Coming of age in America’s heartlands

Coming of age in America’s heartlands

A photographer’s journey — Calla Kessler has grown up with a firm belief in photography’s ability to connect people. But as a recent graduate uprooted from small-town Nebraska to Washington DC, she’s learned that sometimes pursuing truth means standing up and speaking out.

Growing up in Nebraska, I wanted to be a mail(wo)man. I thought it would be fun to walk around all day – rain or shine – delivering mail and chatting with people.

Instead I became a photojournalist, which is like the next best thing: I still get to walk around and meet new people every day, but I carry around a camera instead of a letter from your grandma.

My dad is a freelance architectural photographer and our home always had an abundance of cameras around. I remember one evening, about the age of four, when my dad lent me one of his film cameras to shoot a car show with him.

I liked the way it felt hanging from my neck, complete with the Mickey Mouse camera strap he got for me. There was never a deliberate push in any particular direction, but my dad’s artistic influence subtly steered me to where I am today.

After my freshman year studying photojournalism, my first internship led me to a small town called Hartington, Nebraska, where I got acquainted with country roads and learned to corral pigs into their pens. It was a special summer because I didn’t have any friends there except my camera, so we became really close.

I went on photo drives every night, getting to know the small town and the people who lived there (as well as myself) intimately. Two summers later, I ended up in a very different environment: the urban chaos of our nation’s capital city. I interned for The Washington Post and was invited back after I graduated this past May.

My work at The Post has challenged me to seek beauty and light in the most ordinary situations, like kids playing at a park or commuters making their way home. I have learned there is always a photo hiding somewhere in any situation, and becoming a better photojournalist means uncovering that photo faster.

One of my favourite projects is a personal essay I shot during my first summer in DC. It was about Park View, the neighbourhood where I lived. I would venture out on nightly photo walks during golden hour, getting to know my neighbours and the new community I called home. Even though I’ve since moved away, the residents still recognise me and greet me warmly when I pass through.

All my work is driven by the urge to connect people, especially those with radically different upbringings, beliefs and values. Sometimes it can be hard to reconcile that perspective with the reality of life outside Nebraska. But I recognise that images have a unique power to communicate meaning and evoke empathy in people, attaching a face to an otherwise anonymous issue, so I try to harness that power however I can.

That process obviously involves skill, but I’ve realised just how much heart it requires too. You can’t be a good photojournalist if you don’t try to be a good person first. If you are sincere and clear about your intentions, it can disarm people in the best way.

The greatest gift anyone can give you is their vulnerability, so you want to honour the people whose stories you’re sharing by listening and doing them justice via your work. That’s why I always try to remember why I’m doing this in the first place: to help people, bottom line. What good is a career if you aren’t improving people’s lives in some way?

With that in mind, I want to help make photojournalism more accessible for women. Like in any male-dominated industry, we’ve long been mistreated and underestimated in this field. During my junior year of college – right before the dawn of the #MeToo movement – I experienced constant belittling, manipulation and harassment from a guest professor at my university.

For a long time, I learned to live with it because I thought I needed his expertise to succeed. He was well established in the industry and made it no secret that he could ruin your future with a few phone calls. After adapting to the anxiety this induced, I finally reached a breaking point and realised I didn’t have to put up with his behaviour anymore.

I knew it would be a difficult process, but speaking out felt like a moral obligation that couldn’t be ignored. I decided to file a claim under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. I was met with a huge amount of support via networks of fellow women journalists, which gave me the courage to endure a gruelling investigation that lasted months.

In the end, a ruling found that the professor had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy. I felt victorious. That whole process, to me, mirrors what photography is all about: truth and light. If anyone tries to steal your light, they don’t deserve to be in the industry any more.

This article appears in Huck 67 – The Documentary Photography Special VI. Buy it in the Huck Shop or subscribe now to never miss another issue.

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