A heroin addict who died of an overdose. A war veteran who vividly recalls the clutches of PTSD. A woman offering herself — maybe the only thing she can sell — on an Atlanta street corner.
These are the souls Brent Walker sees fully while most people drift on by as they pass them on sidewalks and in shops.
The glimmers of hope and the lost stories these people voice are the threads that string together Walker’s Hidden South project. Most of the pieces are short — no more than a few paragraphs — but they drive at the heart of what bothers those who most people probably identify as tortured souls. And the thing that makes these narratives so gripping is the knowledge that most readers have more in common with the subjects than they might realize at first.
A good portion of the inspiration for the project “was definitely people that were looked down on in society … overlooked,” Walker said to me a recent interview from his home base in Louisiana. He lived in Atlanta until a few years ago, and a lot of the interviews contain locations Georgians will recognize — places like Fulton Industrial Boulevard downtown and Kennestone Hospital.
Walker’s unvarnished depiction of humanity allows readers to relate to his subjects on a fundamental level, and that fact is by design. Although the project has evolved over time, part of Walker’s aim is “promoting empathy for other humans,” he says.
The format — short narratives with subjects identified only by first name — was magnetic for me. I ran across a Facebook post with one of these stories and saw that the Hidden South page had more than 20,000 followers at the time. And then I found myself scrolling and scrolling through Walker’s website, meeting these people who seemed so willing to get right down to brass tacks and share very personal information with the writer.
The pieces on the site are all transcripts — just raw and revealing snapshots of lives that Walker runs across. He shoots the artwork himself — haunting imagery like a decaying, abandoned Mack truck in South Louisiana, a grungy unicorn float peeking out from behind a Spanish moss-draped tree on a bayou in the same state. And then there are the portraits. These are photos of his interviewees. Most of them stare solemnly into the camera, but some are faintly smiling or doing things — holding photos of deceased loved ones, displaying body art … Walker portrays his subjects in a frank but compassionate light. I asked him how he chooses his interviewees.
“I almost never know the people I talk to,” he explained. “It’s usually random encounters. I always ask people to tell me a story about something that changed their life for better or for worse,” he explains. “People open up pretty easily because I think they sense I’m not judging them. The fact of the matter is most people want to be heard.”
When I asked him if he could pick out a few stories he felt would be really impactful for readers, I did so sheepishly. I’ve been up, down and around his website, chasing themes — drug use, homelesseness, abuse — and there are dozens upon dozens of narratives there. I felt it was a little unfair to ask him to spotlight a few.
He was a good sport, however, and after a long pause, he rattled off a few interviews that have stayed with him. He talked about Brad, the potter in North Georgia who described his PTSD after returning from Vietnam.
“His story was so good because it touched on how horrific war is and his very real solutions,” Walker says. “There’s a sense of peace when you go into his shop. He’s a beautiful man.”
There’s the story about a friend who died from heroin use.
“Addicts have one thing in common, and they’re in pain,” Walker says. “His story’s still important, though. It’s not just doom and gloom.”
The project has evolved from its beginnings on the streets of Atlanta where Walker began interviewing homeless people. He then spent most of 2017 and 2018 talking with people about mental health issues, and he compiled those stories into a book. Now, he’s examining incarceration of people of color and also the area known as Cancer Alley outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
You can find Walker’s narratives and book at hiddensouth.com, and I certainly think it’s worth a look. You might come away, as I did, with a greater appreciation for the ties that bind us all as humans.