When photographer Will Warasila drove from Durham to Walnut Cove in early November 2018, he thought he was just going to observe a healing service for people who had possibly been harmed by coal ash pollution from Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station. He had no idea that just four short years later in November 2022, he would be in Paris, France, at the largest photo book expo in the world—debuting his photo book with pictures of the people he had met in Walnut Cove.
Now Warasila is bringing his creation, published by Gnomic Book, to Walnut for a book release event at the Walnut Cove Public Library on Saturday, Feb. 25, from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. There will be light refreshments and copies of his book for sale—half-price for local residents.
Although Warasila admits he is not particularly religious, he also acknowledges that he was moved by that 2018 outdoor church service under the big tent at The Well. He was particularly struck by one statement from the event’s organizer, Pastor Leslie Bray Brewer: “Bitterness will kill you quicker than coal ash.” Although he was initially puzzled by that statement, he ended up choosing it for the title of his photo book.
Brewer often chuckles when she thinks about that line she spontaneously uttered at the healing service. “I am a former high school English teacher,” she explains, “so after I said it, I worried that I should’ve instead phrased it as ‘Bitterness will kill you more quickly than coal ash.’ But I was later relieved that grammar experts online agree that, although what I said was more informal, either usage is now acceptable.”
Then she shrugs with a smile, “Besides, that’s how we say it out here.”
When Warasila heard Brewer speak that line, he was admittedly torn, having a hard time understanding how she could expect people to forgive a corporation whose byproduct possibly poisoned them. However, he came to understand that hatred and bitterness can be a threat to health as well and that it was possible to lovingly forgive yet still firmly require Duke Energy to do the right thing and clean up the coal ash mess.
Walnut Cove became a regular stop on Warasila’s travels. He worked with Caroline Rutledge Armijo, founder/director of the local nonprofit The Lilies Project to gather photos and interviews from those who had lived near the coal-powered steam station. These were submitted to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality as part of a grassroots demand that Duke Energy transfer the coal ash, which had long been in unlined ponds, to a safer place.
DEQ agreed and ordered the mega-company to do just that. Many of Warasila’s photographs which were part of that fight are featured in his new 100-page hardcover book and can be seen in Walnut Cove on Saturday.
Warasila, a North Carolina native, received his BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in 2015 and most recently, his MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University in 2020. He has taught photography courses at Duke and also UNC-Chapel Hill. His photos have been featured in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, The New Yorker, the New York Times, Southern Cultures Magazine and many other publications. One of his photos made the cover of TIME magazine in late September 2022.
“I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to work with such a mover and shaker in the international photography world,” Brewer says. “Will’s passion for environmental issues and his skill with the camera will take him far. I will always believe that his coming to Walnut Cove was a divine appointment.”
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