By accepting the position of photographer for the Cottonwood Journal Extra, Mississippi born and raised Hunt Mercier fulfilled a lifelong pact with himself.
“I promised myself, one day I will end up where there are mountains, but I never thought I’d get to uphold that promise,” Mercier said, adding that prior to his application to the EXTRA he had no knowledge of the Verde Valley. “I had no idea. I looked it up and thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is beautiful.’”
Mercier said that he is surprised to find himself uprooted from Hattiesburg, Miss., where he was surrounded by pine trees and subjected to 80 percent humidity. After graduating in December from the University of Southern Mississippi with a degree in photojournalism, he found himself actively seeking employment — and confronting the possibility of saying goodbye to the comforts of home.
“[Managing Editor Christopher Fox Graham] said, ‘We need you here by Jan. 10,’ which was the next Tuesday,” Mercier said. “It was just a whirlwind of change .... but I have to be true to myself.”
The choice to quickly adapt, according to Mercier, is not really a surprise, however: Following the July shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., Mercier packed up his equipment and drove the three hours to get shots of Black Lives Matter protesters. Mercier was not at the time employed by a publication. Rather, he simply wanted to document people’s stories.
“That’s where I got my first taste of conflict,” Mercier said, adding that he has always been drawn to capture tense situations — perhaps, he admitted, because his step-grandfather had been a journalist in war-time Vietnam. “I felt at peace, very comfortable, despite the surroundings.”
Mercier said it was more than curiosity that drove him to Baton Rouge.
“One of the main reasons for going to Baton Rouge was to give these people a voice,” Mercier said, adding that underrepresented and marginalized populations deserve to be heard — and, more often than not, appreciate someone making the effort to listen without an agenda. “I’m very big into telling stories, showing the real side .... You don’t hear everything in the media.”
According to Mercier, photojournalism is all about sympathy, forming bonds with people even if only for a moment.
“Yeah, people take photos every day, but there’s a big difference between a cell phone pic and professional pic,” Mercier said.
“I use my camera as a way to connect with people .... It’s a deeply personal experience.”
Mercier laughed as he said that he is a bit of a snob about beer, whiskey, gin, coffee and, of course, photography.
“When it comes to photography, I’m very traditional. I love black and white. I feel like color is very distracting .... I make everything black and white so people look at the faces first.”
Mercier has won numerous awards for his photography, including first and second prize awards for college newspaper sports photography by the Mississippi Press Association, second place for best feature photo by the Alternative Press in Mississippi and Louisiana and a fourth best photographer overall ranking at the Southeast Journalism Conference.