CPOY Coordinator Yanran Huang interviewed Gabriel Scarlett of Western Kentucky University, who was the 73rd College Photographer of the Year in 2018.
Julian Rodriguez plays with his son Christopher at their home on Pueblo's East Side. Julian's decades-long struggle with addiction brought him intimately close to the gang operations as he often bought from and sold for the gangs in order to support his own addiction. "Everything that I desire and want in this life is for that boy," he explains. Christopher will grow up on the East Side, deep in Duke territory, but Julian hopes that a loving relationship with his father can keep him away from the gang lifestyle. (Gabriel Scarlett, Western Kentucky University)
Yanran Huang: What’s your most difficult story so far?
Gabriel Scarlett: Every story is challenging in different ways—whether it be challenging emotionally, logistically, financially or physically. A few stories have been difficult in all these ways.
When I began documenting life in the East Side neighborhood of Pueblo, Colorado, I had little idea that I would return time and again over the next year as the story grew into “Flock of Doves”, an essay on a community affected by local street gangs.
I attend school in Kentucky, so returning to this story meant several cross country road trips and constantly searching for grant funding. When I was in town, I frequently slept in my car in order to cut down on costs.
At times this story was logistically challenging as I was denied access to one of my subjects who was being held in the Pueblo County Jail.
Looking back at this story, I can see so many of its visual pitfalls and how disjointed its narrative was. One of the biggest takeaways from the story was to be more prepared before I get started. I was truly happy to have put myself out in this community and attempted this story, but if I were to do it again, I would approach the topic with more focus and a clearer idea of the final product and the why behind what I was doing.
YH: How’s your National Geographic internship?
GS: Each year I entered CPOY, my efforts were made with the internship in mind. Since seeing Aaron Huey’s documentation of the Pine Ride Reservation when I was in high school, I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer above all else.
This summer did not disappoint. I was given a very challenging assignment to document Bob Ballard’s search for Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra in the South Pacific. Alongside a television crew of about two dozen who were making a Nat Geo TV special, I was sent as the lone still photographer. I was responsible for filing from the field for several digital stories in real time while simultaneously photographing with the scope of a potential Magazine piece, in case the plane was found and the mystery solved. While that did not happen, it was a wonderful exercise in planning and executing a broad essay of this kind that stretched from Amelia’s hometown of Atchison, Kansas to the remote island of Nikumaroro.
Along the way I learned a little bit of on location lighting as well as how to use an underwater DSLR housing. Freediving and photographing was one of the funnest and most challenging parts of the entire expedition. Even though we only needed one or two good shots from the underwater perspective, I was able to use some of my downtime between shoots to dive along the pristine coral reef at Nikumaroro, seeing plenty of reef sharks, sea turtles, and manta rays.
YH: Can you give advice to college photographers on portfolio?
GS: To me, editing together a CPOY portfolio was like taking stock of myself photographically over the past year. Listening to the screencasts of the judges’ critiques was invaluable and each year I felt I was getting closer to a body of work I could be truly proud of.
I would advise anyone looking to enter a portfolio to simply make it theirs. Don’t be too embarrassed by one or two of your stories that feel half-baked or incomplete. This is not your polished website portfolio, but rather a statement on the work you completed in twelve month’s time. Bring together all your hard drives and start to compile your favorite work from the year. Find your personal voice within that mix and don’t ask too many people for advice. One or two close friends or mentors who know you and your work intimately can help you to hone your vision, but too many opinions can leave you overthinking and confused. I cannot stress enough how much my close friends helped shape my portfolio entries each year, in ways both big and small.
I encourage any and all—no matter what grade in school—to put together a portfolio entry each year. It is such a great exercise in self-editing and so helpful to gauge the “success” of your efforts over the past year and what you may or may not want to do differently in the future. Going forward, I think I will continue to pay attention to the CPOY competition and in particular, the portfolio category as it is always remarkable how much great work can be made by students in just a year.