Polk grad uses camera to tell lifes stories

Published 1:55 pm Friday, January 8, 2010

Most of us realize that we live&bsp; in one of the most geographically beautiful locales in the country. Everywhere you turn you can see what professional photographers call “beauty shots; foggy, ethereal mountains, waterfalls, trees, rivers, and wildlife.

So when you look at local photographer Mike Bellemes website (www.mikebelleme.com), youd expect to see the usual, chamber of commerce natural beauty shots. But, youre not in beauty-shot country photography anymore, Toto.

Instead, looking at Bellemes work, the words “compelling,” “starkly beautiful” and “shattering” come to mind. Some of his shots are sad and brutal, but you cant take your eyes away and his images can haunt you long after you click off.

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I consider my style to be pretty edgy and in-your-face; I like to get peoples attention and not beat around the bush.

A perfect example: Bellemes work titled “Foie Gras,” which darkly chronicles the short, sad lives of geese raised for their livers.

This is not to say that Belleme is a rabid PETA activist. Instead, he shoots it as he see it, and if its not pretty in real life, then youll see that reflected in his work.

I shoot stories that I think are important, he says. Im also drawn to stories that are not commonly told. Im usually not interested in the ‘hot’ topic of the time. I want to show people things they havent seen.

The depth and uniqueness of Bellemes work led me to expect to meet a somewhat world weary, cynical older man, with loads of experience, well traveled, and not the young (24), gentle, baby-faced guy I met at Tryons Internet news caf.

His photographic work is so unusual that its somewhat of a shock to realize that Bellemes background is so, well normal.

Belleme is that rare creature, a real local.

I grew up here. I went to&bsp; middle school in Tryon and High school in Columbus, he says. I worked at the CVS in Columbus, then there was the Big Lots in Hendersonville.

None of these jobs was very rewarding so I was very glad when I realized that people would pay me to do what I love. I went to ICC for college. I studied broadcasting with an emphasis on video production. A lot of what I learned there carried over into still photography.

Its not often that a trained videographer can also excel in still photography, but Belleme believes he has found his niche.

I have several styles of photography. Most important to me is my personal style. This is the style of shooting that I use when I am working on a story for myself on my own initiative, he says. On these personal projects, I try to not even think about who I might sell it to when Im done because then it will influence the way I shoot and I will become less pure and true to myself.

The kind of photography that I do is all about telling stories. Im not as interested in stories that I can go and shoot in a day or two. I like in-depth stories that I may spend months or over a year on. &bsp;

Unlikely, unusual stories lurk in the shadows behind Bellemes photographs, tales he says he is compelled to tell, I have what I would call hyper focus. I tend to get interested in one thing and want to do nothing but that.

On Bellemes website there are photographs that tell stories of travel, of pain, of hard- lived lives, of adapting to an environment that is alien and disturbing to many who see them, like the children playing in a city called Cagayen de Oro in the Philippines. Here the city cemetery takes the place of the park, the beach, the movie theater, the video arcade, the mall all those things American kids take for granted, wrapped into one venue in this place where the dead are buried.

There are disturbing shots of children fighting viciously, but equally moving photos of an older child embracing and comforting a much younger child while using a strangers tomb as a bench and bed. Seeing these pictures can transport the viewer into the venue instantaneously.

His training as a videographer also shows in the amazing stopgap, action shots Belleme manages to trap in mid- movement. In some shots you can see beads of moisture trapped in the air.

Most aspiring photographers with Bellemes drive and talent would head to the big advertising and media Meccas like New York or LA, but Belleme says he needs the quiet and beauty of this area in order to retain his appreciation for the rest of the world that attracts him.

I live in Asheville. Career-wise its not the best choice, he says. Most people who want to be photojournalists move to NYC.&bsp; There is enough work to keep them all busy and the connections you make living there push your career along much more quickly. &bsp;

The problem for me is that&bsp; I dont like New York, I think I would go crazy living there, as much as I enjoy the conveniences of modern life, I cant stay away from the mountains, and I dont like the mentality and clutter of big cities.

Bellemes commercial work is less compelling, but still so gripping as to attract attention. Hes done several magazine covers.

The media big shots are also discovering his talents. Belleme has struck deals with the Wall St. Journal, “Time Magazine,” and has become the local go-to guy for The New York Times and Associated Press.

Not bad for a kid who once delivered pizzas and sold you shampoo at the CVS.