After working for 15 years at local banks, John Helms sensed a moment of clarity about his career as bright as the flash on his camera.
It was 2007, and he was “totally addicted” to digital photography, documenting every stage of his baby daughter’s life. He realized he wanted a job behind a lens instead of a desk, but he also sought more adventure than shooting weddings.
Two years later, he heard about an entry-level photographer job at Fort Benning. He took passport photos and promotion photos — not the thrills he imagined, but it led to another opportunity.
Michael Ferriter, then a major general and commander of Fort Benning, praised Helms’ work and his attitude and promoted the civilian to the post’s official photographer.
In 2011, when Ferriter became deputy commanding general in charge of the mission related to advising and training Iraqi soldiers, Helms asked to join him. Ferriter, now a lieutenant general at the Pentagon, advised Helms to first talk to his wife, Shana.
That spring, Helms left for nine months of photographing the transition and withdrawal of active U.S. troops in Iraq before returning home in February 2012.
Helms, a graduate of Shaw High School (1992) and Columbus State University (1996), said he was determined to show the media’s usual images of Iraq don’t depict the whole picture of its land and its people.
“They come across as just tan and brown and devoid of color and devoid of life — no hope for the future,” said Helms, 39. “So when I went over there, that drove me. Baghdad is between the Tigris and Euphrates (rivers). The Garden of Eden was somewhere there. It’s a lush valley, the birthplace of life, and I wanted to capture that, the vibrancy. I wanted to capture the beauty.”
And the result is his photography exhibit simply titled “The Beauty of Iraq.” It was displayed from Nov. 21 through February at the Rankin Arts Center in downtown Columbus. But if you missed it, you have a second chance: in the Lamar Dodd Art Center at LaGrange College, now until the end of the semester. Helms will present a gallery lecture about his work at 11 a.m. Tuesday.
John Lawrence, director of the Dodd Center and Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Art & Design, was wowed by Helms’ exhibit in Columbus and invited him to bring it to LaGrange.
“I thought it was a beautiful series of images that showed incredible interest in the visual aspects of a place that is very much a place we don’t know much about,” Lawrence said.
Kenny Gray, photography director at the Rankin, has seen Helms progress from a student to a teacher in the program. Gray was amazed by the images Helms brought back from Iraq, how he artfully capitalized on his behind-the-scenes access.
“John shoots a lot of wide-angle work, which allows him to tell stories with his photographs, to imply narrative,” Gray said. “There’s just a lot in his photographs, a lot of people, a lot of action. They’re very dramatic.”
Gray explained Helms’ approach.
“He puts himself very close to what’s happening,” Gray said. “He doesn’t isolate small things. It’s not strictly panoramic but very wide and a lot of deep focus. His background is all in focus, so he produces technically wonderful photographs. Combined with the access he had, I don’t know if you’d find a body of work like his on Iraq.”
Helms, now a full-time photographer with an independent business, said he is grateful his exhibit has been well received.
“Hopefully, I’m able to show there are some positive people and places in Iraq,” he said. “There are some real lives and real emotions that live there, a lot different from the other stuff we might have thought. There are real people just like us.”
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter
IF YOU GO
What: “Beauty of Iraq” photography exhibit by John Helms of Columbus.
Where: Lamar Dodd Art Center, 302 Forrest Ave., LaGrange, GA 706-880-8211.
When: Now through mid-May (no specific closing date yet), open Mondays-Fridays, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., when LaGrange College is in session. Helms will present a gallery lecture about his work at 11 a.m. Tuesday.
ONLINE ONLYTo view a video of John Helms showing and speaking about his “Beauty of Iraq” photography exhibit, click on this story at www.ledger-enquirer.com.