Alicia Stemper has carried a camera with her since she was in Brownies.
“Other people would take 10 pictures, and I would take 80 – and this was in the film days,” she said. “I just loved it.”
But it’s only in the last couple of months that Stemper, 53, has begun calling herself a photographer. Before, she would immediately also identify herself as former mitigation investigator, someone who digs into accused killers’ backgrounds looking for abuse or other factors that might help spare them the death penalty.
Big change, but Stemper sees a similarity.
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In both jobs, she said she’s telling a story, whether her subject is before the courts or the camera lens.
She did mitigation work for over a decade. A new project through the Chapel Hill-Orange County Visitors Bureau has helped put her new identity on firmer ground.
It’s called “Vitamin O,” a series of portraits with short, written descriptions of the people who give Orange County its personality.
Or personalities, because in carrying her camera around Stemper has met a lot of them.
Like Allison Sturgill, herd manager at Chapel Hill Creamery.
Sturgill was walking a pair of oxen – “just massive” – in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro holiday parade when Stemper, lying on the ground, pointed her camera up “and one of them licked its lips,” she said. “It looked like it was smiling at me.”
“Who knew there were herd managers, let alone female herd managers, in Orange County?” Stemper said.
Or Cameron Moseley, the operator of Napoli Gourmet Wood Fired Pizza.
Stemper was in downtown Carrboro when she saw his food truck traveling from Weaver Street to its spot on Greensboro Street near Fitch Lumber.
“That vehicle is moving, and it has fire in it,” she remembers thinking, and quickly asked for an interview. “I’ve got know more about this,” she said.
Laurie Paolicelli, director of Orange County Community Relations and Tourism, said the photos in “Vitamin O” show “a real love for the communities of our county, and the stories help explain why this place is special.”
“The Visitors Bureau and Orange County’s Community Relations office gave the project seed money and promotional lift, but the creativity and sweat comes from Alicia,” Paolicelli added. “It’s an Alicia Stemper project filled with heart and reflective of her love for this place.”
Although she always enjoyed taking pictures, it was “something magical,” Stemper said, and she resisted the photographer label.
“You know, if you touch the bubble, you pop it,” she explained.
Then six years ago, her wife Lydia Lavelle, the Carrboro mayor, gave her a Canon Rebel XS camera for her 47th birthday.
“I opened the box, and I just started to cry,” Stemper said. “For us that was an expensive gift. We are not big gift givers. I couldn’t believe that this object was mine. It wasn’t a point and shoot (camera). I could change the lens.”
“It was like really being seen,” she said. “She just knew.”
Stemper started taking classes, freelancing for the Carrboro Citizen and auditing UNC community journalism professor Jock Lauterer’s photography class.
“A more sensitive community photojournalist you’ll be hard pressed to find,” Lauterer said.
With a weekly deadline for the Citizen, Stemper said she learned photographers have to be problem solvers. How do you handle too little light? Too much light? How do you tell the story?
I like a picture that, when you look at it, you either now know something or you’re asking something.
Alicia Stemper, photographer
There’s always a story, she said.
“I like a picture that, when you look at it, you either now know something or you’re asking something,” Stemper said.
Some assignments take 20 minutes. Some take two or three hours.
“I don’t think you get to walk on this planet and not having something interesting happen to you,” Stemper said. But as a photographer, “you do have to dig.”
She has shot 48 “Vitamin O” portraits, each consisting or two or three photographs and the short write-up about each subject on an 11 inch by 14 inch poster.
About half are in an exhibit that hung at Durham Tech’s Orange County campus and Orange County Library in Hillsborough and which she hopes to bring next to the Chapel Hill Public Library.
For now, the public can see Vitamin O via a link on the Orange County Public Affairs home page and the print exhibit from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays on the second floor of the Whitted Building, 300 W. Tryon St. in Hillsborough.
When she did mitigation work, Stemper said photography took a secondary role to mom. She has two children, now 21 and 18.
But others have begun recognizing her new gig these days, too.
It used to be when Stemper ran into people around town, they’d say, “Hey Alicia, where are the kids?” she said.
“Now it’s ‘Hey Alicia, where is the camera?’”
Contact Alicia Stemper at email@example.com to nominate yourself or someone else for consideration as a dose of Vitamin O!