Like his own recovery, Brent Walker's storytelling project is about getting honest and fostering connection. The Hidden South sugarcoats nothing as it shares the life experiences of the Georgia photographer's subjects, but it does so with a reverence for the life stories of Southern individuals who mostly have gone forgotten.
“I wanted to do something to tell the stories of people who didn't have a voice,” says Walker, 45. Through this effort, which culminated with a published book and plans for more on the way, Walker says he has become a more empathetic and patient person.
“I never pushed people to tell their stories,” says Walker, who worked in the culinary industry and in web design before reigniting a long-held passion for photography. “I made it clear up front that I was looking for something real. Many of the people I speak with tell me, 'You were the first person who ever asked.'”
Roots of project
“When I was 16. My mother gave me up to the state. After my mom gave me up, I hit rock bottom and got really bad on drugs. I started shooting heroin, coke, pills, alcohol, whatever I could get my hands on. I moved to South Beach and I was raped and beaten almost every day for two months.”
Walker's appreciation for the difficult circumstances many of his Southern neighbors have faced grew out of his exposure to their stories as a child. His father was a charismatic religious man who helped to house homeless individuals in his community.
“Their story was much different from what people understood about them,” Walker recalls from his youth.
Walker himself began using drugs and alcohol around age 13, and by 17 he was telling his mother he wanted to go to treatment. He now believes he was more of a directionless youth than anything else at that time. He obtained his GED after having dropped out of high school, then attended culinary school and got married in his early 20s.
His life would quickly turn to the negative when he drank. Other drugs were sometimes part of the mix as well, but “alcohol was always the centerpiece,” he says.
His first marriage ended, and he changed his career from the culinary field to web design. By his early 30s, it would come to light to others that Walker had been running for a long time from a secret of his own: He had never revealed that he had been molested during his childhood, at a public park not far from his house. “I was running from demons,” he says.
He says 12-Step support and a respected sponsor have been crucial to his recovery. While he believes 12-Step groups need to evolve in certain ways, he adds, “I will always be grateful for those people being there.”
The South's secrets
“For a while I wore a purity ring and tried to force myself to be straight and to be in relationships with females. I was 14 when I finally admitted to myself I was gay.”
Some of the stories told with words and pictures in The Hidden South illustrate the influence of religion in Southern communities and the harmful effects of sexual repression and secrets. “We lag behind in a lot of areas,” Walker says of his home region of the country. “There is a lack of sexual honesty.”
Quite a while after he started picking up his camera after having been laid off from a bank job, Walker would begin to realize that getting people to open up would not be as difficult as he had originally envisioned. He met a sex worker who freely talked to him in detail about her life. “All I had to do was have a conversation,” he says he eventually came to understand.
The pursuit of these honest portrayals of Southern lives would become an all-consuming endeavor for Walker. A Kickstarter campaign financed his travel across the region to meet with everyday people, and for the first printing run for the book (published in January 2016). He hopes to visit 14 states in the region for what could be his next book or series.
“The project has changed how I look at life,” says Walker, who has attained nearly 10 years in recovery from alcoholism. “Maybe there's a foolish part of me that wants to move the needle in a way that is more empathetic.”