The thing about being a photojournalist is that we never take the time to document ourselves. I think this may be because – more times than most – we value other people’s stories and lives to be more significant than our own. More scarcely do we recognize the impact these relationships have on us, and how influenced we become once immersed in their lives.
For the past 2 years, I photographed the Welch’s – a family of five who live in a school bus, their relationships with one another and with their land. While photographing them, I consciously experienced many things: Space, the mother of the family, being a great cook; Smiles, the father of the family, being the most patient carpenter I know. Little did I know subconsciously, that my soul longed for more. This family became my second family, and I began to feel as if I were exploring a lifestyle I was already familiar with. Last fall, I moved out to their land, set up a tipi, and continued with school.
I bought the tipi last summer from Bend, Oregon and had it sent to Athens. I had never set up a tipi before. With help, setting up 18, 27-foot lodge-pine poles and wrapping them with 15-ounce all-weather Army Duck Canvas took four hours, but I slept in it that night. Even with nothing else inside, I felt as if I was home. From that point on, I was without running water and electricity. I composted my waste and hung my laundry on a line. Smiles milled wood from the land to make a platform and for items in the tipi. My rarely used camping skills quickly became routine. Making a fire came naturally and quickly. Though I had never lived this way, it felt as if I had. The turning point was not getting used to living off the land – the turning point was within myself.
These images are an artistic representation of what I go through on a daily basis. This project represents what I have personally gone through as a young photojournalist and symbolizes what others have experienced, too. We become the stories we create – not always to the extreme of living in a tipi – but we carry the lives of those we document with us forever.
It is important to recognize and pay a tribute to those who let us into their lives to better our own. The Welch family wanted their land – The Refuge – to be a place where people come for shelter and feel loved. I am proof that their vision is happening.