The Aerial Classroom: Views from Above

The first in a miniseries from Belle Boggs, in which we follow a group of North Carolina high school students as they document their community via interviews, portraits, and aerial photography.

This fall, I’ve been working with photographer Ken Abbott on a project called “Views From Above,” which teaches high school students in rural Columbus County, North Carolina, to observe their communities from a unique dual perspective: through interviews, photographic portraits, and landscapes completed in small towns and farms near their school; and also through aerial photographs taken with a balloon-and-camera rig the students put together.

We have combined their work in a blog, as well as in presentations for the school and community. Following is an explanation of LEAP photography—Low Elevation Aerial Photography—by seniors Joshua Redwine and Hunter Powell, as well as sample aerial photography from the project. In the coming weeks, we’ll share student writing, portraits, and landscapes from Chadbourn and Fair Bluff, two economically struggling towns in eastern North Carolina. —Belle Boggs


Joshua Redwine: How can you take photographs from 500 to 1,000 feet in the air without even stepping foot onto an airplane? My art class did that this fall, sending two digital cameras above our school and towns using tethered helium weather balloons, a process known as LEAP. We had the guidance of Ken Abbott, an Asheville-based photographer who has taken LEAP images of landscapes across the southeast, from mountaintop removal sites to maximum security prisons.

To house and protect our digital camera, we had to build two rigs using rubber bands and recycled soda bottles, which were suspended beneath the balloons.

We chose to document locations near our school. We wanted to photograph a former tobacco farm as well as the small, economically distressed towns of Fair Bluff and Chadbourn.

After a test flight on the school’s soccer field, we found that the ability to take pictures from the air made this project very interesting. As photographers, we had to let go and trust that while the camera was up in the air, it was doing what we wanted it to do. When we landed the balloons and retrieved the cameras, we were able see things that we couldn’t from the ground: the tracks of hay harvesters on fields, the outline and contours of fields, farms, and swamps. The thousands of digital photos we took gave us a better insight on the land and agriculture. But the next step—knitting the pictures together using photo-mapping software—would prove more complicated.

Hunter Powell: Photo mapping is the process of combining aerial photos, which can provide 360-degree views of the landscape. Aerial photography is taking photos from an elevated position, which is not supported by ground-based structures. There are numerous ways to do this, including taking pictures from helicopters, blimps, kites, and balloons. The applications vary also, from environmental studies to commercial advertising to artistic projects. Combining individual images into one large map provides a chance to see a lot of the landscape, as in a map, but with the detail and visual interest of photography.

Jody Johnson’s farm in Cerro Gordo, North Carolina, once grew tobacco, but now Jody and his brother grow hay and longleaf pines. We took about six thousand photos of the farm; Ken Abbott, our teaching artist, found himself having to download the images to his computer because the memory card in the cameras would only allow a person to take about 2,600 photos at a time.

Our next stop was Fair Bluff, which has a population of about 900, but is known around the area for its annual watermelon festival. The farm photos were easier to take since we were in open fields; when we went to Fair Bluff, we had to worry about running into power lines, cars, people, and buildings with the balloon and the tether.

The next step was choosing the photos that would help create a photo-map. I offered my help in the process. It was amazing to see the community and farm from this perspective: how the hay was assembled, how it created a pattern out in the field. An abandoned lot in Fair Bluff looked like puzzle pieces where the cement was cracked. On the ground, you would not have been able to see the characteristics of the land. When you see how abundant farmland is in Columbus County, even right outside of our towns, it makes you realize that this whole county is still tied to an agricultural way of life.

Belle Boggs is the author of the story collection Mattaponi Queen and the forthcoming novel The Ugly Bear List. Her essay “The Science of Citizenship” appears in the November/December 2013 issue of Orion.


  1. Man, I would have loved a project like this when I was a kid. Cool idea.

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