How One Photographer Fell in Love with Charleston

Love and the Lowcountry

Seven million tourists visit Charleston, SC, every year, clopping over cobblestones in horse-drawn carriages, admiring iconic Rainbow Row and the breathtaking Antebellum mansions on the Battery, enjoying luxurious restaurants and shops downtown, touring historic plantations, and relaxing on Atlantic beaches. Before leaving, many plan a return trip to “The Holy City,” as natives call it. Others add it to their possible retirement destinations. But only a few pack up and move there.

Pittsburgh native Ben Petchel, 35, did. A lifestyle photographer/videographer, Ben went to Charleston to film a commercial for a new restaurant, fell in love with the city, and moved there nine months later. On his second day in town, he fell in love again, this time with his now-fiancé Ashley, a nurse practitioner who grew up in Cincinnati.

With countless family and friends in Pittsburgh (he played hockey at Bethel Park and Seton Hill and coached at Peters Township and Pitt), Ben sees his leap to Lowcountry as a badge of courage. Pittsburghers’ storied reluctance to pull up roots can also mean they “stray away from being great because good is good enough,” he suggests.

Whether Ben will be great in Charleston is a question mark, but in his new full-time marketing job, his photography background helps shape campaigns for what he calls “scrappier teams, such as YouTube or Dick’s [Sporting Goods], rather than big corporations,” and he’s finding “new ways of telling new stories.”

“There’s an endless playground around me. I’m centering myself,” he says, appreciating the opportunity to learn on the job and in a team.

Ben and Ashley live in center city on Meeting Street but, even as they savor the best of Charleston, they purposely bypass the “ritzy” Southern charm tourists crave. They enjoy a younger crowd with a college-student vibe and are drawn to spectacular water views. Many evenings see them setting out on foot to try new restaurants — some memorable, some forgettable — that popped up post-COVID, many in affordable side-street locations.

Among his favorite eateries is The Darling. Housed in a 115-year-old storefront on King Street, it’s the kingdom of Executive Chef Derick Wade, who cooked around the globe before landing first on nearby Kiawah Island and now in his own space. Seafood, especially oysters ($1 apiece during Happy Hour), star, but there are non-seafood options. It’s hard to find a bad review of Wade’s unpretentious, affordable Southern fare — crawfish étouffée, fried green tomatoes, jambalaya, gator bites, gumbo fries and more, plus inventive craft cocktails. The restaurant’s design, including a 14-seat raw bar that encourages guests to interact, boosts its allure.

Ben recently photographed Wade shucking fresh oysters in The Darling’s kitchen. “He taught me the proper way to eat an oyster,” says Ben. More complex than cracking a lobster claw or extracting an escargot, oyster etiquette has about 10 steps — which y’all might want to review before simply slurping.

Story by Susan Fleming Morgans / Photography by Ben Petchel

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