Collegiate photographer: ‘Chase your passions and what you love to do’

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Elias Valverde II
Elias Valverde II

Like so many college students, Elias Valverde II started his college career pursuing a degree in architecture. Then he changed to political science. Then he switched to art with a concentration in photography. It’s clear he found his passion.

He took a photography class at Tarrant County College.

As he tells it, “The class was centered around a weeklong trip to Cuba where we spent our time walking the streets of Old Havana, mainly doing street photography.  However, we often stopped and talked with the local people, asking questions and getting to know them. We found out quickly that the Cuban people were just as curious as were, asking where we were from and why we were visiting. The experience was something I’ll never forget because it was almost like traveling back in time to a place before cellphones and Wi-Fi and that environment really made you live in the moment without distractions.”

But it was also where he discovered what turned into his passion.

“The trip also planted that photojournalist seed in me where I would want to tell the stories of other people through the lens of my camera.”

Now, Elias is a graduating senior at the University of Texas at Arlington where he serves as the multimedia editor for the student newspaper, The Shorthorn.

SLIDESHOW


1. You go to a school that has a communication degree but only a specialization in journalism and no specialization in photojournalism. A strong student newspaper but no yearbook. Why UTA?

I ended up at UTA sort of by default after changing my major to political science while at Texas Tech. There was really no need for me to spend the extra money on tuition and an apartment when I could live at home and go to UTA which was just down the street. I applied to work at The Shorthorn after attending an informational session with newsroom adviser Laurie Fox. She said they were looking to hire photographers and I thought to myself, “I know how to take pictures, I should apply.” So I did, and I was hired on without truly knowing what I was getting myself into at the time.

2. You’ve been successful as a college photojournalist winning awards in the top contests nationwide. To what do you attribute that success?

I would like to say it started with my photography professor at Tarrant County College, she was always supportive of my work from my very first critique in my first photo class. I also learned from her and our trips to Cuba and Puerto Rico how to be compassionate and listen to what other people have to say so that you can learn from them.

The Shorthorn has a knack for training and developing really strong photojournalists. I’m hardly the first award-winning photographer to come out of here. We have several Pulitzer Prize-winning alumni like Robert Hart, Tom Fox and Brad Loper who regularly visit with us to offer critiques and training. I think most of what I learned came from the time spent talking with them and just being like a sponge and absorbing everything they had to say.

AWARDS:

3. What advice would you have for other college photojournalists in terms of entering contests?

Don’t be afraid of entering every contest you can find whether it be a small regional contest or something larger like the contests at the College Media Association and Associated Collegiate Press conventions. And while your work might not place in one contest, don’t be afraid to enter it elsewhere if you feel strongly that it’s a standout photo because each contest has different judges who might see your work differently. It’s also a good experience to critique and edit down your own photos from the past year or quarter.

4. How has the pandemic impacted your work as a student photojournalist?

At the beginning of the pandemic my work practically came to a standstill with school closing and everything going virtual or just being canceled. It took about a month or so before I started shooting and I started with just a simple photo a day challenge. I would go out every day and venture off somewhere that I hadn’t been before in Fort Worth. This got me thinking creatively again and I just began to chase the light around where I lived.

The spring semester was slow at the beginning but picked up with press conferences attended by Gov. Greg Abbott and city council meetings before transitioning to coverage of large-scale COVID-19 testing sites. Over the summer and fall we did a lot of portrait work outside and socially distanced. The portraits were welcomed as we were able to photograph actual people after a spring of photographing empty streets and closed businesses.

Living in Texas meant a quicker return to “normal” in the fall with sporting events coming back although with no fans and us photographers on the main concourse, a long way from our usual spot along the baseline underneath the basket.

The biggest challenge has been with everything being farther away, how do you still get those intimate and emotional photos? In some cases that means longer lenses and other times like during the summer with the social justice protests just trusting that everyone around you is wearing a mask and not sick.

5. Pick one of your favorite assignments during college. Tell me about it. Why that one?

At UTA there’s a student organization called The Drivers Club and they have car meets on campus. It’s a bunch of car people that just meet and hang out to talk and show off their cars. We had covered their meetups before, and I really wanted to just find a student that worked on their own car, changing the oil and stuff like that. But I got lucky and found a student who not only worked on her own car but also competed in drift racing. She was welcoming and let me get photos while she was working on her car in the shop and invited me to the next event she was participating in.

When I arrived at the event her car was on jacks with no tires and she was scrambling to find new tires so she could continue to drift throughout the weekend. Luckily she found a set and she quickly got them mounted and installed them on her car by herself. I was able to ride in the passenger seat as she made several runs around the course, hitting more than 80 miles per hour before whipping the wheel around to induce a controlled slide of the car. It was thrilling and all the while I was able to snap photos and record video from inside the car. It was a really fun and unique experience, and I’m proud of the work I produced from it because it was the first photo story I sourced by myself. It also ended up being the first story that I would write which was terrifying for someone who usually only writes two sentences. It also placed at the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association contest, so that was a nice reward after everything.

shorthorn6. You work on one of the strongest college newspapers in the country. What are some of the take-home lessons from working there?

Just not being afraid to cover any and every news event that was relevant to our readers (is certainly a take-home lesson I learned). Our adviser (Laurie Fox) always encourages us to apply for credentials to any sort of major sporting event that we like, as long as it’s newsworthy or will get us clips for our portfolio. One example was when we covered the first protests in Dallas and Fort Worth following the death of George Floyd. Our  team of editors sensed this could be the start of a large movement, and we felt the need to cover it despite there not being a direct tie to UTA or the city of Arlington. We went and it was a great learning experience for when protests began to happen in Arlington and on campus in the following days and weeks.

7. If “college Elias” could tell “high school Elias” one thing, what would it be? Why?

I would tell myself to chase your passions and what you love to do. I went into college thinking I needed to get a “real degree” which is why I was in political science even though it was stressful, and I didn’t really enjoy it. The smartest thing I did was to major in art and photography because it’s something that I love to do.

8. In addition to working on The Shorthorn, you’ve done other work as a photojournalist while in college. Where? Why? What did you do?

I’ve freelanced for the Dallas Morning News since the fall and I first made that connection in the summer when they picked up a couple of my photos from the protest and ran them in print. Then in the fall, I started shooting high school football just to build my portfolio and I sent some of my work to the photo editors at the Dallas Morning News. They critiqued it and said I had good work but needed to work on cropping tighter. After that I began covering games every week through the fall and working on a tight deadline, filing photos from the stadium in the press box or from my car in the parking lot. Once football ended I did some basketball before shooting portraits and some features including the major winter storm that hit Texas in February.

9. So, you’re graduating next month. What’s next?

I’ve applied for some fellowships and internships like Report for America and the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship. I don’t have anything officially lined up yet but I have had some interviews in the recent weeks. So at the moment I’m just waiting to see how those will turn out.

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