Gaining Elite Status Through the Lens of Relationships

Asheville’s Mike Belleme is one of the country’s most prominent documentary photographers.
Photo by Jack Robert

The work of prominent local photographer Mike Belleme, who grew up in Western North Carolina, has appeared in publications including National Geographic, Rolling Stone, and Time. Mise-en-Scène: The Lives & Afterlives of Urban Landscapes (ORO Editions), a book he co-created with urbanist Chris Reed about the relationship between people and their interactions with urban landscapes, was ranked by Photo Eye as one of the 10 best photography books of 2021.

How did you get started?

My first passion was skateboarding, and when you’re immersed in it there are always cameras around taking photos to send to skateboarding magazines. So it was a natural transition.

Tyson Samspon and Amy Walker pass an ear of corn at Walker’s garden at the historical Kituwah Mother Village in Cherokee in the Fall of 2022.

Speaking of “natural transitions” — didn’t you once live in a treehouse?

For three years. At the time, I had been working on a personal project about Wild Roots, a small community in the woods of WNC. I spent time there engrossed in the lifestyle, learning about trees, foraging — and how, when you start a fire using only friction, it becomes a kind ceremony of harnessing intention. My girlfriend — now my wife — and I found the tree house on Craigslist. It had wood heat, a compost toilet, and we just figured it out as we went. 

Is that what inspired your series of botanical photos?

What I noticed was that in particular light, plants would glow. So I’d walk in the woods looking for pops of light, no matter what kind of plant it was. That solidified for me that all of them are beautiful, not that only some deserve celebration. As artists we try so hard to capture beauty, but we just have to learn to go look and see the art around us.

A group of employees of Onozaki Miso shop in Yaita, Japan in the summer of 2023.

What’s your latest project? 

In 1979, my parents journeyed to Yaita, Japan, a small rural town north of Tokyo, to learn how to make miso from the Onozaki family in a small, traditional handcrafted miso shop. When they returned to the States, they started Miso Master, which is now the largest traditionally fermented miso operation in the world. My father was a very talented photographer, and I’ve spent many hours digging through thousands of images in his archive. Last summer I decided that I needed to make my own pilgrimage to the Onozaki miso shop and make my own images of it, the Onozaki family, and the surrounding area. My goal is to combine my images with my father’s for an intergenerational conversation spanning over 40 years.

Amy Walker picks October beans with her son, Sean at her garden in the Kituwah Mother Village in Cherokee in the fall of 2022.

Your photos all seem to be about relationships. 

I’m a curious person, and if a photo captures the moment that made you curious, that curiosity can be transmitted to the viewer. I worked on a project in Cherokee where I started developing relationships with people who are teaching me about foraging and plants. Photographing them never even crossed my mind. I just wanted to learn, be helpful, and develop reciprocal friendships. Then The New York Times wanted regional photos and I asked my friends how they felt about that. They said yeah, because they are into initiatives to preserve their culture. [The newspaper published the photos last October.]

People living at the Wild Roots community return from a day of picking apples for cider in October of 2015.

How did you first get noticed by such preeminent publications?

By building a personal portfolio — and relationships. The photojournalist scene was smaller than I thought. I took a workshop where they invited editors and publishers to meet. Then I went to New York City, and The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Time Magazine sat down with me. That connected me to the community.

Mike Belleme, Asheville. To learn more, visit and on Instagram @mikebelleme.

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