Poised behind the viewfinder and ready to take the shot, this self-proclaimed camera geek captures more on film in one week than most people see their entire lives.
Cameron Knight always carries a camera. He sometimes has one stashed in his car. At home he has a cache of 75 – 100 cameras; some are Russian, some are German, some work, some don’t. But the 29-year-old photographer loves them all equally. He buys them in bulk on eBay and spends $20 to $30 for a couple good ones, along with 15 more that may not work. His day-to-day camera is an Olympus XA, his trusty sidearm at hand whenever inspiration strikes. Then there is the Zorki Rangefinder he bought in college for $30 and the Lomography Lubitel he shot a few projects with recently – don’t even get him started on his Graflex 4×5 Speed Graphic, which is a large camera that is sometimes equipped with a hood or a flashbulb on a handle. Knight says he’s been fondling that one, an early anniversary gift from his fiancée, for a couple days.
“I’m just a camera geek,” Knight says. Coming from a guy who creates 45-minute educational, “camera geekasm” videos and uploads them to YouTube, “just a camera geek” is putting it mildly. Knight is a camera savant. He can tell you as much about Germany relinquishing its camera patents to Russia after WWII as he can philosophize about the art of capturing a real, fleeting moment on film so it tells a compelling story about a scene or situation.
In addition to his extensive knowledge of cameras, Knight also has more than 10 years of experience in photography and has shot many assignments for various publications. Knight interned and later worked at Cox Ohio Southwest Group, a company that owns several newspapers in Southwestern Ohio including The Dayton Daily News and Hamilton JournalNews. He also interned and worked at CityBeat, an alternative newsweekly in Cincinnati, where he excelled as a young photojournalist.
3×5 Glossy Roots
Knight began his career as a photojournalist when he was 15, covering the same stories as the local news while he was just in high school. On one occasion Knight hung out with the press at a local political event and photographed Dick Cheney during George W. Bush’s first run for president. Knight recounts the photographers at the event including him as one of their own, although he says they were three times his age and he was “super skinny” and “dorky.” At one point Cheney’s managers led the TV reporters into a room to conduct interviews but left the photographers outside. Undeterred, the photographers barged right into the room and brought the nervous teenager along with them. He was worried about going to jail or getting “shot by a sniper,” but they pulled him along anyway and said he was coming with them. “They were super encouraging,” he says in reflection. In the end Knight ended up getting within an arm’s length of Cheney and took his picture. From then on he was part of the media family.
Because Knight grew up as a photojournalist he has had a first-row seat at a lot of life-changing events. He tells his photojournalism students at the University of Cincinnati a story about an event he covered when he was a teenager. A man who was driving drunk crashed his car into a tree and because he had prior offenses, he fled the scene when the police arrived. In his attempt to evade arrest the man fell into a pond and drowned. The police searched the pond for two days before they found the body. Knight covered the event and took pictures of the mourning family as the police pulled the man’s body out of the pond on the second day. One of the family members saw Knight take the picture and threatened to come find him if it was published. “That’s the kind of stuff you remember,” Knight says. “That crazy shit.”
Knight interned underneath Sean Hughes, former internship coordinator for CityBeat and currently a professor of photojournalism at the University of Cincinnati. Hughes says Knight was very hard-working and would show up to the office everyday, even when there was nothing for him to do. “He’s always been that kind of person, that really responsible go-getter, and we learned that really quickly,” Hughes says. Knight’s first photo shoot for CityBeat was covering the Taft Museum, “which is a tough shoot,” Hughes says, due to all of the artwork on the walls. Despite the difficulty of the assignment Knight’s photos were used in the cover piece of that issue of CityBeat. “Which is very unusual for the first time for an intern,” Hughes says. “I think he had easily at least three covers during that time period [his internship].”
Knight stayed in contact with Hughes after finishing his internship and the two formed a friendship that has lasted eight years. They shot a couple weddings together and photographed the World Choir Games last summer when it came to Cincinnati.
This connection with Hughes created the opportunity for Knight to find his current job as an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati, where he teaches photojournalism. Hughes invited Knight to speak in a few of his classes a couple years ago which led to Knight’s desire to teach a few class of his own. Knight says he repeatedly asked the journalism department if he could teach a class. “I kept bugging and bugging them,” he says. The department eventually allowed him to teach an intro to photojournalism class and made him an adjunct professor. Knight credits networking and keeping in touch with colleagues for getting him where he’s at today.
“Be somebody that they want to be around,” Knight says.
For Knight, journalism boils down to one prerequisite: “To be a journalist, or even a photojournalist, you have to be curious,” he says. “You have to be interested in [the topic].” Over the years Knight developed an interest in shooting portrait series – collections of portraits usually accompanied by an essay or article that explores a chosen topic. His latest portrait series, titled “The Women of Hip Hop,” depicts women hip hop dancers, DJs, radio jockeys, producers, vocalists and lyricists from the Cincinnati area and was published alongside a CityBeat article. Knight shot another portrait series for CityBeat titled “Grey Collar Jobs,” which features portraits of people with interesting and slightly outdated occupations all around Cincinnati. “I like weird people that do weird things,” Knight says. “There’s a guy I found who makes violins and that’s just weird to me, like that’s what he does for a living.”
“Grey Collar Jobs” comprises seven pictures of people at work; including a horseshoe maker, a bell maker, a fedora crafter, a calligrapher, a typewriter repairman, a Latin teacher and the aforementioned violin maker. It sounds easy enough to drive around the city and take a few pictures of people at work, but Knight doesn’t cut creative corners. For instance, he didn’t just take a picture of violin maker Jerrold Witkowski at work: he captured wood chips and sawdust; a wooden violin partially chiseled into shape; and violin maker Witkowski in dark-blue overalls standing in his dim workshop; his hands resting on the carved block of wood destined to become a musical instrument as he looks up at the camera with a proud smirk framed by a well-trimmed, salt-and-pepper beard. A picture of someone at work, certainly. But shot in a way that shows the time it takes to carve a block of wood into a violin and the sense of accomplishment that comes with having a couple violins already carved, sanded, stained, polished and hanging in the workshop.
Another photo in the series depicts Tim Verdin, sixth-generation owner of The Verdin Company (a bell-casting company), crouching a couple feet away from the headache-inducing end of a big, bronze, church bell. The scuffed-up bell is tilted on its side and resembles a giant horn or megaphone blaring in Verdin’s left ear; a statement in itself about Verdin’s occupation. And that is the beauty in Knight’s photography: he uses visual metaphor and creative juxtaposition to make viewers ask questions about the subject, such as “how long will it take Witkowski to finish this violin?” or “how many owners of The Verdin Company went deaf?”
It is apparent Knight put a lot of thought into “Grey Collar Jobs,” but his meticulousness went beyond directing poses and determining the best angles to take advantage of. Being a camera geek, he also wanted to use the perfect camera to capture images of these “grey collar” workers, so he chose his Lomography Lubitel for the job. The series was about “old timey jobs,” as Knight puts it, so he says it made sense to shoot the series with a camera that became popular with the press back in the 1940s.
In addition to his lighter topics such as “Grey Collar Jobs” and “The Women of Hip Hop,” Knight also has a serious side to his photography, which as Hughes notes is to be expected in their line of work. Hughes says a generalist photographer at a daily newspaper has to be able to shoot a sporting event, then shoot spot news of a traffic wreck or murder, then take photos of food at a restaurant and shoot a ballet the next day. But Hughes says Knight is an adaptable photographer. “His work ethic is always consistent but his abilities constantly update and change to the market,” he says. “I think that’s kind of cool.” Like a natural generalist photographer, Knight went from shooting portrait series to composing photo essays.
Knight recently shot a long-term photo essay titled “Liana’s Voice,” which centered on a young girl who was born with cerebral palsy. Knight took pictures of the day-to-day routine Liana and her mother, Utawna Leap, go through as the 5-year-old battles her condition. The photo essay includes pictures of Liana being held in her mother’s arms, lying on a hospital gurney and walking down a hallway (with the help of her mother). Knight was sure to focus on Liana’s eyes in a few shots because, as he mentioned in his essay, Liana communicates by widening her eyes due to her speech impairment.For this powerful photo essay Knight was awarded the Ohio Public Images Network Award of Excellence in 2006 and won the Ohio Associated Press first place prize for photo essays in 2007. Hughes says Knight had to gain a high level of trust from Liana and her mother in order to take pictures of intimate moments, such as when Utwana was bathing Liana and Knight stood behind them to take a top-down shot. Hughes says the fact Knight was able to get that close and gain that kind of access is what makes him a good photojournalist. But for Knight it all goes back to curiosity.
“I do that because I’m really interested in childhood disorders,” Knight says. “Because it’s something that’s happened in my life.” Knight’s fianceé was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was a child and her condition has played a large role in their relationship, Knight says. After witnessing the constant support she receives from her family Knight was inspired to shoot a photo essay that depicted the same family dynamic. This led him to find Liana’s mother and ask permission to create the photo essay centered on cerebral palsy and the special mother-daughter relationship that formed because of it.
Along with his teaching position and freelance work for various publications Knight is also the editor of Phototuts+, a tutorial website for everything related to photography. From the best ways to shoot surfers in action to mastering advanced saturation control in post-processing, Knight says Phototuts+ has all the advice, tips and tutorials necessary to learn how to master the craft. “We cover everything from super super basic stuff to really really advanced stuff in all categories of photography,” Knight says.
Editing a large-scale website with more than 13,000 Twitter follows is no small feat, so Knight has a staff of writers working for him worldwide who share his enthusiasm for (and knowledge of) photography. “I have writers all over the world,” Knight says. “I have writers in India, Portugal … I have like four or five writers from the UK. People from everywhere.” Knight says Phototuts+ makes it easy for him record his thoughts about photography “in a way that isn’t random.” He also uses his material on Phototuts+ when teaching introduction to photojournalism classes. In particular, Knight uses his articles about ethics and photo essays.
“It helps a lot in intro for sure,” he says.
For now, Knight says his “main gig” is editing Phototuts+, though he mostly sees himself as an educator who does photojournalism work on the side. But he says he is content with that. “I think academia is not a bad place to be now,” he says. Knight foresees changes in the future that will shape the journalism community and how journalists operate. For example, he says there will be more freelancers in the future than there are now and he says journalism will become more integrated with colleges, meaning journalists will start finding more work as professors.
“We’re still going to be doing journalism,” he says. “Just like there are science teachers who teach one class and then do research the rest of the time, I feel like there are going to be journalists who teach a little bit and then do research, which is, like, actual journalism.” This is already happening he says, just not on a large scale. But Knight remains optimistic about journalism, even while his contemporaries have their concerns.
“Here’s the thing about photojournalism, right, and journalism in general: everyone says it’s dying. Dyiiiiing, uuuuuuugh, we don’t have jooooooobbsss,” he moans like a zombie. “But, it’s gonna move somewhere. It’s gonna get done by somebody.” And academia is where he says journalism is heading. “Not as a whole, not ever as a whole,” he qualifies. But heading there nonetheless.
Knight also sees photography and photojournalism as trades similar to carpentry and masonry. They require a very particular set of skills – skills that, in the right set of hands, can create the perfect family portrait or convey the true despondency of famine. Knight says even photojournalists who actively work for newspapers shoot weddings and senior portraits on the side, and most of the money he makes from his photography comes from those side jobs. “There’s always work,” he says. “You can always make money.”
Between Women of Hip Hop, Gray Collared Jobs, Dick Cheney, a drowned body, spot news, wedding photography and Liana, Knight has seen more than most people see. And out of everything he has seen there is one photograph Knight says is unforgettable. It is of a grandmother crying and covered in blood while clenching her granddaughter in her arms, who the grandmother accidentally ran over with her car. Knight shot this photo early in his career and it clearly shaped much of his work. While he likes taking pictures of “weird people doing weird things,” Knight is also able to capture these intense moments of grief and in doing so, cause people to reach deep inside themselves and touch what is visceral and human in us all. By shooting the portrait series of Liana, Knight is spreading awareness about childhood cerebral palsy which may lead to more charitable donations that help Liana and other children with this disorder. But the camera geek is humble. He says he learns just as much from his photo series and essays as his subjects (like Liana) benefit from having their pictures taken:
“They always do more for me than I do for them,” the camera geek says, smiling.