Talking Gospel with Ben Helton

Full Frontal has been a big fan of Ben’s work for quite some time, we are extremely happy to welcome him as our newest member.  

I’m not gonna lie, for about 10 seconds I was seriously going to photoshop your head onto a Tiger Beat “We Love JTT” cover, but after a quick Google that plan took a sharp turn.  It’s only fitting, your recent project has catapulted you from a recovering wedding photographer to one of the most lauded emerging documentarians.  How’s life these days, Ben?

BH: Tiger Beat? Jonathan Taylor Thomas?  Lauded documentarian? I don’t even know how to answer this. You must be talking about someone else, because I’m just a dude that loves to take pictures.

Life has been really good. 2016 has been a year of emergence and success as far as my photography goes. At times it’s been trying to balance photography with my personal life. I have a day job and my wife and I have two small children – we’re always on the go. But that said, it has given me an opportunity to bring my camera into my personal life more.

My family has been so supportive of everything going on this year, especially my wife. They’ve all watched me for years and seen me grow as a photographer and artist and are genuinely excited that others are recognizing that now too!

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FF: How has the gallery opening been?  For those of us that have never had the pleasure of seeing our own work displayed anywhere except affixed via magnets to the fridge and online—what all does an exhibit entail?  Do you hang your own work, frame it, etc?

BH: I never really had any aspirations of doing something like this until this specific project came about, but I’m so glad I did. The gallery opening has been a huge success so far and beyond what I envisioned or even hoped it would be.

So much more goes into preparing for a show than I realized. We started this process months in advance and I was still scrambling at the last minute on miscellaneous small details. Brickworks Gallery has been a phenomenal partner to work with throughout the entire process. They’ve promoted the show locally with thousands of postcards, posters and mailers to potential collectors and clients, coordinated the framing and mounting of the work, threw a successful opening night party as well as an upcoming artist’s talk and so on.

As far as the pictures go, I printed them all myself at home on a large format Epson lab printer on premium glossy Epson roll paper. Twenty photos in total ranging from 16×24” to 20×30”. It was an amazingly fun and nerve wracking process to print the entire show myself. It allowed me so much more creative control over the final outcome of each photo that I couldn’t have otherwise afforded if someone else printed them for me.

It’s an overwhelmingly great feeling to see my pictures all presented together in a cohesive and beautiful way. To see them hung on walls in an actual art gallery was, uh, basically surreal.

Some of my favorite experiences from this show was wheat pasting a collage of photographs, drawings and bible verses onto a large concrete column in the middle of the gallery. It’s messy and sloppy and completely DIY – very similar to my approach to photography in a sense. My other favorite experience from all this has been inviting the church members to the opening and seeing their reactions to all the photos printed large and in person!

As a result of this show I was able to line up a show opening soon at Columbus State University where I’m showing two series of work.

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FF: Poking around your flickr, I saw a caption on an 2014 outtake from your church project that is ‘sitting forever unfinished’.  At what point do you know a project is doomed to sit unfinished?  Or is it a matter of giving it some time, finding a new approach—is that what happened in Messiah?

BH: Hah, yeah, you saw that, huh? It’s hard to know when a project is finished. With Messiah it was just a feeling. I mean, I’d been visiting sometimes twice a week for four or five months and a couple times I got subtle feelings from some of the congregation that I had overstayed my welcome. The last thing I ever wanted to do was to make someone feel uncomfortable with my presence so I took the hint and decided I was done for now. It’s a HUGE body of work that I edited it down to 35 pictures or so from the thousands I shot.

Now all that said, I still get questions from many of the members about when I’m coming back to shoot more! So for now it’s finished but who knows what the future holds.

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FF: So you’ve been swept up in a literal barrage of press coverage from the Atlantic, PetaPixel and CNN.  I’m sure there is a certain feeling of contentment and pride—but do you ever think about what your follow up project will entail?  Got any sneak peaks or hints you’d like to share?

BH: Yes, absolutely there’s a certain level of contentment and pride that comes from all the recognition, but I can’t attribute all that to just myself. I made the photographs, but it was my wife who pushed me out the door once or twice a week to shoot for hours at a time on this project because she immediately recognized the power of it and the importance of sharing the images. It was the members that so graciously invited me in time and time again to photograph them at some of their most intimate and personal moments. The recognition is nice, don’t get me wrong, but not why I did it.

As far as other projects go, I’ve got a slew of them in the works. I’ve been shooting local rodeo for a few years now which is currently ongoing. I’ve also been focusing on any and all political happenings this year. Some of which include Black Lives Matter events, presidential political rallies, anti-abortion and anti-gay groups and anything else that fits under the broad umbrella of politics.

All that said, I’m still of course shooting street photography as well as photographing my kids. Documenting them growing up is a long term project and the work I’m most proud of and connected to for obvious reasons.

Messiah may end up being the project that I’m known for and what others will compare my other work to and I’m okay with that. It’s great stuff and undoubtedly my best work to date. As I grow as an artist we’ll see what the future holds for other projects. For now, I’m very happy with the direction of my photography and wherever it may lead me…

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FF: Ok, so what actually started it all for you?  For me it was seeing Koudelka’s black dog, from that moment I knew what I wanted.  Do you recall a photo that stands out as a gamechanger?  

BH: There wasn’t a particular photo that jumped out at me – no crazy reckoning or awe inspiring moment of clarity. In all honesty, I actually spent the first years learning to be a photographer while posing as one for pay if that makes any sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I was competent with a camera and had a solid idea of how to make photos that my clients loved, but there was a whole lot missing. I didn’t understand what went into making a good photo, I just thought I knew what was good when I saw it. The camera hadn’t become second nature to me at that point.

I’m blabbing here, but in short, I started learning to see about 5 years ago when my wife was pregnant with our son, Emmett. I had discovered HCSP and the critique thread. It was eye opening…

Learning to see isn’t simple. Maybe it comes naturally for some, but for me it’s taken years and I know I’m still early on in my journey. You spend all this time focusing on making and recognizing good images and as your eye continues to develop, so does your personal style. Being a good photographer means being flexible and dynamic and open to change – experiencing other’s work and opening your eyes to exploring even the craziest or silliest possibilities. This realization has helped me grow as a person and an artist.

So, I think one of the good things about your style and position within the genre–straddling street photography and being a documentarian, is that you have the opportunity to catch a more lurid or sensationalized side of politics.  Do you have a perspective going into some of these events or do you let the events set the tone?

Going into any situation I’m not trying to to get a certain picture. I’m using what’s there and trying to find what catches my eye. I treat shooting events in the same approach I do with street photography. I simplify my camera and flash settings and trying my best to never fight my instinct. If I see a photo, I take it. Most are shit, but there’s something special and different about events compared to street photography in the sense that you’re there as a participant to some extent.

I’m not a patient photographer. I don’t seek out a specific environment or lighting condition. When I’m out shooting, I’m usually wandering somewhat mindlessly and waiting for a moment to appear. Often times they don’t.

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FF:  What kind of value do you place on a ‘true account’.  (This isn’t a trick question, I’m more curious about where art and reportage meet).  

BH:  None. Everything is subjective. Whether it’s to the photographer, viewer, subject or participant, we all have a different experience in that brief moment of exposure. Then repeat all over again once we view the actual picture. Our personal baggage is impossible to escape so maybe nothing is a true account in that sense.

When editing I pick out the photographs that fit whatever my personal narrative for that series may be. For example, my latest project is centered around politics in the South and the images I chose for it are the ones that best conveyed MY feelings about how divided as a nation we are. The images, while mostly straight photography, were selected and sequenced in a way that represent white America’s obliviousness to the struggle many of our minority groups face, among other things.

For example, three photos in the series sequenced together show a powerful, young black woman holding her fist up in solidarity followed by an older white man holding up a camera, but in a similar fashion. Then lastly a white woman dipping a corn dog into a fryer. It’s sort of a ridiculous comparison but their body language and framing of the images are similar and they fit well together. They weren’t shot with the intention of conveying any message – I just found them interesting in those moments. It not until the editing process where I get to play artist and use my images as my voice to show the world my view. I just wish we all could see things a little differently. I guess that’s why I take pictures…

On a similar note, a few months back I went and photographed a rodeo with a couple friends that shoot for the Associated Press. Our techniques are drastically different and I think it was really fun for them watching me make a fool out of myself with my usual approach. They weren’t used to seeing someone take a candid shot the way I do and then interact with the person or group and perhaps shoot two or three more pictures after the initial one.

Seeing their images after the rodeo was a total surprise. They saw so many things that I never noticed and captured them in an absolutely beautiful way that I never would have thought to do. They have a reportage, story oriented mindset because they have to live and breathe that so they can make a living doing what they love – whereas I’m usually focused in on individual pictures and have the luxury of being a photographer that doesn’t have to stick to any journalistic ethics.

 

FF: Thanks for talking to me, Ben.  I’ve seen you post about a new show and a new body of work?  Anything you’d like to mention?  Always great to see your new stuff, I will definitely be following along!

No, thank you! It’s an honor to see anyone take interest in my pictures. Especially when it’s coming from accomplished and talented photographers. I love what you all are doing with Full Frontal and can’t wait to see what the future holds for us all!

 

Ah, screw it:

tigerbeat-bh

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