One of the best things about photography is that it allows us to selectively edit. This can be really powerful because it allows us to focus on what really matters. It can also be disempowering,however, because there's always so much outside of the frame we miss. Real stories that are often complicated, complex, and real. One of the most powerful stories I can tell you is about a little town in Arkansas called Helena, site of a photojournalism project I worked on once a month for six months in 2017.
Helena has one of the highest crime rates, and also some of the most impoverished conditions in the United States. However, it also has a rich history, beautiful old Victorian houses, and endless stories that make up the fabric of the town. This town may often be riddled with violence, but is also undeniably filled with loving people. You see, there is no cut and dry answer when it comes to Helena. The towndeals with issues of violence, racism, and poverty. What I've learned is that all I can do is share about my experience while documenting Helena, Arkansas. I could also tell you about the love that I sense God has for this little town. So buckle up and enjoy the story of finding Helena.
I was out on a prayer walk in a little town called Serenbe, just outside of Palmetto, Georgia, very close to where I grew up. I was walking in pine woods exactly like the ones in my little small hometown when I heard God say, “Helena.” I had been praying about finding a documentary project that I could work on that would bring me joy in life. I knew about Helena, I just didn't know that I should go there.
In December, I drove through Helena on my way back from Christmas in the Midwest with some friends… and I was floored. It was so hard to describe what I saw there. Even to this day, a first impression of Helena is one that will bring you a lot of mixed emotions, if you are ever so lucky to go there. And I do mean lucky.
As I drove through the little town, I saw dozens of people sitting outside a community looking like they didn't have a place to go. They were really intrigued to see a strange car drive through the little town, because not a lot of people go there.
As I drove down Main Street/Cherry Street, I looked at these beautiful old riverfront buildings and storefronts. Some of which were caving in, and others which looked like businesses that were trying to thrive. I wasn't in Helena for more than an hour, because honestly, I couldn't stand to be. I didn't understand what I would need to steal myself away to see. I realize now, it was a lot of people that really love their town. However, they really don't have a lot of resources to make it great. If I knew then what I know now, which is that it's the people that make Helena fantastic and beautiful, my perspective and my mindset would have been changed. But as it was, I left the town in tears.
If you know anything about me, you know that was also the moment I was hooked on going back to Helena. Not only because God had told me to, but because it felt like an idea that I could latch on to. I reached out to an organization in Helena called Thrive. Thrive is a community-based design studio and advertising agency full of young creatives trying to make the town a better place. I struck a deal with them to create a gallery of work that would be displayed during the Main Street Festival in Helena. And as I did that, I was kindly offered a little, old, Victorian, AirBNB apartment to stay in that one of the founders owned. Thrive helped me connect with multiple people around Helena, and it was really cool.
But what I loved most was wandering up to people on the street, chatting with them, and learning their story. Street photography at its finest comes with an invitation to connect with real people. Some photojournalistic captures are taken, while others are made.
It's never going to be easy to talk about Helena or anything about Helena. But it's valuable and necessary. The people that I got to meet in Helena brought me so much life, and they are what I want to highlight. Not what they've done or what they haven't done, but who they are. How beautiful they are.