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No ordinary Joe: The wildly dangerous life of a true Alaska photographer

Not unlike a good mystery novel, to understand the photographic work of Joe Yelverton, you have to take the time to understand the twists and turns that shaped him.

“I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap as a boy, staring down at a faded National Geographic that he held in his grease-stained hands,” explained Yelverton. “His evening ritual included reading with a glass of his favorite spirit, and when I wasn’t sitting on his lap, I was studying him as he studied world literature.”

A uniquely Alaskan childhood punctuated with stories of far-off lands was the catalyst for Yelverton’s adventurous spirit.

“I love to explore – I need to explore because it feeds my curiosity and desire to learn. For me exploring is about experiencing, where some element of risk is inextricably connected to the richness of discovery. The most authentic experience reflects an element of vulnerability, an uncertain outcome,” said Yelverton.

An avid climber, Yelverton spent much of his teens in the mountains and worked his way towards becoming a Climbing Ranger. It seemed nothing could dim his thirst for adventure – until he was struck by a crushing twist of fate.

In the spring of 1984, a 20-year-old Yelverton and two climbing companions set out on what was supposed to be a routine expedition. But as often happens, the mountain had other plans. The three young climbers were swept up in an unexpected spring avalanche that claimed one and changed the trajectory of the others’ lives. The tragic accident ultimately drove Yelverton away from the mountains and thrust him deep into a world of loose morals and shady business ethics.

“From the late 90s to the late 2000s, I worked in Product Safety and Litigation Management in Seattle. In a lot of ways, I was a ‘bagman’ just like in the movie ‘Michael Clayton,’” said Yelverton. “It was like acting in theatre, only with higher stakes. A lot of wine and hard liquor was consumed during those years. I quit when one of my closest friends told me that I needed to stop throwing myself on landmines.”

After 10 years, a disenchanted Yelverton returned home to carve out a new identity as a carpenter. While on the job, he began connecting with other craftsmen through their shared experience and he knew he wanted to somehow capture their stories.

“I was a climber for many years, so I'd always carried a camera - you know, like a generic Alaskan photographer, I shot landscapes and animals. But I wanted to document these craftsmen – these real salt of the earth people. So, my interest transitioned into taking environmental portraits,” recalled Yelverton.

When he began his series of craftsmen photographs, Yelverton never imagined that a chance meeting at an Eagle River potluck in 2012 would signal the beginning of a major body of work that would lead him to explore the notion of courage.

“Meeting Roger Sparks was a really pivotal experience because he was this Special Forces solider who had just gotten back from his last deployment and he couldn’t connect words with the experiences he had endured. He just couldn't articulate the essence of the really bad shit that had happened - but I recognized that he was telling his story with his physicality - he was using a language older than words and I just knew that I had to photograph him,” Yelverton explained.

Sparks, who had recently lost his operational status, was coping with the reality of having his identity violently plucked from him.

“When you’re Special Forces and you lose your job status and get put on 'papers' it’s like getting a knife in the chest. These guys really identify with being badasses, so it was like everything he identified with and cared about was taken away,” explained Yelverton.

A talented artist, Sparks dove headfirst into tattooing as way to reconcile his profound loss. Working out of his garage, Sparks would tattoo military men and women while Yelverton tagged along, camera in hand.

“I would drive out to Eagle River and would be shooting crazy hours and sometimes the shoots would last for hours. In the process of doing this, I would hear stories that were so intense that I would leave there at 1:00 in the morning and have to pull my truck over to the side of the road to just process what I had heard. It was almost surreal watching these sessions because it was literally like sitting in a chair in a psychotherapist’s office,” recounted Yelverton. “By the time I was done, I had heard all of these intimate stories and I wanted to see what it was like to be a professional rescuer because I was seeing the effects of it.”

With his new subject matter in mind, it seemed as though at 51 years old, Yelverton had finally found his true calling – photography. Unfortunately, his new-found passion was about to be tested.

In 2015, during what should have been a routine tile job, Yelverton sustained a major hand injury that severed a tendon and multiple nerves in his right hand. After three surgeries, his wrist became bound with scar tissue and his thumb is restricted by limited mobility. The injury ended his carpentry career and as a right-handed photographer, it nearly ended his budding photographic career as well.

“It was maybe a week after the initial injury and I couldn't hold my camera. For me, photography had become my way of interpreting the world so to lose that was devastating. It became this existential crisis that went on for months,” said Yelverton.

Never one to wallow, Yelverton researched left-handed cameras and tried to find ways to work around the injury. As time marched on, his hand healed enough to allow him to return to life behind the lens.

“You know what, it ended up being serendipitous because I couldn't support myself doing carpentry anymore, so it made me really throw myself into my photography,” said Yelverton.

His dedication paid off in 2016 when he was awarded a Rasmuson Individual Artist Grant to go on 20 training missions with the Alaska 210th and 212th rescue squadrons to create a series of portraits called ‘Unseen’.

“I honestly couldn’t believe I got the grant. Like, I figured I would just apply for the experience of writing a grant proposal. Plus, the project had already been shot down by the Office of Public Affairs because I’m not an affiliated photojournalist. They basically said, ‘we really appreciate your interest but if you're not with a major news agency, magazine or a military photographer then we can't grant you access to be on base.’ But when I came back with a Rasmuson Grant, that was the backing I needed to make the project happen,” said Yelverton.

Gaining access was a bittersweet moment. Although he finally secured the opportunity to photograph the men and women whose stories had so deeply impacted him, to get the photographs he was forced to relive the trauma he experienced 30 years prior.

As Yelverton puts it, “life has a funny way of confronting you with unresolved stuff.”

“For me, the project was an exploration of ancient courage — a study of humility and altruism. In the same way that farmers are overlooked — like a farmer can stand in the mud, whip out his welder and fix something in the pouring rain. It's a totally thankless job but they're badasses! All they want to do is go out and work hard every day and be proud of the work that they do,” said Yelverton of his project.

While ‘Unseen’ undeniably depicts the courage of rescuers, its impact runs deeper for those photographed.

“Seeing the photographs on the walls forced us to have introspection,” remarked Sparks at an artist talk at the Rasmuson Museum. “A lot of times we go out and we do these dangerous things, but we don’t talk about it afterwards. But seeing people react to the photographs and engage with them kind of changes how you feel about what you do.”

“Yeah, going on these missions with these squadrons was more stressful and scary than anything I had ever done before,” Yelverton earnestly added. “As you can probably imagine, it's a huge project so I'm still trying to make sense out of all of it and understand where I fit in.”

Although Yelverton is still grappling with the gravity of undertaking a project that stirs up painful memories from his past, he has no regrets.

“As a photographer I see myself as merely a conduit. The stories I stumble onto are much bigger than me and my work is focused on honoring those stories, especially honoring the people who share their time with me. I don't give a shit about being a celebrated photographer. I just want to get enough recognition that I can keep working on projects like these,” said Yelverton.

Over 50 years have passed since a steely eyed Yelverton sat on his grandfather’s lap and dreamt of faraway places. While he could have never anticipated the course of his life, there is little doubt that the hardships he endured lead him right to where he was always meant to be –poised to capture a story in a place where the human element and landscape intersect.

*Originally published in the Anchorage Press

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