When Will Claytor started a fine arts class project on I-69 four years ago, he didn't get involved with the issue. He got obsessed with it.
"At first, it kind of fell into my lap," he said. "The route had just been selected, so I chose that as my project. I could have stopped at the end of my class, but I just kept going with it. I've never gotten to a point where I felt like I could put it aside."
His project, now the framework for a documentary, highlighted families who lived on the proposed highway route. Using audio and visuals, he created a slide show displaying the potential losses these people face.
One elderly couple, who live on a fourth-generation farm, would have their property cut in half by the highway. As a result, they would either lose access to their property or have to sell it.
Claytor, a 26-year-old art major from Carmel, was deeply moved by stories such as this. When he first started documenting, he knew he wanted to influence the debate.
"At the time, I definitely considered myself an activist," he said. "These are the most inspiring, nicest people I've ever met. And I don't want to toot my own horn, but it's pretty moving to look at a picture of a person on their farm while hearing audio of that same person talking about losing that farm."
Groups like INPIRG agreed. INPIRG used Claytor's multi-media class project — stills and video — in class presentations, as well as in a 2005 Earth Week event. It's also been shown at the Monroe County Public Library and Boxcar Books in previous years.
Claytor is now adapting the project into a full-length documentary on the issue, where he puts the I-69 debate into the context of transportation history.
But he no longer thinks of himself as an activist after hearing so many perspectives on the issue.
"My sympathies lie with the opposition," he said. "... My involvement is as an observer, looking objectively at both sides of the debate."
And while Claytor may ultimately "go for the underdog," he finds it hard to deem anyone a bad guy for supporting the highway as a means to get jobs to a small town.
"Everyone has valid points," he said.
Sandra Tokarski of Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads (CARR) supports Claytor's transition from activist to observer.
"Will has taken a careful look at the people who could lose their homes to Toll I-69," she said. "We are supportive of his effort to create a documentary about the highway, because he takes an objective look at both sides."
Unfortunately, Claytor has put his documentary project on hold due to lack of funding.
"I applied for grants," he explained, "but no one wants to fund someone with no experience."
So Claytor is working to change that. With a few friends, he started a production company called 19th State. Their first short film, Gulf War Syndrome, won the Audience Award at last year's Cinefile Film Festival at the Buskirk-Chumley.
19th State is now on its third film, a comedy about a man's desperate search for batteries so he can listen to his Walkman. A little off-the-wall, maybe, but Claytor is gaining valuable directing, editing and filming experience.
But he doesn't think of any of this as work. In fact, Claytor doesn't even discuss his actual job, working as a photographer at Kirkwood Photo Lab, as work. It's all experience.
"I really like my job," he said. "It's helped with the documentary in a lot of ways. Shooting weddings and taking pictures of kids has really helped my interactions with people. It's definitely an art of getting people to relax. You never know how people will react in front of a camera."
He's even concerned that getting back into his I-69 project will force him to cut back his hours at work. "I have 60 to 70 hours of footage at this point to edit," he said. "But I have no problem working — it's just the problem of having enough hours in the day. I'll find a way to finish it, no matter what."
Tokarski hopes that he'll get that opportunity.
"There is an important story about the impact that politics, government and greed can have on the lives of citizens," she said. "We believe that story should be told. Will has the knowledge, skill and artistry to do that. All he needs is the funding."
And after over four years of working on this project, Claytor's still fascinated with I-69.
"It's consumed my life for the past four years," he said. "But even though it will be a relief to be done, I'll be sad to move on."
Alison Hamm can be reached at email@example.com.