The heart behind the lens

by Marlena Chertock, December 1, 2009

Do we have the power to create good in this world? Photojournalist Dave Labelle believes so.

On Nov. 18 Labelle came to Elon to speak about his professional journeys. The first half of the speech was mostly techniques, guidelines and how to improve photographs. Labelle suggested a few minutes of break before he set in on the next part. He needed that time to truly switch gears.

Labelle explained why he became a photojournalist and why he and his family have been on the road since early September.

“I believe good begets good,” he said.

He told a story of a month he spent shooting photos of homeless people in California. The Ventura County Star published the photos biweekly in a spot called “Hard Times.”

People would often call the newspaper asking to get in touch with the homeless person pictured, wanting to offer them a room in their homes, Labelle said.

Positive outcomes seemed to come out of unveiling the problem.

Labelle said he is trying to do good in this world, just trying to create “pictures with purpose,” as his Web site said. He said he thinks if newspapers show positive aspects every once in a while, instead of only the negative, the world could be better.

“I’m failing miserably,” he said, evidently humble of his efforts.

Much of Labelle’s philosophy came from a life-changing experience when he was seven. In January 1969, there was a flood in his hometown of Ventura County, Calif., and he and his family were trapped on the roof of their house. After this near-death experience, Labelle and several of his family members were saved, but his mother did not survive.

The day after the destruction, a reporter came to interview Labelle and his father. Labelle recalls the reporter being sweet and understanding. He said he wanted to be just like that reporter, to be able to help others in their tough times.

Labelle explained he wants God to look back on his life and say, “Well, he tried.”

I never thought such professions could have religious motivations. Often, giving a project or occupation a sense of religion gives it more meaning to people. This is what Labelle has found, and he is helping others with his talent.

Labelle used PowerPoint slides with sayings such as “It’s not all about me” to emphasize the need to help others.

Throughout his speech, Labelle encouraged the attendees to use their talent to make a difference. He said we have so much power — we only have to use it.

Of course, that’s not to say photojournalism or journalism needs a Christian motivation to be meaningful. People can find and give meaning to their professions on their own. That, after all, is the end goal of this life — to give life its own meaning, to find something to truly enjoy that gives existence significance.

Religion sometimes guides the way, but it is not always needed. As long as there’s an occupation that satisfies and it’s used to raise awareness of issues or to promote respect and humanitarian aid, Labelle would agree with the journey.

We must realize the world is a bigger place than what surrounds us. The world does not revolve around us and it is important to care for our global community.

As Labelle says, if more people act as bridges to a better world, perhaps more good will follow.