Ben Helton’s “Messiah”

Ben Helton joined The Atlanta Street Photography Group (ASPG) in 2011, a couple of years after I started the group on Flickr. I remember one of our first discussion meet ups after we migrated ASPG to Facebook. Ben drove to Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta all the way from his home in Senoia, roughly an hour south of the city. I had invited him to lead our discussion that evening with his definition of street photography. Somewhere between my vodka tonic and his burger and fries, he began blurring the boundaries of the classic street photography definition and I started to squirm. Being an open laid-back group though, we all found value in the discussion, but I honestly feared, who is this radical guy? What has he done? 

Photographer, Ben Helton in Hillary Clinton's rally area in downtown Atlanta earlier this year.
Photographer, Ben Helton in Hillary Clinton’s rally area in downtown Atlanta earlier this year.

My fears were delightfully squashed in the years to come and today, I am proud to call Ben not only my street photography cohort but also my friend.  In our ASPG tribe, he adamantly dismisses our comparisons to him and Bruce Gilden, but you can count on Ben being 100 per cent dedicated to honest photography. You can also count on the fact that as unapologetic as he seems for perching over his street photography subjects holding that flash in their faces as he “strobes” their soul, he is never unwilling to stop and have a cheerful conversation about what he’s doing and why.

Ben took 2,563 images during his 19 total visits at the Messiah Miracle Center in Atlanta where he seemingly seeped into the woodwork while capturing images of the congregation. His gripping work took nearly five months but Messiah  was published in The Atlantic magazine on April 3, 2016. 

To understand Ben –  all six feet plus of his stature and conscientious intention – is to understand both the heartfelt process and motivation of a real visionary photographer behind this freshman photo project. I was honored to interview Ben about this process and his project, which is a well-deserved, big deal for my little ASPG brother! I hope you’ll find it as impactful as I do.

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INTERVIEW WITH BEN HELTON, PHOTOGRAPHER BEHIND “MESSIAH”

JM:  Creating this project is amazing considering you have a full-time day job and a family. Speaking of biographical information, you have virtually no information on your website about you, Ben (benhelton.com) – only a few photographs. In fact, your contact page simply says, “I’m much better with pictures than words.” Please briefly tell us why that is, who you are and about your relationship with pictures.

BH: I actually had written a number of things about myself when I started reworking my website. I come from a wedding and portrait photography background and I wanted to eliminate most of that from my site – I had a bunch of weird, gushy stuff about why I’m awesome and then some condescending words about my opinion on photography today. So in short, my wife Shannon, who I think, is a great writer actually suggested ditching all the words and going with something really simple. I had to come up with something true to who I am, so that’s what I wrote.

JM: The Atlantic printed the background on your project:

Ben Helton discovered the Messiah Miracle Worship Center by accident. The photographer was out to lunch with his family in Senoia, Georgia, when they heard a loud beat seeping through a building nearby. “We sat on a bench right outside the door just listening,” he said. His kids, as curious as he, opened the door’s mail slot to hear it louder. What was happening inside? The question stuck with him until he finally reached the church’s pastor and asked to take some photos.

How did the pastor and congregation respond once you arrived and kept showing up? Did you plan for going back? 

BH: I had no idea where it would go. I just went in and took as many pictures as possible. I didn’t think I would be able to make it back at all.

JM: At what point did you figure out this was a big thing?

BH: On day one! It became obvious that everywhere I looked, there was a photo opportunity, whether it was someone falling on the ground in rapture or a bible sitting on a table, this tiny room was very “giving” in terms of photo opportunities. Since I didn’t know where it was going, I felt myself shooting for the single image at first, and I didn’t know if I’d be invited back, so I shot as much as possible.

JM: How often did you go?

BH: I was there twice a week when possible. On Thursdays and Sundays sometimes services would run until 10:30 at night, which is why sometimes kids showed up in some of the images as so worn out!

JM: I understand that this is probably the beginning of a series of projects focused around how we celebrate religion as culture. And it’s so ironic to me that you personally proclaim no religion at all! How is it possible that someone as yourself with no spiritual practice managed to get the congregation to let you come back so many times and for so long?

BH: My wife gave me the best advice about this before I started attending services and photographing them. She said, “Just let loose, participate and take pictures.” So, I participated. I’d get down on my knees when the congregation did. I’d keep silent when they did. I stuck to this and I think in doing the same as them and showing respect, it allowed comfort and trust. The most important thing to me in this was that I didn’t want to be disingenuous ever. I never wanted to come into this being other than who I am but I also wanted to allow them to be as comfortable as possible so I put myself out there and was honestly open to the experience. I would learn and sing the songs. My kids and I dropped by their fundraiser cookout one afternoon and also brought them a small gift once to show our appreciation. But just showing up and participating helped allay any potential issues. I always tried to thank them at end of services.

JM: There’s an “arresting” quality to the images in this project; a kind of intimacy that is surprisingly open. What allowed for that?

BH: There were these things called “praise breaks” when someone during service would be so filled up emotionally that I could feel that in the room and knew it was a cue to shoot. Other times, someone might feel something the preacher said and resonate with it so strongly that they’d begin playing a beat with their hands or begin singing out. I tried to edit those moments but those moments were perfect that I didn’t have to do anything but shoot. It wasn’t like this every time but when it did happen, it was so perfect.

Photo courtesy The Atlantic (www.theatlantic.com) Copyright 2016 - Ben Helton Photography
Photo courtesy The Atlantic (www.theatlantic.com) Copyright 2016 – Ben Helton Photography

JM: How do you think this project changed you?

BH: I grew up in a right-wing, conservative, upper middle class environment in South Atlanta (for those who know about Peachtree City and their golf carts). When I first started shooting this project I realized that I never understood this culture before then. I’ve always felt a strong connection to any and all cultures different from my own. There is an irresistible pull of sorts that leads me to seek out things that are new to me and that has helped me to understand more deeply why so many pieces of our culture are so separated. But this experience pushed me to look at other cultural differences that I otherwise would have ignored. It helped me understand what I grew up with and what you see in media is not the whole picture.

JM: A technical question – How many visits did you make to create this project and how many images did you shoot total in that entire period of time including throwaways? Also, why did you choose black and white and not try to eliminate flash shadows in post-production? 

BH: 19 total visits. 2,563 images. I took over 400 in my first visit when I didn’t think I’d get invited back! These photos just seem to come to life in black and white. You can see the same image in color and it’s just not the same emotion. That was not my intent though. I wanted to avoid cliché of black and white civil rights type of documentary photography with heavy contrast. And yes, I didn’t avoid flash shadows.

Ben Helton and I on an afternoon shoot in Decatur, GA. I'm obviously on the left!
Ben Helton and I on an afternoon shoot in Decatur, GA. I’m obviously on the left!

JM: My last question is of course, about street photography! You and I share a special emotion for this genre and of course, for ASPG. We’ve had some good times during meet ups and it always hits me whenever we shoot together: You and I are completely opposite in stature! I’m a 5’2 almost middle-aged female and you are a young, tall, stocky, six foot-plus guy! We’ve talked about this being an advantage for me shooting street and a disadvantage for you in that people don’t feel as threatened by someone like me, but do you think any of this really matters if you’re a street photographer or documentary photographer?

BH: It does matter. But because I’m simple and straightforward as a person I take that approach with street photography too. I explain myself whenever I’m asked, I delete images when asked. I try to explain who I am and what I’m doing. You definitely have the advantage though! I have to be more abrasive in getting the shot because there’s no hiding with me. You can’t miss me!

The Atlantic is well know as the “thinking person’s magazine” with more than 30 million monthly visitors to their digital version.

Read Ben’s write-up, It Never Hurts To Ask: How Great Photo Projects are Born on PetaPixel.

Keep up Ben and his future projects on Ben Helton on www.benhelton.com

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