For years now, Instagram has been touted in photography circles as a great way to discover new talent in the field. But I’ll be honest with you, although I love the platform and am an avid user of it, as a longtime photo editor I haven’t found it a particularly fruitful source of new work. At times, I have contemplated abandoning the platform altogether (along with pretty much all other social media). But every now and then, a gem pops up that makes me reconsider. That’s just what happened one morning a couple of months ago.
As I was scrolling through my feed before heading into work, a post stopped me. It showed the simple, stark white cover of what looked like a zine, featuring an ethereal, moody, black-and-white photo of a rain-smeared tree and bridge. Below the photo, in bold all-caps, the title of whatever this was read, “THE ALL-AMERICAN TOWN.” I was immediately intrigued. It didn’t hurt that the post had appeared on the feed of one of America’s most highly regarded working photographers, Alec Soth, whose work we have written about here and here. But while it had caught Soth’s attention, that’s not why I’m writing about it now. The reason I’m highlighting this work is simply because it is extraordinary.
“The All-American Town” was not photographed by anyone known to the photo world. This evocative booklet about life in a town situated along the Ohio River in Appalachia was created by a group of high school students, although they did have help and guidance from three mentors: collaborating art teacher Megan Ritchea from Bellaire High School, where this project was carried out; and the highly accomplished photographers Rebecca Kiger and Judy Walgren.
Kiger, a documentary photographer, is a photography teaching resident of the Rural Arts Collaborative at Bellaire High. Walgren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, served as editor and curator of the project.
“The All-American Town” was inspired by the work of Soth, but it really is its own, singular thing. It is a heartfelt portrayal, sometimes stingingly so, of what these teens live day-to-day. The photographs, all in black and white, are occasionally stark but always highly personal windows into the lives of ordinary people. Accompanying them is a stream of written reflections by the students — commonplace thoughts such as “I am good at keeping secrets” or “I fear social activities” — that are made quietly profound by the images.
If, as has often been said, one of the goals of photojournalism is to provide a way for human beings to understand ourselves and our place in this world, well, that’s precisely what Brittney Beckett, Tre Carter, Brooklyn Dyer-Schmitt, Brittany Falcone, Michaela Flaherty, Abby Garner, Lindsay Hess, Kaleb Hicks, Gavin Howard, Daniel Lednik, Cierra McCorkle, Nicole McCorkle, Kyli McMahon, Andi Perrie, Kennedy Rhodes and Jessica Rosen, the student photographers from Bellaire High School, have accomplished in “The All-American Town.” And they have done it with eloquence and empathy.
The work featured in “The All-American Town” will be on show this fall at Whitehouse Post, a film-editing company in Chicago. You can find out more about the project, and buy a copy of the zine here. And you can follow the young photographers on Instagram at their Instagram handle, ruralartscollaborative. The program was made possible through support from Oglebay Institute in Wheeling, WV. And the funding that supported this and all of the other Rural Arts Collaborative programs comes from the Benedum Foundation.
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