What Photography Means to Me

(Originally published in Ruralite Magazine, April 2014)

By David LaBelle

I have known photography longer than I’ve known my wife, my children, and most of my relatives.   For a half century, this magical medium has been both a vocation and an avocation.

Self Port with Henry

Like many of my generation, my first camera was a Brownie Hawkeye.  Actually it was my mother’s camera, but she let me use it.    I must have been 11 or 12 when I began trying to get close enough to animals like opossums, skunks, raccoons and bobcats to shoot good pictures.  I risked my life climbing out on tree limbs, high above cliffs and creek beds, to photograph crow and hawk nests.

A few years later, I began photographing human animals.


Then the camera became a therapeutic tool, a way to frame, analyze, and make sense of the world.   It was my filter, my screen to sort through many confusing emotions and separate the small stuff, the gravel of life, from the gold nuggets.   It helped me organize what I saw and felt and taught me lessons I could never have learned in a classroom. My subjects have always been my greatest teachers.

Photography, photojournalism in particular, built my self-esteem. A camera around my neck was my Superman’s cape.  I felt important.  I had purpose. It gave me the courage to enter any environment, even dangerous and intimidating situations I would never have had the courage to go into without a camera.

lonely vet

The “magic box,” as some have called it, continues to lead me to people and lands I have only dreamed about.  It is a passport that opens doors and carries me on adventures across the globe; places I would never explore without a camera.

Photography helps me slow down, pay attention and observe life more closely, to see the beauty and story in simple things others pass by or take for granted.  A bird’s feather caught in a bush, a discarded toy on a roadside or two fallen leaves gliding to earth and arriving in the same spot on a wet sidewalk – each tells a story.

The camera also challenges me to question and see my own reflection play out in the faces and actions of others, for better or worse.

Two of my favorites

But above all, the camera is a loyal companion and a trusted friend that has made this experience we call life much more profound.

I never feel bored or alone when I have a camera.  Unlike a dog or other pet, it does not need to be fed, brushed or let out for a bathroom break.  Nor does it get jealous when I leave it alone and chew the dash of my car, steering wheel or an innocent sock.

And the camera tells me the truth when I need to hear it…or see it.

Looking back, I realize what an incredible gift photography was to an insecure kid from Creek Road.   I thank God for the camera’s healing power and cannot imagine what my life would have been without it.


All photos © David LaBelle

Our Most Prized Possession

By David LaBelle

Like most teachers during the first class of a new semester, I went around the room and asked students to introduce themselves.  As I worked my way around the long tables, I stopped and faced a young lady with an unusual name.

“Where did your name come from?” I asked. “Were you named after a relative or a celebrity?”

“I don’t know,” the young lady answered. “I have no idea.”

“Weren’t you ever curious?” I asked in disbelief.

She shook her head no.

As I continued, I was shocked at how many students didn’t know where their given names originated.

Finally I came to two young ladies who seemed to be friends. The first was named Priscilla, and yes, she knew who she was named after.  Her mother was watching, Elvis and Me, and decided to name her daughter Priscilla after Priscilla Presley.

Then, I turned to her friend. With happy, dancing eyes, she reluctantly shared that her name was Special.

Kent, Ohio, 2014 - Photos by David LaBelle

“Special?  That is your given name…your real name?” I followed.

“Yeah,” she answered.

“I’ll bet you get a lot of attention with a name like Special?”

She laughed. “Yeah, I do.”

“When I was young I hated that name. I got teased.”

Now, with all eyes on her, I had to ask, “Do you know how you got your name?”

“Yeah, my mother gave it to me before she died.”

Kent, Ohio, 2014 - Photos by David LaBelle

There was silence.

“Because she was not supposed to be able to have children or she would die,” she continued.  “So when she had me, she named me Special.”

“She had you and died?” I asked, trying to be sure I heard correctly.

“Yeah, but not for a while,” Special said. “She had diabetes and she died during my first week in college.”

With tears in my eyes, I seized the opportunity to impress on the class the importance of names.

“There is nothing more valuable than a name. It’s a person’s most prized possession,” I assured them.  You owe those you photograph to get it right.

As it turns out, Special was never supposed to have happened.

Andrea Rea Griffin, Special’s mother, was warned she would not be able carry a baby, and if she did, it would be a high-risk pregnancy because of her Sickle Cell Anemia.  In fact, it was predicted Special’s mother would not live to age 13, but died just shy of her 40th birthday.

Special remembers her mother telling her “that it was worth the risk and that she always knew if she had a child, she would name it Special.”

Yesterday was Special’s 25th birthday, a few years older than her mother was when she gave birth to her only child, a month premature.

When Special started college, her mother, a worrier, called to check on her constantly.

“She was very dramatic; I had to call her all the time,” remembers the Kent State senior.  “If I went to this building to the next building, I had to call.”

She also remembers her mother saying she was sick and going to the hospital.

“I said, ‘Ya’ll stressing me out. What are you trying, you going to die on me?  Just get it together.’ I rushed her off the phone.”

Special still regrets that conversation.

Kent, Ohio, 2014 - Photos by David LaBelle

“It was weird, we didn’t say ‘I love you.’ She always got off the phone and said ‘I love you.’ The last words were, ‘whach y’all doin trying to die on me?’  I felt so much guilt. I felt like I jinxed it or something. I didn’t know it was the last conversation I was going to have with her.”

But now she feels like her mother is her guardian angel, helping her to get through college.

“I think she is there with me. I feel like she can see me. I talk to her.”

In many cultures, names mean something – they speak of lineage, times and events.

For some, like Special, her name is both a loving celebration in the face of adversity and the courage and the hope for a better life than the one who gave her life.

Where does your name come from?




All photos © David LaBelle

Holding the Flashlight

By David LaBelle

When I was child, I would lie on the cold ground, beneath the metal body of a car, holding a flashlight for my father as his skilled hands worked to fix something broken.   I hated the job and often resented the duty, especially on Friday nights when I wanted to be with my friends at our high school football game. But my father needed help.

When I hunted at night with my hound dogs or took neighborhood friends on hikes in the Southern California hills after dark, I was the one who held the flashlight and led the way.  There were dangerous cliffs, and I knew the hills well; better than I knew most people.

Gallilee light

The night before my dear mother died, we crossed over an angry, swollen creek together on a swinging footbridge and walked nearly a mile in the rainy darkness.  I held a flashlight in one hand, her arm in the other, and led her home across muddy pastures, through barbed-wire fences.   She had protected and comforted me since birth.  I felt proud that I could lead her home.

Little did I know those small acts were a rehearsal for the rest of my life.   My purpose was set early; I was to be a holder of light, to shine it on others and for others, not on myself.   This has not been an easy lesson to learn.

The walk to light

I carry a small, folded newspaper clipping in my wallet.  It’s a brief obit for the multi-talented Jim McKay, best known for hosting or directing television sports programs.  It reads: “Jim McKay who died Saturday at the age of 86, was a storyteller, journalist and teacher who never tried to be bigger than the event he was covering.”

In this day of me, me, me, and hype, hype, hype and the never-ending ego fueled by social media, marketing and “branding,” it’s good for each of us to remember we are not the light, but holders of the light giving sight to others.

We, as journalists and storytellers, carry the flashlight for the One who works with expert hands.   It is our privilege and our duty.

All photos © David LaBelle

One Habit Leads to Another

By David LaBelle

The Waver 1

The richness of life isn’t measured by a few big events, but by the thousands of small, seemingly insignificant moments woven together to make a lifetime.

Last summer as my family passed through Camden, Maine, we saw a man sitting by the side of the highway in a wheelchair, waving at all who passed.   He looked so content, so full of purpose; we had to stop and talk to him.

As it turns out, 85-year-old Kert Ingraham had found a small, but new, purpose in life – to wave at passing strangers.

The Waver 2

One day the resident of Sixty-Three Washington Street’s home for seniors rolled his wheelchair down the long driveway for a smoke break near the busy highway.   “I went out there to the street because we can’t smoke on the property,” explained the Air Force veteran.

Then a funny thing happened and a new habit was formed.

“I waved at somebody and then another, and ended up enjoying it,” offered Ingraham.

Three years later, he’s still waving at all who pass and, the former funeral home owner from Bangor has become somewhat of a fixture along busy Washington Street in Camden.

Ingraham, whose wife died 14 years earlier, says the weather determines how long he sits out by the highway smoking and waving.  “Sometimes I stay out there quite a while.”

He sees his regulars pass, one mailman in particular.

“Donald, I don’t know his last name,” Ingraham confessed.  “He and I are buddies.  We shake hands three times a day.”

The Waver 4

Watching this man content with his life, I am once again reminded that each of us need purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. Oftentimes meaning and joy can come in simple packages –like waving at strangers.

Yes, it’s the simple things, the free things, that make life so interesting and so beautiful.

The Waver 5

All photos © David LaBelle

Leaving with Love

By David LaBelle

Recently I listened to a friend talk about her aging and crippled dog.

“He’s in dog hospice,” she said.

Having never heard of such a thing, I started asking questions.

Turns out, “dog hospice” was not an “official” organization (though what a great idea) but a loving family caring for Tyson, a 13-year-old beagle-lab mix as he lived out his final days.

Tyson, fourteen by everyone’s guess– is 98 if you apply the seven dog years to every one human year formula – began his life homeless, wandering the streets as a puppy until folks working for an animal shelter coaxed him in.   (Animals, like humans, don’t get to choose where they will enter this world or under what circumstances.)  Though the shelter couldn’t afford to keep strays for long before putting them to sleep, Tyson’s personality endeared him to the staff and he became the shelter mascot, his young life spared.

ImageCharlie with his lifelong pal

He was adopted by a military family and given the name Tyson because he was a fighter who survived the odds.

Continue reading

A Christmas Gift

By David LaBelleAkron, Ohio - Dec 15, 2013 - Photos by David LaBelle

I was given an early Christmas gift this year.

Prepared for another “Bah Humbug” overly commercialized Christmas season, I was surprised by a moment that could have come from Frank Capra’s, It’s a Wonderful Life; a heart-tugging reunion which served as a reminder that the best gifts are not made of plastic, but of the invisible spirit of the heart.Homecoming1

Sitting in the historic Akron Civic Theatre and watching Sadie Kelley’s eyes light up as she tearfully ran into her father’s arms with unabashed joy is a present I will cherish forever.

The seventh-grader didn’t know while performing with her school choir at the Akron Civic Theatre that her father would make the long trip from Fort Bragg, North Carolina and magically appear on stage.

Continue reading

More than a Train

By David LaBelleDSC_0010

I am not a big fan of traditions, especially when they become empty rituals or commercially driven shopping days thrust upon us by retail America.

But there are some traditions – like the annual running of the Santa Special through the mountains of eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee – I hope never cease.DSC_6638

Started in 1943, against a backdrop of Appalachian poverty, The Santa Special, also called the Santa Train, was a way for merchants to say “thank you” and give back to rural communities.  Beginning in Shelby, Kentucky, the CSX train loaded with donated goodies snaked its way through a 110-mile route, ending in Kingsport, Tennessee.

In the early years, the train slowed in places like Tom’s Bottom, Marrowbone, Dante or Dungannon, while a waving, red-suited Santa and his helpers tossed gifts – mostly coloring books, crayons and pies – from the caboose.  Excited, thankful children scampered over the tracks in its wake. Continue reading

A Time To Every Purpose.

By David LaBelle

Have you ever thought you were traveling to a place for one reason, and then returned home to realize that you were there for a much deeper purpose?

This happened to me recently when I revisited a small Kansas town where I worked as a newspaper photographer 34 years earlier.

When my friend, Hugh Huffman, first suggested the idea of a gallery show celebrating the work of Chanute (Kansas) Tribune photographers, I immediately embraced the idea and thought it would be a fun reunion. Several well-known photographers cut their newspaper teeth in the small town of Chanute.  I felt it would be an opportunity to see old friends like Pete Souza, the Chief Official White House photographer for President Barack Obama and Director of the White House Photography.  Unfortunately, Pete had to accompany the President to Russia and wasn’t able to attend the gallery opening.

Continue reading

The Tale of Two Students

By David LaBelle

Students sitting around a table at Western Kentucky University

Can anybody really predict where these Western Kentucky students will end up?

Sometimes we as educators get full of ourselves. We think we can predict the future of students based on their ACT scores or senior portfolios; then time humbles us and reminds us that we’re not prophets.

This is a short story about two photojournalism students: one from the university where I was teaching at the time, and the other from another college.

I met the first student during a portfolio critique at photo conference. Through the years, I had looked at hundreds – maybe thousands – of college portfolios, but this was the first time I ever told a student I didn’t see anything in his collection of images that indicated he should continue pursuing photojournalism.

Continue reading

What I Wished I Would’ve Said

By David LaBelle

Dave LaBelle talks with former student and current professor Jeanie Adams-Smith
To the right is Mike Morse and James Kenney, the past and present photojournalism directors
Photo by Erin LaBelle

Have you ever had the chance to speak before an audience, and you inevitably forgot to say something you felt was important?

I do it all the time, even if I’ve prepared notes in advance.

It happened to me this past weekend while speaking at a photography display of former and current teachers at Western Kentucky University titled “Family Tree: An Exhibition.” The super-talented Tim Broekema, former student and current professor at WKU, curated the show.

Continue reading