When I tell people I’m a photographer, they ask me, “What do you take pictures of?’ I wonder how much about myself do they really want to know and how much about myself do I really want to tell. How do I filter through years of taking photographs which includes smuggling my film out of Africa in 1989, a brief moment in a Russian jail during their 1997 elections, Easter Egg Hunts with my daughter every year of her life since 1985, and blood on my camera during a Santeria ritual in Cuba in 2001; into a five-minute sane conversation. And how in the world do I explain not only ”why” but “what” brought me to this art event “Trailer & Trash or Looking Through Rose Colored Glasses.”
In graduate school, I said that I was a farm girl from West Virginia growing up on a 40-acre farm and spending my child-hood in the woods and that “I’m never going to photograph anything but my love of the landscape and never will I stand on the street corner to photograph people and never would I photograph nudes. Well, as I tell my students; never say never. It was a humanitarian trip to Africa in 1989 and then a trip to Vietnam in 1990 as a photographer covering the story for a group of Vietnam Veterans returning to Hanoi that placed my 4 X 5 field camera on the shelf. I put the 35mm single lens reflex camera forever up to my eye, recording the everyday life of the people in front of me--in my own home, my friend’s home, and in my neighborhood and in Russia and most recently, Cuba. And while not always conscious of it, visual concepts with prejudices, sexism, racism, and poverty continue to come through in my photographs. In 1997, I lived for several months with a group of women and children in a women’s homeless shelter in Martinsburg, WV. The photographs from The Bethany House Women’s Shelter were a runner-up for the Dorothia Lange and Paul Strand Grant Award.
I have been teaching at Shepherd University in the Art Department as an adjunct instructor for 15 years. I have taught every medium in photography and have major portfolios that include the nude, portraits, landscapes, photojournalism and vintage fashion. There is my color portfolio, “The Tiny Circus of Invisibility,” a very small traveling circus from New Orleans. And which to the surprise of my students, family, friends, and patrons, is not only color but completely digital. Up until this time, my major fine art photographs were black and white. This body of work developed during the time I was hired by American 24/7 as one of the West Virginia professional photographers and given a digital camera for the job.
It is the influence of all the other arts in which I’m so absorbed in through teaching and being a gallery director at Shepherd University that has brought me to ideas of applying photographs to other medias. This past fall, I took a sculpture class and now applying photographs to my own sculptures gets added to my long lists of “artworks in progress.” And presently, an art installation of found and bought objects extending out of my love of collecting and flea market shopping becomes the backdrop for a statement about prejudice and government educational funding. Adding my love of the portrait and theater to my man-made trailer landscape becomes an extinction of my photojournalism. It seems perfect to do it all in "performance” before a live audience. And it seems also perfect, with digital photography being at its glory and being so embraced by the general public, to extend all the digital capabilities of the love for instant gratification to produce the final photographic object “right before your very eyes.” And as a teacher, it encourages creative possibilities and also promotes the Shepherd University Art Department.
I have shown my work in many galleries and several museums and have won some great grants. I am in the archives of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, and I am presently working on three books of my work. One book, “Birth, Death, and Woman, is 15 years of my photojournalist photographs and the book makes a conceptual statement about politics, race and women. It has photographs that cover the Million Man March and the Ku Klux Klan, Russia, deer harvesting, Native American rituals, the Peace Talks held in Shepherdstown, WV, and my daughter growing into a woman. The other two books are of Havana, Cuba, where I have taken my photojournalist students twice out of the 5 years I have been there. I presently live in Shepherdstown, WV. It is 5 miles from my family farm where I grew-up. I received my MFA in photography from the University of Maryland and first showed my photographs at the Jefferson County Fair, WV, when I was 12 years old. It was my 4-H project. I plan to be a “famous” photographer. My daughter, who graduates from Montana University in May, has made many observations about my photography career in fine arts over the years. Here is one: “Mom, maybe if your babies had arms and were cute perhaps you could sell your photographs, too.” She is speaking of my swaddling Vietnamese newborn photograph that questions birth defects and she is also making reference to a well-known commercial photographer. But most of all she is being facetious because she knows that my work is about making a statement and never about making money. Sarah’s second and most recent observation beyond “Mom you are nuts” is; “Wouldn’t it be funny if you become “known” because of your Trailer & Trash photographs?” It would be funny. Some would say and have said, “Benita, you can’t go around looking through rose colored glasses!” And I ask, “Why not?”
Benita Keller PO Box 2080 Shepherdstown, WV 25443 USA