A blog by Bill Hess

Running Dog Publications

P.O. Box 872383 Wasilla, Alaska 99687


All photos and text © Bill Hess, unless otherwise noted 
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Wasilla is the place where I have lived for the past 29 years - sort of. The house in which my wife and I raised our family sits here, but I have made my rather odd career as a different sort of photojournalist by continually wandering off to other places to photograph people and gather information, which I have then put together in various publications that have served the Alaska Native Eskimo, Indian and Aleut communities.

Although I did not have a great of free time to devote to this rather strange community, named after a Tanaina Athabascan Indian chief who knew Wasilla in the way that I so impossibly long to, I have still documented it regularly over the past quarter-century plus. In the early days, my Wasilla photographs focused mostly upon my children and the events they participated in - baseball, football, figure skating, hockey, frog catching, fire cracker detonation, Fourth of July parade - that sort of thing. 

In 2002, I purchased my first digital camera and then, whenever I was home, I began to photograph Wasilla upon a daily basis, but not in a conventional way. These were grab shots - whatever caught my eye as I took my many long walks or drove through the town, shooting through the car window at people and scenes that appeared and disappeared before I could even focus and compose in the traditional photographic way.

Thus, the Wasilla portion of this blog will be devoted both to the images that I take as I wander about and those that I have taken in the past. Despite the odd, random, nature of the images, I believe they communicate something powerful about this town that I have never seen expressed anywhere else. 

Wasilla is a sprawling community that has been slapped down hodge-podge upon what was so recently wilderness of the most exquisite beauty. In its design, it is deliberately anti-zoned, anti-planned. In the building of Wasilla, the desire to make a buck has trumped aesthetics and all other considerations. This town, built in the midst of exquisite beauty, has largely become an unsightly, unattractive, mess of urban sprawl. Largely because of this, it often seems to me that Wasilla is a community with no sense of community, a town devoid of town soul.

Yet - Wasilla is my home and if I am lucky it will be until I grow old and die. Despite its horrific failings, it is still made of the stuff of any small city: people; moms and dads, grammas and grampas, teens, children, churches, bars, professionals, laborers, soldiers, missionaries, artists, athletes, geniuses, do-gooders, hoodlums, the wealthy, the homeless, the rational and logical, the slightly insane and the wholly insane - and, yes, as is now obvious to the whole world, politicians, too.

So perhaps, if one were to search hard enough, it might just be possible to find a sense of community here, and a town soul. So, using my skills as a photojournalist and a writer, I hope to do just that. If this place has a sense of community, I will find it. If there is a town soul to Wasilla, I will document it. I won't compete with the newspapers. Hell no! But as time and income allow, it will be fun to wander into the places where the folks described above gather, and then put what I find on this blog.


by 300...

Anywhere within a 300 mile radius of Wasilla. This encompasses perhaps the most wild, dramatic, gorgeous, beautiful section of land and sea to be found in any comparable space anywhere on Earth. I can never explore it all, but I will do the best that I can, and will here share what I find and experience with you.  

and then some...

Anywhere else in the world that I happen to get to, such as Point Lay, Alaska; Missoula, Montana; Serenki, Chukotka, Russia; or Bangalore, India. Perhaps even Lagos, Nigeria. I have both a desire and scheme to get me there. It is a long shot. We shall see if I succeed.

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Soundarya Anil Kumar - "Sandy": April 13, 1979 - November 22, 2010

Upon the death of my soul friend and muse, Soundarya, I am left to bear the unbearable grief and to ponder the meanings of love, in all its variations, in the many different ways that it comes to us.

There is love of blood and kin, love that we are born into and that descends from us – the love that we feel for our parents, our brothers and sisters, our grandparents, our cousins, followed later by that powerful love which we feel for our children and grandchildren – so strong; the love we feel for our nieces and nephews.

There is the love of romance that we strive for, seek out and when lucky find sublime, other times foolish, and sometimes only deep and bitter heartache.

There is the love that we share with friends – sometimes we slip easily into it, sometimes, we meet and do battle first and in our combat discover respect that leads to friendship. There is the love that we earn with each other by working hard together, sometimes enduring hardship as we do.

There is another kind of love that if a person is lucky, might happen half-a-dozen times in one life. It is that love that you recognize at the very moment you meet a person. I use the word, “recognize” because when you meet that person both you and she feel that you have always known each other, that you have been bound together at the level of the soul for your entire existence.

This can be the love of deep friendship, or of romance, or both.

This is how it was when I met my friend, the late Vincent Craig, whose funeral I took readers to in May. It is how it was with Margie – in fact, this recognition came to me weeks before I met her, when I first heard her name spoken. I loved her the instant her name struck my ears. Before I ever laid eyes upon her or even saw her picture, I wanted to marry her, to make babies with her and to spend my life with her.

I first met Soundarya in August of 2007 at the wedding of my niece, Khena, to Sandy’s cousin, Vivek. At the moment I looked at her I felt a warm feeling of closeness, as though I had always known her, that she had been my friend for all of my life and would always be. I did not ask for this friendship, I did not seek it out. It was just there. I would never have mentioned or even hinted at this to her or to anyone else, but after the wedding feast she asked me if I would walk with her.

As we walked, a bird landed high in a tree above us and Sandy delighted in that bird. She saw baby monkeys, leaping across roofs and jumping onto window sills and was again delighted. When she spotted a kitten in a yard, she squealed with pleasure and made the woman who owned the kitten hand it over her fence so that she could hold it for a time. 

And there has not been a day since when I have not felt the bond that was just naturally there between us.

I feel it now, even though she is gone, but now it manifests itself in the midst of a huge new hole torn into my heart. I will carry this hole for the remainder of my life, for it can never be filled. There are many other holes there.

The number just keeps growing.

I call her "Muse" because when I returned to Alaska following my first trip to India, I began to think about my photographs differently. I had always tried my hardest to make my photographs good, even though most of the time when I shoot I feel that I am creating nothing but junk, yet I never let this feeling stop me but I always work to create a decent picture that might speak to a large audience.

After I met Soundarya, I began to shoot my pictures for an audience of one. My photography became an effort to interpret my world in Alaska to a young woman who had spent her entire life in the equatorial tropics of Southern India. I felt that if I could successfully interpret my world for her, then perhaps I could interpret it for anyone.

Before I went to bed last night, I tried to call her three times to see if I might somehow lend her comfort after the tragic death of her husband, but I failed to reach her. Why didn't I call her ten times, 20? Why did I use Skype?

So I sent her an email, told her about the Iñupiat song, "praying for you," and since I am not much good at praying myself, went to bed with that song in my head, my brain struggling to project the words and message from Arctic Alaska to a grief-stricken soul in tropical India.

This morning, I tried to call her again at her brother's number, but the phone system refused to recognize that number.

Then, at lunch time, I set out to walk from the North Slope Borough to Osaka Restaurant, and was amazed to see this beautiful moon hanging over the ice of the Arctic Ocean, but in my stress, grief and worry, I had forgotten my camera.

I went back and got it, and shot this picture - as an interpretation of my world in Alaska for my grieving muse, Soundarya, in India.

It was very near to this same time, perhaps during this very time, that she decided this world had become too painful to bear, that she was going to join her husband.

So that is what she did.

It is a decision that I strongly disagree with, but there is nothing that I can do about it. I want to, I keep thinking there must be some way I can, but I can't.

After I got the call, I spent some time just walking, trying to stay away from the roads, because I did not want anybody to stop and pick me up. I bought a coffee from Thelma at Aarigaa. It was hot when I began to drink it, but soon turned cold.

I just walked and walked. Sometimes I shouted. Sometimes I screamed. 

At one point, I noticed this other person walking. 

Right now, I want to do but one thing - to go home, to hug my children and grandchildren, to tell them how much I love them, to scritch the cats behind their ears. I want to hold my wife close to my heart, for a very, very, very, long time.

Thanksgiving in Barrow is a unique and beautiful thing and I had planned to stay through, to cover it, blog it, and then after I returned to Wasilla to have a late Thanksgiving dinner and late birthday party for Lisa, my youngest, who just turned 25. Now, I just want to go home to be with my family, so I guess that is what I will do.

As for my soul friend Soundarya, I want to reach backward in time, to call 20 times, 30 times, 40 times... to reach through our cell phones, wrap my arms around her and say, "Hang on! Hang on! You can get through this. You will always feel the pain but still you can get through it and you will laugh, you will smile, you may not believe it but another young man will come along for you and you will love and be loved and will live a life that is good and fulfilling."

I can't do that. She is gone. That is that.

So I will go on and I will laugh and I will smile and I will love and be loved and will live a life that is good and fulfilling, but not a day will pass that I do not feel this horrible loss that I suffered today. This blog will not dwell upon this loss or upon my lost Soundarya, but will move on, as life always moves on.

And Sujitha - Ganesh - you must get through this, too. You must! You must! And your beautiful parents! Vivek, Khena, Vijay, Vidya, Kavitha... Murthy, Vasanthi... on and on this list can go... Barathi, Brindha... on and on


Please note: I have disabled comments for this post*. I know I have many readers with big hearts who will wish to offer words of comfort and condolence and I appreciate that, but I do not wish to read any words of consolation. And if you wonder how I could write this in this situation - this is how I deal with grief. I write. And I take pictures. This is how I get through it.

It is now nearing 3:00 am. I must go to bed. How do I do that?

Thank God that I am not in a hotel but am with the Ahmaogak family. They understand grief, they know love and they give love. They have given it to me in abundance.



*Thanks to a couple of comments left elsewhere, I have realized that it was unfair of me to close comments here. I just felt that I could not bear the pain of reading those comments, but this was wrong. If anyone reads this and is moved by compassion to say something about Soundarya, I must open the door for them to do so. So I am now, nearly 36 hours after the original posting, opening this up to comments. I realize that multitudes of readers have already passed through and that there would have been some among them who would have commented but who now never will, but for any late comers, or returning visitors, the board is now open.



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Reader Comments (11)

This brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for sharing; I too write in a journal to help me grieve when going through hard times. It does help lift some burden. May you have the strength to carry on and may the awesome memories overcome the bad incident. I like the part on LOVE. Yes, we need to cherish the moments with our family. May you be blessed with your family and friends during this hard time.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterfrieda nageak

I'm so deeply sorry for your loss. Soundarya was a beautiful young woman.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulieB

Hi Bill, I love the world that you bring me through your blog and sometimes I feel that I am part of it. I was reading the blog entry and realized what happened, sadness came over me very quickly. Sorry for your loss Bill, take care!

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVince

sincere condolences on the loss of two lovely people who are gone so young. thank you for sharing a small slice of their life with us. i truly felt like i knew them and i'm sadden by their passing too.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergloria

What can you say? It's such a heart breaking situation. I never realized how invested I have become in some of these people's lives just by reading about them on your blog. YOU have opened up our minds and our hearts by introducing us to people like Sandy and Anil.

I am heartbroken for you, your family.. and Sandy and Anil's families.

Sending you all the comforting thoughts I can think to send.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRocksee

I'm saddened and shocked by this news. I'm heartbroken for all who are now mourning the loss of two great people. Sending healing thoughts to you and to those in India during this difficult time.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

I am so so sorry!!!

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStandtall-The Activist

I have tried to write this a couple of times, but the words won't come. Maybe this time I can make them right.

Friends and family are the true measures of our lives. Doesn't matter how much money we have in the bank, or how many square feet make up our house. What counts in the long run is how many people we have that love us as much as we love them.

True friends are golden. I am so sorry that Sandy has followed Anil. I can not alleviate your pain, nor that of any of those who knew or loved them. But, I can tell you to look in your heart. Be still and look in your heart. They are there. Still loving you right back.

The knowledge that friends and family who have died still keep their love for me in my heart has made me such a better person. Because they loved the me that was, it makes it easier to be that same person. I am just giving up trying to explain this. I hope you have at least a glimmering of understand what I am expressing so poorly.

Please accept my deepest sympathy, and know that my family will keep yours in our prayers.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn


I discovered your journal about the time you began posting the wedding photos from India. So, when I read of Anil's death I felt like I knew this family, as you have a way of sharing which brings us into your world and the people in it. Knowing that you heard this news so far from home and India really saddened me.

At first, when I read the above post, I thought I had misinterpreted what I had read in your earlier post. I am so sorry for your double loss.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKasha Knish

Bill, I am so sorry for this terrible loss. I am holding you, and all who love Soundarya and Anil, in my thoughts.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFiona

I am so so sorry! I felt like I got to know Sandy through your blog posts and have a heavy heart since I read this post. I can not imagine what you are going through. My condolences....

November 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmritha

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