Will Warasila MFA EDA ’20: “Quicker than Coal Ash”
Will Warasila left New York City's commercial photography world to return home and document the American South. With spring thesis presentations postponed, Duke Arts honors the MFA EDA Class of 2020 with interviews that dig into the projects and their makers.
Will Warasila follows his gut. Brief encounters changed the trajectory of his photography career at least three times. “I really just tried to stay true to myself and just do what I thought was the best thing to do throughout—to trust my intuition,” he explained.
Warasila grew up in Chapel Hill, NC, and for a long time, disliked school and the hours spent afterschool with a tutor. “I haven’t always been the best student,” he reflected. His dyslexia made typical textbook learning a struggle. A high school class on the beat generation opened a creative gateway and motivated Warasila to keep learning, to apply for college. He enrolled at UNC Wilmington, swapped his skateboard for a surfboard, and started taking photographs.
He brought a film camera with him to Australia over summer break, weary of the UNC-W beach scene. “In Australia most of the people I met did everything at 110%,” he remembered. “I realized, ‘I’m not pushing myself hard enough.’” Warasila ended up using the roll of black and white film he shot on that trip as his portfolio to apply to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City.
“I was exposed to the fine art world of photography, to photo history, to contemporary photography. And being in New York, you’re in the middle of it.” He found a mentor in the commercial photographer Georgie Wood, who coached Warasila in blending documentary, editorial-style photography with the commercial realm. After earning his BFA at SVA in 2015, Warasila worked as a photo assistant, took on editorial gigs, and steadily built up his portfolio.
Then he travelled to India to visit his stepmother’s family—and the perspective he found there pushed him to leave New York. He brought his camera, shooting and looking for stories. He was making images in an iron and steel yard in Srinagar, in Kashmir, when one of the workers asked him: “Why are you photographing this? Aren’t there places like this in the US?”
The words reverberated for Warasila. “I thought, ‘Why am I in New York doing this for other people? I have the opportunity to use my twenties and my energy to document America, and the South, where I’m from.”
Warasila returned to the South, seeking to swap New York City’s commercial and gallery photography scene for photography with a purpose. The MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke trained him to pursue stories that unfolded slowly, that were complicated by different perspectives, stories that were tender and bound up in community.
Quicker than Coal Ash
Warasila found himself at a “coal ash healing service” at The Well, in nearby Walnut Cove, in October 2019. “I had no idea what an impactful, life-changing experience it would be,” he reflected. The pastor, Leslie Bay Brewer, handed out pieces of paper and asked the congregation to write down names of people they knew that were sick, or passed away, from coal ash. “There was a very large pile of little pieces of paper that overwhelmingly filled the basket at the front of the church,” said Warasila. “There were maybe twenty-five people there—everyone knew multiple people who have been affected.”
Then Pastor Leslie Brewer then gave her sermon, which has stayed with me. She said, “Bitterness will kill you quicker than coal ash.” And, “We must forgive Duke Energy for what they have done to the community and to the state, but that does not mean we have to remain silent. We must fight righteously. There is an army rising up.” (From Warasila’s artist statement.)
In the early 1970s, Duke Energy built a basin at its Belews Creek Steam Station (near Walnut Cove) to collect coal ash, the heavy-metal laden waste that remains once coal is burned for electricity. That basin is unlined, and five decades later, residents are bearing the consequences of twelve million tons of coal ash slowly seeping into groundwater.
For the next year and a half, Warasila led “two parallel lives.” He studied ethics and practice in the MFA EDA program and he drove the two hours to Walnut Cove as much as he could. “I just showed up, witnessed what was happening. I wanted to understand what was happening in different spaces,”said Warasila. “For a long time, I didn’t make pictures.” Warasila attended Sunday services at The Well and Monday-morning activism sessions led by Caroline Armijo of The Lilies Project. “I just endlessly went to Walnut Cove, I showed up all the time,” said Warasila. The slow violence of this toxic waste yielded both tragedy and resiliency, written on the landscape and on the community of activists that Warasila grew to know.
His MFA thesis exhibition, Quicker than Coal Ash, presents fifteen of the hundreds of photos he made in Walnut Cove. The subjects and techniques vary, but the collective result is a subtle portrait of hope in the face of slow devastation.
There is a portrait of Danielle Bailey-Lash in Quicker than Coal Ash. This is the only image included from a packet of portraits and testimonies Warasila helped assemble (with collaborators Michael Betts II, The Lillies Project, and Marie Garlock) to support the lawsuit levied by the Southern Environmental Law Center against Duke Energy to excavate some 80 millions tons of coal ash from sites around the state. On Dec 31, 2019, a settlement agreement was reached—Duke Energy is now tasked with the country’s largest coal ash clean up.
“My hope for this work, and for all my work moving forward, is that it can provide a platform for others to speak out, to be a jumping off point to start a conversation.”—Will Warasila
While his work helps tell this story, Warasila does not consider his photography to be activism. “What’s missing is the people,” he explained. “That became more evident when the exhibition was cancelled.” Opening night was slated for March 20, and included a panel with Amy Adams (Appalachian Voices), Caroline Armijo (The Lilies Project), and David Hairston and Tracey Brown Edwards, Walnut Cove community leaders—whose voices and presence would have completed the story.
“My hope for this work, and for all my work moving forward, is that it can provide a platform for others to speak out, to be a jumping off point to start a conversation,” says Warasila.