In some ways, Josh Hailey’s career as a photojournalist began when the faculty members in Mississippi State’s art program gave him the keys to the studio. The teachers trusted—expected—him to keep an open mind, use sound judgment and create original pieces in his own time and way.
Hailey took the skillset he cultivated at Mississippi State, along with the Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography he earned in 2003, when he left Starkville to begin his professional career. Nine years later, he founded “Photamerica: The Documentation of the Good, the Bad and the Beautiful USA.”
After he visited Hawaii in January 2012 while his 1992 Chevy van was being repaired on the main continent, Hailey drove to every state in that same van. He met, photographed and recorded “real America.” He had a Canon camera, an iPhone and almost nothing else. He crowdfunded his trip through Internet sites like Kickstarter and Couchsurfing International Inc., as well as generous friends and acquaintances.
The photos, collages and videos documenting the experience are all available online at photamerica.com.
Photamerica is complete, but all the proceeds generated from the art developed on the 80-week trip are funding heARTalot, available at heartalot.com. The movement’s mission, begun in Hailey’s hometown of Jackson, is to teach adults and children about the arts, why creating art is important, how to use art to communicate and how the arts, as a whole, build a stronger community.
However, since he recently relocated to New Orleans, Hailey is working to introduce heARTalot in his new locale. His studio is open, he’s taking pictures and he’s meeting people.
Mississippi State art department faculty laid the foundation for the success he’s experiencing today, he says.
“The art teachers let me drive a lot of the projects, and they even gave me the keys to the studio. It’s what you need as an art student, and they gave me exactly what I needed to become what I am today,” Hailey emphasizes. “The art department at Mississippi State is really strong.”
The idea to travel the country and crowdfund it came to Hailey in late 2011. The economy was still down, and Hailey says he was literally sitting, watching and waiting for customers to enter his gallery in Jackson.
“Then I realized—it just fused in my mind—that I should be out doing something. I had to get out and go ask some questions,” he says. “I had to start raising funds, all for gasoline. I only need a little to eat per day, so the money was mainly for gas. It took $24,000 to do it, and I went to all 50 states.”
He interviewed three people each day, and Hailey sought to select people as free-spirited and open-minded as he is.
“I would talk to them about the things they’re doing to make the world a better place,” he explains. “It’s all about being open to the whims of the world—not pushing. The more you let go, the more people will step forward and help.”
Traveling the nation also gave Hailey the chance to visit with friends he met at Mississippi State. While his network has scattered all over the nation in the years since he graduated, Facebook and other social sites enabled Hailey to find friends and see for himself how their lives evolved over the years.
“Seeing all my college friends was like a 10-year reunion on the road. It was a real blessing, and it was really, really fascinating to see where everybody is now,” he says.
Many memorable moments also occurred with people he met by chance. Hailey was sitting in a coffee shop at the Utah-Arizona border when a lady came in and asked if anybody knew a photographer. Naturally, Hailey informed the woman of his expertise and asked how he could assist her.
“She said, ‘My father has terminal cancer, and we want to take him out on motorcycles.’ So her father rode the motorcycle backwards, and I got some amazing images for them. I got to spend a quality moment with her dad during his last few days on this earth,” Hailey remembers. “It turned out, this lady was a travel agent, and she said, ‘You’ve got to see this,’ and she gave me tickets to go see this breathtaking cavern that has all these lights.
“You see? You don’t have to ask. Just give and take the experience that happens when you’re not thinking about it. It’s beautiful.”
When Hailey returned to Jackson, he began work on the heARTalot project. He teaches middle school, high school and college students about various arts, all with the mission of activating, educating and communicating the message that the arts build stronger communities. All the proceeds of Photamerica go to heARTalot, and 20 percent of those monies go directly to schools with no art programs to purchase art materials.
“Community is all we have. Without others, we are nothing. When it comes to art, it makes better human beings because it’s a language that we all speak, and we can all express ourselves," Hailey shares. "It makes better human beings. The arts is just, in general, a great way for people to create and see the world in a new way.”
He encourages the Mississippi State community to visit heartalot.com to see the work he’s accomplished in schools, as well as photamerica.com to view the photos and the videos of his trek across the nation, some of which feature Mississippi State alumni.
“Check it out. You might just see someone you know,” he says.
By Leah Barbour