For anyone who loves great documentary photography — here’s its future — the four student winners, first place and three awards of excellence, from the White House News Photographers Association, whose annual gala dinner is in D.C. May 15.
The winner is Diego James Robles, just hired by the Denver Post, at 25, as a staff photographer. The awards of excellence went to three young men, two from Western Kentucky University and one from the Corcoran College of Art and Design. Their images are also powerful, moving, spectacular — see number 15 in Chris Jones’ photo-essay on a small child with cancer.
I met Diego this January when he was chosen to join The New York Times Student Institute just as he was starting to collect an astonishing pile of awards:
*White House News Photographers Association 2009 Student Photographer of the Year, March 2010
*Ohio News Photographers Association 2009 Student Photographer of the Year, March 2010
*Alexia Foundation Student Award of Excellence, March 2010
*Press Photographers Association of Greater Los Angeles 2009 Student Photographer of the Year, March 2010
*1st Place Hearst Competition II: News/Sports, February, 2010
That’s after winning:
*Gold, Sports Feature, College Photographer of the Year, Nov. 2009
*Award of Excellence, Portfolio, College Photographer of the Year, Nov. 2009
*1st Place, Week’s Work/Student Portfolio, Sports Shooter, Aug. 2009
*Pepsi Leadership Scholarship, Ohio University, May 2009
*Ohio News Photographers Association 2008 Student Photographer of the Year, March 2009
*The California Chicano News Media Association Scholarship, Aug. 2008
*Chips Quinn Scholar, Feb. 2008
A military veteran, Diego remains calm, low-key, quiet, soft-spoken. And driven.
Here’s my interview with him:
Tell us a little bit about your history
I am originally from a suburb of Los Angeles, Torrance. When I was in the fourth grade, we moved to Orange County. I attended high school, like Tiger Woods, in Anaheim’s Western High School. My parents are both retired lawyers. My stepfather, the man who raised me, is a retired machinist.
How did you become a photographer?
Nobody in my family is a journalist but I am the first of many. Well, I got into photography when I was twenty. I was deployed with the army in Kosovo. I was slightly injured in the mountains of Serbia and I was forced to go back to our forward operating base and recover for a short time. There, a really goofy, funny army friend of mine had an old fully manual SLR camera (a big camera with interchangeable lens). He let me borrow it for maybe 10 seconds and I was automatically hooked. I thought the prism and shutter mechanism were the coolest thing ever. I immediately bought an entry level SLR on eBay and started shooting everything…except people. I think a lot of people start like this actually. My parents didn’t know for a long time that I was into photography. I think they were just worried that my job was dangerous. In retrospect, I think I was always into making images. I liked to draw and paint throughout my school days; still do a little bit. When my family went on summer vacations, I was always the photographer but my parents didn’t encourage it since I was always taking wacky pictures, mis-loading film, and jamming the mechanics in some way.
When and why did you join the military? How did this shape how you think and work?
I joined the military after high school. A very influential high school teacher of mine was a former Marine and was wounded several times in Vietnam. He showed us one of his platoon photographs, before everybody but him was killed in action. That had an affect on me. I went to Kosovo and some other places in Europe. I was deployed for close to two years but served another four or so inactive or active in some form. I have the army to thank for many of the good qualities I have and maybe some of the bad habits too. I eventually switched from the infantry to public affairs, basically the journalism/propaganda arm of the military and I learned a lot. Those guys worked hard and sacrificed their bodies for the shot. I also learned how to write which comes in handy when I apply for grants and write proposals.
Which photographers’ work do you most admire and why?
I admire a lot of different photographers out there. I admire the intimacy and cleanness of Carolyn Cole’s conflict images for Los Angeles Times. Having worked on Native American reservations, I deeply admire the photography of Edward Curtis and his devotion to the craft. Others I greatly admire are Shaul Schwarz, John Moore and Vince Musi.
What do you want viewers to take from your work?
I want viewers to feel something when they look at my work. Anything will do. Photographs don’t always have to be intimate and meaningful. To draw a laugh or a tear is a great honor. So any kind of reaction or emotion response is okay with me. Hopefully, they’ll want to see more.
What do most enjoy about shooting?
Right now I am completely obsessed with portraiture. I love to plan, execute and edit environmental portraits. However, it’s not what I do best and I wish mine were more intimate like fellow Ohio University photographer, Peter Hoffman. However, I really enjoy quirky photo-stories about people with interesting jobs and complicated personal relationships.
What do you least enjoy shooting?
I am not a fan of shooting meetings or poorly lit high school basketball games. Also I loath shooting anything about ghosts, ghost hunters or anything involving the paranormal. It’s always the same photographs of somebody looking at a “energy detection” gadget and inebitably, when the photographs are published, somebody will find a ghost in the pictures.
Tell us about all these awards!
I have been pleasantly surprised by my recent success this year. I’d always won something here or there, even in the army but this year has been special. It feels funny because all the awards are for last year’s work as a senior and I know this year’s stuff, so far, is not as good. I am also very surprised about doing well in major competitions especially since there are photographers way more talented and experienced than me.
Tell us what you learned about shooting at college
I learned most of what I know as a photographer in Ohio University. I think it was a great combination of talented passionate instructors paired with the best talent in the nation. The atmosphere was highly competitive and inspiring. Although successful and talented people will always find a way to rise to the top, I don’t think I would have been as successful, not even close, if I had gone somewhere else.
What advice would you offer to other young shooters?
The best advice anybody gave me was decide what kind of photographer you want to be. This will determine what you need to do and what kind of life you will have. As you climb the ladder and everybody works hard, has talent and is creative, you realize the separating power of sacrifice.
Why does sacrifice matter when achieving excellence?
Sacrifice is something I learned in the army. You sacrifice yourself for the well-being of the unit and the success of the mission. I sacrificed much in Ohio. I sacrificed personal relationships with friends and girlfriends. I never went out to parties and bars but not because I didn’t like my peers but because I am so obsessed with the craft of photography.
The digital revolution has turned photography and photojournalism on its head. I am a product of it. If it wasn’t so easy to take hundreds and now thousands of photographs in one sitting, I don’t know if I would have gotten into it. My first SLR was a digital and I didn’t shoot any film until I got to college. I believe digital has made a lot of people think photography is easy. However, digital has flooded the market and internet with really bad photographs by the millions. The relative cheapness of digital, once you make the ridiculously expensive initial investment, has allowed people to get better and improve their photography. I’m all for it and thankful of its emergence but am slightly uncomfortable with overall drop in photographic quality.
Tell us about the Denver Post — how did you get such a great first job in a recession right out of school?
There are about 15 photographers on staff at The Denver Post. I am by far the youngest and greenest of them all. I don’t know how they found me. The director of the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University told me my name came up when my boss, Tim Rasmussen, was looking to hire somebody. However, I am unaware if he knew of me beforehand. I think I had a total of three phone interviews. The last one was a telephone conference with most of the staff. I didn’t know what to expect so I was just myself and tried to be as honest as I could. I detailed both my strength and weakness. I told them who I am as a photographer and what I am all about.
Anything you want to add?
The photographic life is worth living but the photography itself has to be the reward and ultimate endgame.