Every month, the Western Kentucky University NPPA Chapter produces a “Student Spotlight” segment that focuses on recent work from a student. Photo stories, videos, personal projects, or even successful shoots are eligible for the Student Spotlight. If you have a current project you’d like to share, please email email@example.com.
Liam plays the piano while Valentina dances with Spicy. ‘There’s a certain satisfaction [our] way of life brings,’ Liam says.
Until recently, Liam and Valentina Wilson lived a quiet life in their small country home. They are ardent pacifists and their beliefs include existing in peace with all living things and with nature. For the Wilsons, this means not consuming fossil fuels or electricity, growing most of their own food and maintaining a vegan diet.
A recent fire destroyed the home they rented 6 miles outside Berea, Ky. Their future is uncertain, but for now they live in what remains of their home as they prepare for it’s demolition at the end of November. They hope that in the spring they will be able to find a piece of land on which to build a new home.
Valentina washes a pot in the stream running through their land. Because they have no running water in their house, they rely on the stream to wash and on rain and spring water to drink.
NPPA: When you first drew the Wilson’s name out of the hat, what were your initial thoughts?
Mike: The slip of paper with the assignment on it just said that they were artisan breadmakers and nothing else. That left me with a lot of questions and blanks to fill in, but I had a lot of faith in the faculty at the workshop to assign us stories that would challenge us and help us grow. I went in with the idea that even if my story were to fail for whatever reason, and the previous year my story did fail, I’d still be able to learn a lot from the experience.
The Wilsons are avid readers. Liam reads in his native English and Valentina reads in her native Russian or Italian. Some of their favorite authors are Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, who have influenced their pacifist beliefs.
NPPA: You can see in the photos that they live a beautifully simple life with their cat, Spicy. Can you tell us about the way they live?
Mike: Well the main thing about how they live is they are ardent pacifists and this really affects everything they do. Not only are they pacifists in the nonviolent sense of the word but they try to live peacefully with nature and even in the way that they speak to others they just come from a very peaceful, understanding and loving place.
Liam and Valentina share a quiet moment in the garden behind their house. ‘For me it’s a very direct way of living,’ Liam says. ‘We try to be as intimately connected to every aspect of our life as possible.’
Valentina kneads a ball of dough to make bread. The Wilson’s sole source of income is the sale of the bread they make which Liam estimates brings in about $4,000-$5,000 a year. They have never needed more than that, Liam says.
NPPA: When you heard the news of the fire, what did you do?
Mike: When Liam called me I was sitting with my coach Jahi Chikwendiu going over the final edit of my story which was focused around their way of life and their connection to nature and their house was a central part of that story. So to hear that their house was on fire and especially before I arrived there and didn’t quite know the extent of the damage I was just in shock. I asked Jahi what I should do but I knew he’d tell me to go out there and document what they are going through, so that’s what I did. On the drive out there, I was really quite nervous because I’ve only covered spot news like this a couple times and it was never involving anyone I’d previously met. I was worried about Liam, Valentina and Spicy. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to handle the situation and not be able to do their story justice.
Liam holds Valentina as they wait for the Berea Fire Department to clear their house. The Wilsons were at the Berea Farmers Market when the fire started, which is one of the few times a week they leave their property. If they hadn’t been away, Liam thinks he could have lessened the damage.
Liam and Valentina survey the damage from the fire with firefighters from the Berea Fire Department. Initial findings suggest it was an electrical fire originating in their basement. The Wilsons leave the electricity turned on to charge their one electronic item, a cell phone.
Liam hands the body of Spicy to Valentina. Members of the Berea Fire Department found Spicy at the bottom of the basement stairs but were unable to revive him.
NPPA: It’s tragic that the Wilson’s lost their only pet. How else did the fire affect their lives?
Mike: It now seems like they will lose their home as well. I spoke with Liam today and according to him, the company that insured the house determined it was a total loss. So the house is going to be demolished at the end of the month and the property will be sold by the owner.
NPPA: What was it like to photograph someone going through such a terrible event in their lives?
Mike: I was on the verge of tears for a lot of it, especially when I saw Valentina’s reaction when they found Spicy. It was hard staying composed while witnessing someone in such grief. I had to take breaks every few frames just to keep myself from losing it. So I would take a couple frames and then just sit quietly for a short time to compose myself. It was difficult.
Liam and Valentina bury Spicy in their garden. “Property isn’t very important to us,” Liam says, “but losing Spicy weighs heavily on us.”
NPPA: What are the Wilson’s plans now?
Mike: For now they are staying at their house through the end of the month, despite the damage, but their future is uncertain. For the Winter, they need to find a place to live but come Spring they would like to find a piece of land near Berea where they could build a structure themselves and one of their friends has started a FundMe for them to help finance that.
Valentina takes a break from sorting through the debris outside her house. The Wilson’s house will be demolished at the end of November. “Now we rebuild,” Valentina says.
NPPA: What have you learned from this experience? How did it affect you?
Mike: From the whole Mountain Workshop experience I learned way too much to really describe succinctly, but from Liam and Valentina specifically, I learned to approach the people I meet with an open mind and an open heart. I also learned that it is incredibly difficult and taxing to photograph people I really care for during such a dark moment. If I’d kept a bit more emotional distance I would have been more calm and my photographs may have been a bit better composed but would it have been better for Liam and Valentina? Would I have been comfortable or even able to document such a personal moment if I was more detached? I don’t really know how to find the right balance yet but it is something I know to be conscious of if I find myself in a similar situation.
Our hearts go out to the Wilson family.
Bio: Mike Clark is a photojournalist from Washington, DC. He is currently in his second year in the photojournalism program at Western Kentucky University. He currently works for the College Heights Herald and the Talisman yearbook and has previously interned at the Santa Barbara Independent and worked at The Channels, the Santa Barbara City College student newspaper.