Interviewed by: Sophia Gourley ’19
SG: I had a chance to look at your Web site and seems like you’ve had a really successful photography career. What got you interested in photography in the first place and how did you get your start after graduating from Trinity?
LW: I actually started it while at Trinity. I went to college without any idea of what I wanted to focus on there or what I wanted to do after graduation. A typical 18 year old! I was a very good student academically, and my father knew Trinity had a good reputation for engineering and liberal arts. One of my roommates showed me how to use the darkroom my freshman year, and I loved it. At the time, the only way to use the darkroom was to work for the Tripod. I signed up for the Tripod, thinking I would just be helping someone. But Steve Pearlstein, the editor, handed me ten or twelve rolls of film and said, “develop these prints.” I stumbled through it, and kept going. I ended up being photo editor junior and senior year. I got an internship at The Hartford Times (an afternoon daily at the time) and learned on the job. There was no structure like internships have today. I think it was in the beginning of my sophomore year that I decided that photography would be my career. But there weren’t many photography schools around. I stayed at Trinity because I was in a relationship, I had many friends there, and the climate there made it the place to be.
When I first got to Trinity, I thought I might be an engineer, largely because my dad was an engineer and he suggested it. He’s a refugee from Germany and very practical in that regard. I took some engineering classes and did ok, but I had zero interest in it. It just wasn’t for me. I took a couple of art courses with some strong professors, and I loved them. I realized I had the personality type and the drive and motivations of an artist. Dieter Friesen was the guest artist at Trinity then, and was a mentor to me. I took a film course with the guy who started Cinestudio as well. It was a bohemian time, and Trinity was an open minded place. It still had a strong preppy culture too. But looking back, the campus climate allowed me to grow up. Coming to Trinity was a big change for me. I was at the top of my class in high school, which was a public school in Virginia, but at Trinity, the prep school kids were way ahead of me in terms of how they work, etc. It took me about a year and a half to figure it out, and get back to being a straight A student. I came to political science as a major because my mom had majored in it, so I took some courses and found it interesting.
SG: I agree.
LW: I liked that I could also take courses outside my major and explore a bit. I remember taking a class with a Professor Jacobson and having these intellectual disputes in class. Just a great back and forth. It was good for the mind. At the time, I didn’t like him much, but now I realize I was learning something. College was hard for me, but it helped me learn how to work and how to work with people. It’s all part of the experience. I’m a member of the House and Senate press photographers gallery as a freelancer. I’m not a researcher or a political theorist, but I have more appreciation of what I’m trying to photograph. I think I have more appreciation of the dynamic than someone who went to photo journalism school. It helps me when I do independent stories because I have a bigger perspective. My time at Trinity created a world view and a method of thinking and work habits that paid off later.
SG: It’s interesting how you were able to find your passion for photography at Trinity, not through your coursework, but through the Tripod.
LW: Yes, and I also worked on the yearbook. The art department at the time was not supportive when I tried to do an independent study in photography. I don’t know why. I’m a photojournalist/fine art photographer, but I didn’t know the language of art until I left Trinity. It taught me to be highly motivated, but I did have some holes in my knowledge and some technical issues. I was able to take some courses at an art school in DC later. I eventually got a Masters in photography. I had to write a thesis for that and the writing I had done at Trinity prepared me well.
SG: What’s your greatest accomplishment since graduating?
LW: That’s a hard one. Probably being a grandparent. Professionally, I would say some of the books I’ve done. I’m working on two or three more. One is a project I’m doing in DC. I have a contract with Wesleyan with a writer in Jerusalem, that’s a multi year project. A lot of the work I’ve done has been involved in community building. I used to mentor an inner city kid in DC through a photography program for homeless youth. We met when he was 11 (he’s 42 now, I think). At the time, DC was the murder capital of the country, and my mentee lost four relatives in one year. Because of that I started photographing street memorials and homicide sites.
SG: Oh, wow.
LW: My mentee is doing well now but it did a number on him. I’ve been documenting those memorials for 16 years now. It’s turned out to be very meaningful for me and parts of the community that are suffering. There’s no money in it, but it seems like the right thing to do.
I’m working now on a new documentary. I led a team documenting part of Arlington County, which was one of the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the country. We’re studying how a community that values diversity of all types copes with the pressures and changes they’re facing.