communities in rural America, both past and present, inspired by the work of George “Elfie” Ballis (1925 - 2010). As part of the exhibition, families and inhabitants across rural America are shown through the lenses of Ballis and five contemporary photographers. Some 50 years after Ballis's influence on the rural housing movement, many communities still lack access to healthy, affordable, and fair housing. Through partnerships with local photographers in Appalachia, the rural South, and California, the exhibition situates the seminal work of Ballis alongside new images to showcase the progress that has been made for rural housing development across the country, and also to expose the work that still needs to be done.

In conjunction with the work of locally-rooted photographers, the exhibition displays the Places of rural America, its People, their Perseverance, and the Process of change still underway today. Just as Ballis looked to capture the self-respect, dignity, and strength of the everyday person living in rural America, the photos of rural communities today display the progress of rural housing including the self-help housing movement and the impact Ballis's work played in its success. As we look into the future, 50 years since the founding of the Housing Assistance Council and even more since Ballis started making his mark, we must critically look at the progress that has been made across the country. Through the work of self-help and design-build housing organizations, tangible impacts are being had across the country, but not everyone is lucky enough to escape the problems of inadequate housing and poor living conditions present in rural America. It is up to us to finish what George Ballis and his peers started, correct the injustices still present, and push the movement forward. The need for documenting the issues plaguing communities is still present, as is fighting for fair and equitable housing solutions on a national scale. We must keep going, as there is more work to be done.

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George Ballis had a storied career at the intersection of photography and social justice. He chronicled seminal movements in American history and stood firm in capturing images of both the leaders at the forefront of social change and the dedicated community members supporting them. Ballis believed that the leadership of a movement only existed because of the strong support from the communities behind them: it was the everyday people that were the movement. From his work with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, to documenting the experiences of the United Farm Workers movement and Cesar Chavez, and his advocacy for holistic rural development strategies as Chairman of the Rural America organization, Ballis's photography was intertwined with his lifelong pursuit of exposing injustice while showcasing the power of ordinary people.


Matthew Herron (1931 - 2020), a contemporary of Ballis's, was a photojournalist and social documentarian who captured the frontlines of movements across the country. A noted and active photographer and writer up to his death, Herron was Ballis's friend and the custodian of his photographic legacy. Herron and Ballis, both taught by Dorothea Lange, risked their lives documenting the civil rights movement in the Deep South, chronicled in Herron’s book Mississippi Eyes. Herron was generous in lending his expertise and memories to the exhibition, and was set to coach the photographers selected for the project and aid in its curation up until his death. Several photographers with deep ties to Herron have contributed their talents to the exhibition and carry on his legacy for social documentation, critique, and change.

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