Project Overview

Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad

[A visual essay by Jeanine Michna-Bales, 2002-2016;
research from 2002 - 2016 and principal photography from 2012 to 2015]

They left during the middle of the night, oftentimes carrying little more than the knowledge that moss grows on the north side of trees. An estimated 100,000 slaves in the decades prior to The Civil War in 1865 chose to embark on this journey of untold peril in search of freedom. They moved in constant fear of being killed outright or recaptured then returned and beaten as an example of what would happen to others who might choose to run. Under the cover of darkness, ‘fugitives’ traveled roughly 20 miles each night traversing rugged terrain while enduring all the hardships that Mother Nature could bring to bear. Occasionally, they were guided from one secret, safe location to the next by an ever-changing, clandestine group known as the Underground Railroad. Whether they were slaves trying to escape or whites and free blacks trying to help, both sides risked everything for the cause of freedom. From a cotton plantation just south of Natchitoches, Louisiana all the way north to Canada, this series of photographs can help us imagine what the long road to freedom may have looked like as seen through the eyes of one individual who made this epic journey.

For more than a decade, Jeanine Michna-Bales logged countless hours of meticulous research and traveled extensively to create this series of images. Her efforts culminated in the release of this body of work in February 2017, as well as the release of the trade publication from Princeton Architectural Press in spring 2017, and the launch of a traveling exhibition from Mid-America Arts Alliance that is currently touring the United States until 2024. Last spring, a limited edition portfolio was released at The Photography Show by AIPAD (April 2018).