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National Geographic photographer leads high school workshop
20140617-Joel Sartore
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Michelle Delgado
Joel Sartore shared anecdotes about his Photo Ark project during a tour of the Downtown Mall.
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by Michelle Delgado | Tuesday, June 17, 2014 at 10:13 p.m.

School is out for summer, but that didn’t stop 30 local high school students from waking up early this morning for a day-long workshop with National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, the artist whose work has adorned trees on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall since May. 

The workshop was underwritten by LOOK3, which also provided students with free tickets to Sartore’s presentation at the Paramount Theater on Wednesday night. Students were nominated to attend by their photography teachers and came from 10 local high schools.  

“All around me, I see that the world is so pretty,” said Lydia Eisenberg, a rising junior at Albemarle High School. “I want to share that with people.” 

She hoped that Sartore’s feedback during the critique would help her to shoot better photos.  

In his opening presentation, Sartore offered insight into career. He remembers being made fun of by a college classmate who had traveled extensively to snap exotic shots of markets in Bangkok and Panama. 

“I didn’t have the money to do that,” Sartore said. “So I thought, we have good stuff here in Nebraska.” He showed students a slideshow of his early photos, which captured demolition derbies and rodeo cowboys showing off scars. 

Sartore encouraged the students to investigate everything around them, emphasizing that a powerful photograph results from strong technique and a good eye. 

“It’s not that big a leap from here to National Geographic,” Sartore said. “There are as many great pictures to be made in Charlottesville as there are in Ethiopia. If you can make great pictures here, you can make great pictures anywhere.” 


After a tour of the Trees exhibit displayed on the Downtown Mall, students were instructed to capture a portrait of a stranger at close range. They wandered the Mall, searching for willing subjects in stores, restaurants, and on the street. 

One man pulled off his tank top to allow a student to photograph his tattoos. Another student crouched near a homeless man, snapping a photo from his eye level.

Victoria Hindley, executive director of LOOK3, hoped that students would connect with the deeper story behind Sartore’s Photo Ark project, which documents animals at risk of extinction. 

“We love how beautiful, whimsical, and magical the photographs are, but they tell a very serious story,” Hindley said. 

Sartore saw the high school students’ social media savvy as an asset to his brand of activist photography. 

“When you graduate from journalism school, you’re taught to be objective,” Sartore said. “But I’ve seen so much environmental degradation that I knew I needed to act. I don’t tell people what to think, but I do want to get them thinking.” 

Throughout the day, Sartore encouraged students to identify a social or environmental issue with local importance.

In the classroom, Charlottesville High School photography teacher Rachel Zahumensky Wilson has seen photography inspire new ideas.

“By the end of the year, students learn to have the confidence to talk about images in front of people,” she said. “They’re seeing images out in the world and viewing things more holistically. Photography pushes their boundaries.” 

Lisa M. Draine, LOOK3 festival manager, hoped the workshop would help students see new possibilities. 

“I think it’s just a great way for young photographers to be inspired by a master natural history photographer,” Draine said.

At the end of the day, Eisenberg came away with new tips for improving her photos. 

“I thought it would be really stressful,” she admitted. “But he was really nice and down to earth. I definitely learned how to take better photos.”

Tickets are still available for Sartore’s talk at the Paramount Wednesday night. 

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