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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I turn the clock back to right side up and fall into wedding preparations; etc - and three Young Writer studies

I decided that it was time to turn the clock back to rightside up. I wasn't certain that I could do it if I didn't absolutely have to - and I didn't have to. But I wanted to see what daylight looked again - even if it was just the muted daylight of Wasilla in December. "If I get up before 11:00, I'm going to go to Abby's for breakfast," I told Margie, just before she went to bed at 1:00 AM.

I stayed up for three more hours. There was no point in trying to go to bed early - I would just lie awake if I did. So, at 4:00 AM, I set my iPhone alarm for 10:00 AM - and then I just lay in bed awake, until close to 6:00 AM. After that, I slept sporadically until a few minutes before 9:00 AM, then I got up, auto-started the car and then, right about 9:00 AM, climbed in and headed over. 

As I drove down Seldon toward Abby's, I got the thrill of my life: I saw a school bus coming.

As I parked, I could see Heather through the window. I could not see Abby. I could not see her truck, either. That's because she was home, visiting grandkids.

When the cafe first opened up on the Fourth of July, Abby tried opening up at 7:00 AM, but that didn't work out too good and it gave her a very long work day, as the restaurant does not close until 8:00 PM. So she tried opening up at 8:00, but that didn't work that great, either. She said that I was about the only one who came at those hours, and since I usually only come once a week, she moved opening time to 9:00 AM.

I was the first customer of the day. I took a seat at the table that I always do if no one beats me to it - the little round one, right by the window adjacent to the door.

There was a card lying on the window sill, so I picked it up to see what it was. I would tell you, but you can see for yourself.

I turned it over to see what was on the backside and found out that the guy on the front was St. Michael. And here was a prayer to him, beseeching him to use his sword against evil on behalf of the supplicant.

A pickup pulled up and a woman got out. I recognized her immediately, so I pointed my camera at her to see what she might look like viewed through the reflections upon the window.

Again, you can see for yourself.

It was Arlene Warrior, who I had first met over 25 years ago when she was Arlene Lord, a student at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. I was working for the Tundra Times then, and was doing a story on Alaska Native students at UAA. 

I don't remember all the details about the interview and the story that I wrote way back then, but I do remember that she hoped that once she got out of college whatever she learned might help her to earn lots of money.

Now she told me that her daughter was getting married December 16, and she wanted me to be the photographer.

Oh, that is always a tough one! 

I am not a wedding photographer.

But how could I say, "no?" I told her to give me a little time to think about it. I told her that if I did it, I would not shoot it like a wedding photographer does, but like a photojournalist.

She said that was good.

I asked if she would mind if I put it on this blog and said that would be fine.

She wondered how much she would pay me.

I didn't know.

When I was in New York in late September/early October, I met a photojournalist who also shoots weddings. He charges $15,000 a wedding and will only shoot on the condition that he will do the editing and pick the pictures, which he then makes a Blurb type book out of. 

He limits himself to six weddings a year. With the income from those weddings, he is then free to go about and shoot the photojournalism projects that he wants. If he doesn't make a lot of money, fine. His wedding work will carry him through.

But there is no way I can charge $15,000 - not even close.

The wedding will be at the Alyeska ski resort. Her daughter will wear a dress that Arlene described as beautiful, white, buckskin. If I remember right, Arlene made it - but maybe it was her daughter or perhaps they sewed on it together.

Arlene went back to the truck and then came back with this piece of moose skin that her mother, who lives in Kaktovik, gave her. Arlene is making it into a wedding shirt for her son, Roland Warrior, who was named after her father, the late Roland Lord.

Arlene and her husband are spending a lot of money on this wedding, but there are two things they are not going to spend money on - liquor and the bar, and the Alyeska Starbucks coffee shop. "I'm not going to get anybody drunk," she explained to me. If any of the guests want to go to the bar and buy drinks for themselves, then that will be fine.

As for the coffee, Arlene says she will not patronize Starbucks. This, she said, is because on 9/11, there was a Starbucks not far from Ground Zero that stayed open. When thirsty firemen, risking their lives in the hope that they might save others, Starbucks made them pay for water, she told me.

So she does not patronize Starbucks, and Starbucks is the coffee shop at Alyeska.

"If people want to go into Starbucks and buy their own coffee, okay," she told me.

Pretty soon, Heather came with my omelette and hashbrowns, cooked by Shelly. Boy, that omelette was good! Abby's Home Cooking produces the best omelettes I have bought in this valley.

As I drove home the moderately long way, this snowplow came charging past.

It was about this same time that my iPhone alarm went off in my pocket.

Back home, Pistol-Yero was chillin' in the warmth of the fireplace.

Before I started to work, I took a walk. This raven came flying by, a feather missing. Did you see the raven, Sandy?

Soundarya? Soundu? 

At 4:00 PM, I headed out on the usual excursion to Metro Cafe, where I shot three Young Writer studies. Here is the first:

Study of the Young Writer, Shoshana, #3222: The young writer smiles as she prepares an order for whomever is inside the truck in front of me.

Study of the Young Writer, Shoshana, #42: The young writer prepares to deliver that order.

Study of the Young Writer, Shoshana, #10,029: Shoshona with her beau, Justin. As you can see they are very happy together. May they long remain so.

I took the long way home. Not as long as some long ways. I didn't drive through Texas. That would have been the long way home. But it was longer than it could have been if I had taken the most direct route, which is very boring and it gets me home too fast.

Along the way, I crossed paths with a school bus.


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Reader Comments (3)

sooo what if you shot weddings.. say once a month.. maybe it would help make some of your dreams a reality?

And shoshanna.. just as pretty in person as she is in pictures..!

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRocksee

i'm not a fan of traditional wedding pictures...i'm sure your way will be more interesting and personal

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertwain12

Your pictures make stories. Making a story about a special day in two people's life? I'll bet you could do that. I'll bet you could do that very nicely.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdebby

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