Helena: There's No Place Like Home

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I can't really tell you everything about Helena; there's no way anybody could. Honestly, I'm just a single person that went there for a few months. However, here’s what I can share; it used to be a thriving riverfront town. A town full of saloons, prostitution, and prosperity. Helena, Arkansas was a central figure in blues music history that swept up and down the Mississippi River. All of this was a long time ago, before big box stores came in selling products and produce at a cheaper price than the small stores could offer. This is one of the factors that led to Helena’s downfall in the mid 20th century. Thus began the slow and steady decline of what was once a thriving riverboat town.

After the glory days of Helena were over, a new type of industry took its place. Helena became a stop for the Mexico drug train that runs up through the Mississippi River and further North.

I want to be sensitive when I talk about this small town, because Helena is more than crime figures and poverty statistics. Some people see Helena as the end of the line, but other people see it as home. There are people that don't desire to leave Helena because they love it. It's simple. It's quiet. It's a small community, and you know your neighbors. You can live in beautiful houses and hang out with awesome people; which is what I did when I visited to do street photography. I met so many beautiful characters. It was like a novel come to life, but these photo subjects were real people.

There are a lot of stories I could tell you about Helena. But for this third segment of the Finding Helena blog series, I want to talk to you about three young couples that I met wandering through Helena, Arkansas.

I didn’t find a lot of people that would talk to me about the drug trade in Helena, even though I could feel it humming under the surface. Until one day, feeling present and guided by God, I decided to take some turn by turn directions. Right about when I began wondering where the heck I was, I came around a dam lake to see a young couple standing out by the lake reservoir. I had the sense that I needed to stop and take their picture, even though they didn't look particularly interesting. Let me just say that looks can be deceiving. I asked for their permission to  photograph. They looked somewhat stunned, but immediately said yes.

The young woman had red hair and she accompanied a tall young man with the sweetest face ever… although, something about his countenance was very aloof. I couldn't really figure out what was going on until the woman pulled me aside and said, “Ma'am, I don't know where you're from, or what you're doing…” I told her I felt like God asked me to come here and take pictures, at which point she blanched.
With emotional agitation she said, “Ma'am, I have been praying for years that someone would come here. We don't need their help. We don't need their money. We just need somebody to come and see. To witness what is happening to us here.”
I asked her what had been going on, and she told me, “I just got him out of jail today. He went into jail because he was running drugs and got caught.”
She revealed that this was the part of Helena that no one will ever tell you about. It's what goes on in the old crumbling Victorian mansions that have been claimed by people wanting to fix up the town. She said while he was in jail, he got into a weird cult where they worshiped some kind of demon sun god. Apparently, he hasn't seen the light of day in months. So she brought him out to this reservoir to give him a little bit of sunshine and a brief feeling of normalcy. “I can't tell you. I've been praying for someone to come and see. Will you follow me to another part of town? There's a minister I want you to meet.”

This was one of those moments in documentary photography where you have to decide if you want to follow someone or not. You have to lean on your intuition, and that’s what I did when I told her yes.

After dropping her partner off at their house she led me to a little trailer in the middle of Helena. There I was introduced to a Pentecostal minister who had been working in Helena for years. He had seen a lot and he was tired. He was very tired. He looked at me and said, “I don't know who you are; where you're coming from. But I just want you to know that it is interesting that you're here.” I asked him why it was interesting, and he said, “I've been working here for years trying to help people who are strung out on drugs, and who are struggling to make ends meet.” He even told me the story about how he funded his ministry. “One day I was in the shower, and I was praying in tongues. I heard God speak to me. He told me to buy a certain stock. I jumped out of the shower and called my broker.” His broker bought the stock, and it went sky high. His tears began to fall softly. I asked if I could pray for him, and we prayed together. He kept repeating, “I just needed to hear that God even sees this. I just needed to hear that somebody sees this.”

I can't fix a lot of things in the world, but I can help. I can be the hands and feet. However, at the end of the day, most people just want to know that they've been seen. They just want somebody to witness their pain, their struggle, and their suffering without judgment. There's no point in judging people's stories. You don't know what kind of road they've walked, or what kind of decisions they've had to make. No matter what their story is, they are seen, known, and loved by God. Honestly, I'm glad that a couple of people in Helena felt really blessed that they were seen and known by God through a documentary photographer. I learned about how important it as a photographer to witness somebody's story and reflect it back with love.

The second couple I got to document was a male photographer and a female teacher that had moved to Helena to be a part of the Teach For America program. They are among a rising few young couples and families that are moving to Helena to create new streams of income and to give community pastoral care. By pastoral care, I just mean somebody who's willing to listen. The couple had just had their first baby when I was visiting in 2017. They bought a little house on a hill next to a big hill covered in kudzu vines. I went to them and took family portraits of them with their newborn. It was a tender moment of love, not just for their family, but a love that was also building community in a hard place.

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Another young couple that I would be remiss to not mention, would be William and Misty Staley. William and Misty came to Helena after meeting in New York City. After working with many organizations in Helena that were interested in helping build up the town, William fell in love with the town's potential. William and Missy have a beautiful vision for Helena. They want other young people to move there, buy houses, fix them up, and start a new economy in Helena that will become a rising tide, lifting all ships. William and Missy work so hard to love their community well.

I stayed with the Staleys while I was in Helena because there aren't many hotels in Helena. Over their old Victorian house, the couple have an Airbnb with two bedrooms and a little kitchen. They rent it out every October during the annual Cherry Street Blues Festival in Helena. At this festival, people come from all over to listen to live blues music and participate in the town's culture. The Staley’s are helpers. They are friendly, Mr. Rogers-like neighbors that work hard to make Helena a more communal place. William runs an advertising agency in downtown Helena with a couple of friends where they design logos, posters, and art for Helena’s local businesses. They named this nonprofit design firm Thrive Helena, and it provides quality marketing and advertising for people throughout the Mississippi Delta region. It's forward thinking and it's design-friendly. Check it out here: thrivecenter.org.

William and Misty also helped me curate my final gallery of images in downtown Helena. These portraits and photos of Helena’s faces adorned the walls of downtown Helena for two or three months during the Cherry Street Music Festival. I went to the final gallery opening in August 2017 and it was a really bittersweet moment for me. When you go to Helena, you want to do everything, but you start to realize that there's only so much you can do.

A woman in beautiful stiletto heels and a gorgeous black pencil skirt walked up to me at the art gallery opening. She was from the next town over and heard about the documentary project, so she came over with some church members to see. I started talking to her about all of the amazing things that had happened to me as I had wandered through Helena. I shared that I felt like God told me to come to this town because he sees it and it's valuable to him. She responded, “Huh, that's funny. Our pastor said the exact same thing. A few months ago, we came and we started praying for Helena. He just told us to, and we would walk up and down the streets in prayer, because only God would be the one that could fix it.” When I heard those words, I felt a relief knowing that I had done the work that I was called to do.

I learned a lot about being a photographer during this documentary project; like what I can and can't do. I can accurately represent people's stories. I can do it with honor and love. I can go into difficult situations and not walk away carrying the weight of it, because I rest knowing that in the end, it's God's movement among a community that will eventually set things right.

Like I said, I can't really tell you everything about Helena, but I'm always happy to talk about what I do know. There are so many stories I haven’t even covered in this blog. If you want to see or hear more about my discoveries during this project, follow me on Instagram and shoot me a DM. https://www.instagram.com/abigail_bobo/

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