By Hannah E. Jones
With a new photo exhibition, viewers are transported down South to one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders — the Okefenokee Swamp.
“Save the Okefenokee” features 20 photographs that capture the beauty and ruggedness of the landscape along with its abundance of flora and fauna. The gallery is on display at the Little Five Points Community Center.
The images were taken by former City of Atlanta arborist Tom Coffin — a retiree with an affinity for nature, a passion for photography and a way of ruffling feathers of those in power. The gallery is presented by WRFG Atlanta, which has offices in the community center, and serves as a fundraising effort for the public radio station and Georgia River Network (GRN). This is Coffin’s first public showing.
Coffin has been taking trips down to the swamp for about 55 years, describing it as one of his favorite places on Earth. “The beauty is so intense,” he added.
His photos are unedited, meaning he is very intentional about the composition of each shot. Coffin takes most of his photos from his kayak, capturing landscape shots and so-called “mini-scapes.” He also gets snapshots of wildlife, and the installation features photos of a black bear, egrets and, of course, the alligators.
Notably, there aren’t any people in his photos because, in Coffin’s eyes, Mother Nature is the star of the show.
“I prefer natural [shots] without people in it. You see so many photos of the Okefenokee and there’s always a canoe or kayak in it as if people are important,” Coffin said with a chuckle.
So far, the photo gallery has generated about $1,400 in donations. With this money, GRN will continue its efforts to protect the Okefneokee from nearby proposed mining plans.
Per the proposal, Alabama company Twin Pines seeks to mine titanium and zirconium just three miles from the swamp’s edge. If approved, the mining would begin at a one-square-mile section of Trail Ridge, a natural divide between the swamp and St. Marys River in Charlton County.
“I’m not too in favor of Twin Pines as a company or their plans,” Coffin said. “Once you drain the Okefenokee, it’s not going to come back. You lower the aquifer, it takes centuries to replenish.”
He added: “It’s irreplaceable. Why even think about threatening it? Human beings are a pretty shortsighted species.”
This combination of creativity and advocacy is nothing new to Coffin. As he puts it, he has been “famous twice in Atlanta.”
The first time was in 1968 when Coffin, his wife Stephanie and “upwards of 30 people” co-founded The Great Speckled Bird, a counterculture underground newspaper. The publication covered politics and current issues like local leaders, war, women’s rights, race and the LGBTQ community. While the newspaper grew in popularity, it was also met with resistance — and the Atlanta police harassed and arrested people who were selling the newspapers for various reasons, and in 1972 its offices in Midtown were firebombed.
During this period, Coffin picked up photography and “started seeing the world through a viewfinder lens.” Thousands of his film photographs have been cataloged by Georgia State University.
He continued: “[Soon,] I quit taking notes — I just started using photographs. I became a halfway decent photographer.”
The second time was during Coffin’s tenure as a senior arborist with the City of Atlanta. In 2008, he was abruptly fired after alleging that his colleagues weren’t upholding the city’s tree ordinance. According to a 2011 article by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Coffin issued 70 citations within six months in 2008, while the city’s other five arborists reported a combined 29 violations. He filed a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal and later settled with the city paying $165,000 in damages and fees.
On that note, the City of Atlanta recently implemented Phase One of an updated Tree Protection Ordinance which many advocates feel is lackluster. Coffin — who was involved in several rewrites during his time as arborist — agrees with that sentiment, adding, “I tend to think that 50 years from now, Atlanta will look like New York City.”
He continued: “Maybe it’s inevitable. The development is just so intense, and there’s so little awareness in the City Council and the governmental level of the importance of the trees.”
Today, though, Coffin’s passions lie with the Okefenokee Swamp and working to ensure that the natural treasure is protected for generations to come. The photography installation will be available for viewing at the Harlon Joye Community Room through July, and folks who donate $30 or more in May will receive a print of their choice. For more information, you can reach out to the WRFG team at email@example.com or call 404-523-3471.
Tom and Stephanie are citizen’s citizens. Heart and soul, in their own way they’ve poured their lives into realizing Dr. King’s “Beloved Community,” even at times when their grassroots activism isn’t welcomed by the Atlanta Way.
You (still) go, Tom!!!!!
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