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Cameras on the Ground: Wheeling Photojournalist Rebecca Kiger Takes Storytelling Deeper, Wider

Photo Provided Bryanna Beckett, a student at Bellaire High School, took this image of classmates riding the bus as part of a special, grant-funded art project. Rebecca Kiger of Wheeling, a photojournalist, collaborated with the school’s art teacher to offer photography instruction and the opportunity to be published. This image was among those included in a “zine” that documents the students’ lives in a format often reserved for professional photographers.

WHEELING — Rebecca Kiger knows how to tell a story with pictures.

Photo credits in Time magazine and the New York Times attest to that. So do stills that have been used in Netflix films and promotional photos for institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

But, she so suspects she’s not alone in at least the roots of such ability that she’s spent part of the last two years putting cameras into the hands of those whose stories are rarely heard, let alone published.

Some are homeless women who bring the disposable cameras she has provided back to her for developing. Others are teenagers from a small river valley town so far off national media’s map it might not otherwise exist in a documented way.

In fits and starts, their work is filtering out. Images captured by the women will be part of a gallery show this fall. Others taken by the teens have made their way into two “zines” that have, ironically, captured the attention of national media and professional photographers.

QUESTION OF ACCESS

Kiger said there is a certain amount of privilege at play in becoming a professional photographer. No matter how hard she has worked to get to what has recently become a career sweet spot.

She is white. She is educated and mentored — with advocates at top publications and a degree from the same college that launched documentary superstar Ken Burns. She is the daughter of Wheeling natives, married and a mother herself — with all that support that kind of family network brings.

These things mean a lot given the arena.

“Being a professional photographer is very difficult,” Kiger said of both the competition for paying assignments and the expense of camera equipment. “There’s this imbalance in being able to enter and participate.”

Kiger knows she cannot control other people’s life circumstances or the profession’s playing field, but decided she could do something about the access. To both the tools of the trade and of telling one’s own tale — which is where her community photography project began.

“I can’t give them cameras,” Kiger noted of collaborating with the homeless. “When you live outside, it’s hard to manage any thing, let alone a camera.”

What Kiger does do — thanks to grant funding — is provide disposable cameras loaded with black and white film.

Women visiting Laughlin Memorial Chapel in South Wheeling to shower get toiletries and just relax as part of Blossoms — a program that began in the heart of COVID — can also pick up a camera.

“I haven’t given them any directions,” Kiger said. “I feel like part of being truly collaborative is giving them the choice to do what they want … I just want them to simply have the joy of doing it.”

Kiger sends the film off for processing and maintains the digital copies of the work. The best of it will be included in a display of photos of Wheeling’s homeless population that she took for a piece Time magazine published earlier this year.

The gallery show, which Kiger noted is unusual for the kind of journalistic images she produced, will take place at Ohio University Eastern this fall as a fundraiser for homeless-related causes.

“What are my expectations?” Kiger said of the Blossoms project, “that we’ll have 10 great photographs between now and September. It’s not easy.”

Noting a typical National Geographic spread of perhaps 15 photos is often backed by 50,000 images, she said it has been interesting to see what the Blossoms women have photographed with a limited number of frames.

One woman who lives in a camp near the dog park loves to capture images of geese, she said. Most of these haven’t been stellar, but one shows a standing goose in a corner and another taking flight.

“I think that’s a really strong picture,” she said.

Another roll of film stands out because it was damaged in a way that left the finished photos with an oddly vintage look. “There’s a shot of the Suspension Bridge that could have been from 1910.”

QUESTION OF OUTLET

Kiger has a separate but similar project going on at Bellaire High School. Art students are shooting hundreds of photos on their phones and point-and-shoots that are culled by Kiger and a Pulitzer prize winner into a “zine.”

The matte, black and white zine — now in its second year of publication — is filled with sometimes-stark images of life in the small river town. There’s a mix of snowstorms, tool sheds, children on school buses, abandoned buildings, canned goods, teen boys with guitars, pill bottles, cats peeking around corners and more.

A zine is a format generally accessible to only professional photographers, Kiger noted. Indeed, the style was influenced by field notable Alec Soth, who was so captured by the amateur images he visited the school to take some pictures of the photographers themselves.

That kind of support has been typical of the project, Kiger said.

There’s been funding. The zine effort started in the 2018-19 school year and involves multiple grants and donations from the Ohio Arts Council, the Rural Arts Collaborative, Benedum Foundation, Attack Theatre, Unfinished, Stifel Fine Arts Center and West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media.

There’s the unexpected boosts. In addition to Soth’s visit, the zines have been reviewed by the Washington Post and an international photography venue, Kiger said. That has led to international sales — including to celebrities — and cash in the student photographers’ pockets.

In early May, each of the dozen or so students that produced the 2020-21 zine earned a check for $250, Kiger said. She noted that is significant to the students, some of whom are already working to help support their families or to pursue further education.

“I’m always kind of for the underdog, like a lot of Americans are,” Kiger said of the ripple effects of putting storytelling tools into fresh hands. “These are life lessons. They can take them wherever they go.”

Interested readers can purchase Bellaire High School zines through the school.

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