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The Aerial Classroom: Views from Above


Community Works Journal is pleased to share the thoughts and writing of Belle Boggs. Belle has worked in K-12 public schools across the U.S. and is an award winning author. Her new novel is The Ugly Bear List. This fascinating piece from Belle Boggs follows a group of North Carolina high school students as they document their community via interviews, portraits, and aerial photography. Belle’s writing and musings can be found at This article originally appeared in Orion.

Views from Above

I worked recently with photographer Ken Abbott on a project called “Views From Above,” which teaches high school students in rural Columbus County, North Carolina, to observe their communities from a unique dual perspective: through interviews, photographic portraits, and landscapes completed in small towns and farms near their school; and also through aerial photographs taken with a balloon-and-camera rig the students put together.

We have combined their work in a blog, as well as in presentations for the school and community. Following is an explanation of LEAP photography—Low Elevation Aerial Photography—by seniors Joshua Redwine and Hunter Powell, as well as sample aerial photography from the project. In the coming weeks, we’ll share student writing, portraits, and landscapes from Chadbourn and Fair Bluff, two economically struggling towns in eastern North Carolina. —Belle Boggs

Joshua Redwine: How can you take photographs from 500 to 1,000 feet in the air without even stepping foot onto an airplane? My art class did that this fall, sending two digital cameras above our school and towns using tethered helium weather balloons, a process known as LEAP. We had the guidance of Ken Abbott, an Asheville-based photographer who has taken LEAP images of landscapes across the southeast, from mountaintop removal sites to maximum security prisons.

To house and protect our digital camera, we had to build two rigs using rubber bands and recycled soda bottles, which were suspended beneath the balloons.

We chose to document locations near our school. We wanted to photograph a former tobacco farm as well as the small, economically distressed towns of Fair Bluff and Chadbourn.

After a test flight on the school’s soccer field, we found that the ability to take pictures from the air made this project very interesting. As photographers, we had to let go and trust that while the camera was up in the air, it was doing what we wanted it to do. When we landed the balloons and retrieved the cameras, we were able see things that we couldn’t from the ground: the tracks of hay harvesters on fields, the outline and contours of fields, farms, and swamps. The thousands of digital photos we took gave us a better insight on the land and agriculture. But the next step—knitting the pictures together using photo-mapping software—would prove more complicated.

Hunter Powell: Photo mapping is the process of combining aerial photos, which can provide 360-degree views of the landscape. Aerial photography is taking photos from an elevated position, which is not supported by ground-based structures. There are numerous ways to do this, including taking pictures from helicopters, blimps, kites, and balloons. The applications vary also, from environmental studies to commercial advertising to artistic projects. Combining individual images into one large map provides a chance to see a lot of the landscape, as in a map, but with the detail and visual interest of photography.

Jody Johnson’s farm in Cerro Gordo, North Carolina, once grew tobacco, but now Jody and his brother grow hay and longleaf pines. We took about six thousand photos of the farm; Ken Abbott, our teaching artist, found himself having to download the images to his computer because the memory card in the cameras would only allow a person to take about 2,600 photos at a time.

Our next stop was Fair Bluff, which has a population of about 900, but is known around the area for its annual watermelon festival. The farm photos were easier to take since we were in open fields; when we went to Fair Bluff, we had to worry about running into power lines, cars, people, and buildings with the balloon and the tether.



The next step was choosing the photos that would help create a photo-map. I offered my help in the process. It was amazing to see the community and farm from this perspective: how the hay was assembled, how it created a pattern out in the field. An abandoned lot in Fair Bluff looked like puzzle pieces where the cement was cracked. On the ground, you would not have been able to see the characteristics of the land. When you see how abundant farmland is in Columbus County, even right outside of our towns, it makes you realize that this whole county is still tied to an agricultural way of life.


Small-Town Blues
One of my favorite pieces of writing to share with rural students is Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Though most of the students I teach are unfamiliar with the south Georgia landscape Ray describes, they immediately recognize and respond to her intimate and honest portrait of the people and landscapes of her childhood. That personal narrative writing can be loving but unsentimental, fanciful but also direct and factual, is often a revelation to them.

In Columbus County, North Carolina, Ken Abbott and I used low elevation aerial photography to help students connect in an even more immediate and truthful way to the landscapes they inhabit. Our hope was that by working with the elevated camera rigs, following them around fields and towns, and then examining the resulting work in the classroom, they’d have a new appreciation for everyday sights—hay bales and forest edges, railroad tracks and roads—as well as a better understanding of their own place within the landscape.
Here, senior Will Edmund riffs on Ray’s introduction, and explains what it’s like to spend your summer in a tractor cab:

"Many people have always lived in the small place known as Columbus County. It’s a county that is framed by two things, farming and family. To a newcomer’s eyes, it may not be more than a bowl of dirt, but to those of us who have been living here, it’s the best place to be. You are never bothered, because your neighbors live too far for you to hear or see what they’re doing. It’s peaceful, with the lack of traffic, the relaxing chirps of birds and crickets, and the entrancing smells: fresh-cut grass and wheat, the sugary scent of cropped sweet corn.

There are not any hills or mountains, just flat, beyond flat. Tractors burn high-octane diesel all throughout the county, but a bit more in my end. My homeland is Cerro Gordo, the smallest of the small. No stoplight; a BP gas station is our only attraction. Sometimes we get two boys trying to prove who has the better truck.

If you want something to do, you have to go to a surrounding town, such as Chadbourn, Whiteville, or Fair Bluff. Still, all of these towns have a few things in common: the population is small; you’ll still hear the sounds of John Deere, Kabota, New-Holland, Case, and Massey-Ferguson tractors, whether it’s light or dark; and the only real disaster is when it rains on the corn crop the day you were supposed to pick.

At my family’s small farm, our rustic machinery is far from new. It seems like our combine is haunted, but that can be blamed on the fact that it is a twenty-three-year-old New-Holland with a rusty brace, warped pulleys, and worn-out belts. Its cab is enclosed, but since the air doesn’t work, it’s hotter inside than outside.

It’s my job to drive that family heirloom. My typical hot, humid, summer day consists of shutting myself into one of our old Massey-Fergusons or that old New-Holland. It’s not the most fun thing, to sit on a tractor all day, now in the ninety-eight-degree heat, but I wouldn’t trade it."

Branton Williamson, also a senior at West Columbus High, imagines moving elsewhere:

"In Columbus County, particularly Evergreen, everything is as plain as potatoes without salt. Evergreen, like most of our towns, consists of a crossroads with a school on one side, a post office on the other, and a half-rundown store right in the middle.

My community stands among corn and bean fields that are scattered between tobacco fields on old back roads that only locals have use for. At night, my town is populated by the noises from crickets, a bullfrog here and there; sometimes you’re lucky enough to hear the turbines of a jet taking visitors to foreign lands. Even with all these noises, it’s ominously black. The turbines yell “travel”; they remind me of my trips to Washington, D.C., the most significant place I’ve ever visited, and my hopes of “hitching the first train outta here.”

In ten years, I see myself traveling the world with my significant other, or with my mom. Amsterdam, Washington, London, and Paris are all places I hope to call home at some point in my life. For one reason, life is more exciting there. Another main objective for moving is better job opportunities with my degree. Unless you want to take over the family farm, work manual labor or retail, there are not many jobs in Columbus County. Farming is not for me.

I hope to eventually settle in Raleigh so I’m close to my family, but still within an arm’s length of shopping, theaters, and eclectic restaurants. I see myself coming home to Evergreen whenever the urge strikes. Knowing, however, that I have a home elsewhere will make coming back easier."

Leslie Waddell used the aerial perspective to inspire a description of her home:

"I live in a small farm town in rural, eastern North Carolina. In Cerro Gordo there isn’t much to do if you don’t own a four-wheeler or twelve-gauge shotgun. I live off a highway where you hear transfer trucks driving through the town, never stopping. The city limits of my town enclose a post office, an elementary school, a high school, and a gas station.

My long gravel driveway leads up to a small gray house with a blue tin roof. As you walk through my back door, the laundry closet is on your left and the kitchen is on your right. On opposite sides are four bedrooms, two on each side. One for my father and stepmother, one for me, and two empty bedrooms that used to belong to my older sisters.

Surrounding my house is nothing but overgrown woods and cornfields. From above, you can see acres of farmland for every house. You see small storage buildings and hay bales scattered across these pieces of land. At night you can hear leaves shaken by the wind, crickets singing a moonlit lullaby, and distinct dogs barking at whitetail deer looking for a midnight snack in the cornfields."


Pieces of Pretty
After completing our first aerial landscapes of a former tobacco farm in Cerro Gordo, North Carolina, we traveled with the students to two nearby towns. The first, Fair Bluff, is a town of approximately 900 people, and although it has touches of small-town charm—benches and flower boxes, colorful flags along Main Street—you can’t miss the signs of financial struggle. The town’s only bank, recently closed, had signs on the door and deposit window directing you to branches in Whiteville. Empty storefronts, dusty displays. Even the online betting parlor had been cleared out.

Students spread out across the town’s three blocks, taking photographs and interviewing residents and shopkeepers. They knew this town—there were so few other places to go—and had an idea of what they wanted to capture, in words and images.

Senior Jenna Greene, who noted the town’s struggle, chose to focus instead on the river walk, which allows visitors and residents an up-close look at the Lumber River:

"With fewer than a thousand people living here, the town still manages to keep a few businesses open. While walking past some of the closed-down businesses that I remember being open a few years ago—The Train Stop, Scott’s Movie Theatre, The House of Pizza—I also noticed customers walking in and out of the surviving businesses. B.H. Small & Co., Valley Gun Works, and Ellis Meares and Sons: these were businesses that were family owned, friendly, and very welcoming. The struggling town managed to support a variety of businesses, including a grocery store, a drive-in, two hardware stores, and a pharmacy.

Outside were decorative street lamps and landscaped sitting areas. The scenery complimented the river walk advertised all over town. The 1.24-mile-long river walk winds through the trees over the Lumber River, and it offers hunting, fishing, boating, and swimming areas. I like wandering the river walk after being at my church across the street on Sunday afternoons. Since it was built a few years back, they have added on and have plans for it to go even further—the extended walk may take up to an extra hour to walk, there and back."


Interestingly, many of the photographs taken on this trip focused also on the natural landscape: things that looked naturally “pretty” to the students. Animal tracks and Spanish moss along the river, trees and flower boxes, even vines creeping up along abandoned warehouses. Our PicasaWeb album of photographs selected by the students includes 128 photographs of nature, and only three interior shots of the thrift store and the pharmacy (these, of course, were the most interesting). They wanted, also, to apply filters to their photographs using Photoshop and Instagram, to make things look more old-fashioned.

On our next outing, a couple of weeks later, we visited Chadbourn, a town about twice the size of Fair Bluff. By then students had more experience looking at and describing what photographer Ken Abbott calls “human landscapes,” as well as with conducting and writing interviews.

Senior Michelle Wallace, a Chadbourn resident, described her town with the same clear-eyed fondness that characterizes the students’ photography from this week:

"In Chadbourn, you have to look close to see the beauty. Traveling through the town, you’ll see rotted railroad tracks, abandoned buildings, a few businesses aching for customers. Familiar faces walk the roads: you may see family, friends, a teacher from long ago.

If you visit Chadbourn, there are a few things you should see. Take a few minutes to explore the scenery. Ignore the trash, or the disorderly uncut grass. See the small park hidden between old buildings, filled with flowers and benches, trees and mulch, a little piece of pretty in all the ugly. Examine the tarnished old-time buildings, try to imagine them bustling with business. Try to open your eyes to what was, what is, and what could be.

I grew up surrounded by new buildings, traffic lined up as far as I could see, cement in place of grass, and listening to proper talking instead of country slang. Where I lived, there wasn’t any farming, no fields or old buildings. Transitioning from the city to the country was strange and awkward but exciting. By moving to Chadbourn, I’ve changed. I’ve learned to see beauty where there’s none. I’ve learned to look deep into something and imagine its story."

Belle’s writing and musings can be found at This article originally appeared in Orion.

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