The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards program gives awards for individual works as well as portfolios. Today, we get to hear from Benjamin Bear, winner at the national level of one of the Scholastic Art & Writing Portfolio Awards. Portfolio submissions are accepted from 12th graders from across the nation. Each portfolio contains eight works selected by the student to represent their body of work. Out of over 7,000 submissions, only 16 are chosen for national Gold Medal. The Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, the sponsor for the Awards grabbed an initial interview with Benjamin (who goes by Benji) in March shortly after the awards were announced. Now that Benji has had a chance to process winning at the national level, we’ll hear from the high school senior about getting into photography, developing an eye for captivating photos, and what it means to win at the national level.
Here you go, from photographer Benji Bear:
When I first auditioned for the Creative and Performing Arts Program (CAPA) at Auburn high-school, photography was not on my radar. I, like everyone else, followed the program, however, around the end of the first semester sophomore year, I started showing my art teacher some photos I had been taking on my way home from school with my iPhone camera. I don’t remember her exact reaction, but it was something along the lines of, “Yeah, you’re doing photography from now on.” I was surprised by this, considering we didn’t have a photography program (or any photographers to create one, really). I was the guinea pig, and my art education was made up of mostly separate assignments from everyone else, getting constructive feedback from my teacher and the art class, and taking lots and lots of photos outside of the classroom. Essentially, it included a lot of trial and error, but I loved it, and somewhere mid to late third quarter, I bought my first DSLR camera.
Up until recently, I shot with a Pentax K-30 and the standard 18-135 lens that came with it. I used this camera for everything, including all the photos in my Scholastic Portfolio. After finding out I was awarded one of the Senior Art Portfolio Gold Keys, I uesd the money I had been saving up from selling photos, various awards, and jobs to upgrade to the Pentax K-S2, the 100mm F2.8 WR Macro Lens, and the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art Lens.
When I first started taking photos, I took photos of what I thought I was supposed to: I thought to be an accomplished photographer, you had to get the golden sunset photo, the close up of the flower, and other staples of photography you see online. This quickly bored me. I found I was much more drawn to things not typically seen as perfect. For example, I would much rather take photos of a house that was on the verge of collapse than photos of the ideal-looking house. Likewise, my AP 2D Design concentration portion of my portfolio junior year looked at the relationship of mankind’s creations with nature and how even the sturdiest of structures end up being encompassed by its natural surroundings. Most of my photos included something degrading, and I found that kind of cognitive dissonance through photography much more appealing than standard idealistic photos.
Since then, I’ve branched out to taking photos of people, but my aesthetic remains the same. Instead of taking photos of imperfections in nature and manmade constructs, I document the imperfections of society. My Scholastic Portfolio is composed almost entirely of portraits that show the emotions of people ignored by society and share common themes of containment, neglect, and ‘cold-shouldering’. I seek to document what people often choose to overlook, and, in the case of my Scholastic Portfolio, I seek to document unrest, both personal and external. I paint an imperfect picture, but that is what, I think, makes my photos worth not just seeing, but experiencing.
My favorite photo in my portfolio is a portrait of a kid looking out of his parents’ car window. He is looking straight at the camera, which was a surprise to me when I took the photo because he was originally looking sideways when I framed the shot, but by the time I released the shutter, he turned his face to look directly at me. I took this photo at a shipyard in the British Virgin Islands, and I was only able to get a few shots before the car sped away (another photo in the portfolio is actually of that same car driving away mere moments after I took this photo). I titled this “The Eyes of God” because I felt whenever I see this photo, I feel like I should be ashamed of doing something bad. It gives me the feeling of restlessness my conscious gives me after doing something wrong. “The Eyes of God” is one of my favorite photos I have ever taken and is the product of everything working just right for one photo.
Winning at the national level was a huge shock. Initially, I thought I had messed up somewhere in my submission because a week before the awards were supposed to be release, I got an email from Scholastic saying they wanted to call me and talk about my portfolio. For days leading up to the phone call I had scheduled with them, I played out every potential bad scenario of why Scholastic was calling me. So, when they congratulated me for being one of the 16 Senior Art and Writing Portfolios out of 7000 submitted portfolios, it came as a huge surprise. Photography has always been really personal for me, and I keep taking photos because of the personal satisfaction it gives me. I’ve never taken photos for or because of awards, and winning such a prestigious award doesn’t necessarily make me like photography more than I did before, but it does serve as an incredible validation in my abilities as a photographer. It’s boosted my confidence and the feeling that I have something worth saying. To me, this award represents the concept of achieving success from working hard at something purely out of love and passion for it.
A lot of my photos are taken in the moment and don’t require tons of planning beforehand (how could I know there would be a kid posing perfectly out of a car window when I went to the shipyard in the British Virgin Islands?). I’m currently experimenting on taking photos in a studio-style environment where I can control all the elements of my photos. These photos require a lot of thought and planning beforehand and allow me to experiment with camera functions that I previously ignored (using a flash, lighting, long exposure, etc.).
Photography and art will always be a huge part of my life. Taking photos is not just simply another art medium, but a way in which I look at the world around me. It’s something I couldn’t ever give up, even if I tried. However, I do not want to depend on photography for my livelihood, and I plan on majoring in Chemistry at the University of Michigan LSA Honors Program this fall. I have already found several photography classes I plan to participate in at Michigan and am excited to take photos around Ann Arbor and Detroit.
I am extremely excited for the scholastic national ceremony at Carnegie Hall and am really looking forward to getting to get to know so many talented high-schoolers. I’ve already looked at/read many of the awarded works, and I can’t wait to be able to meet the people behind them. I think it will be a weekend that I will never forget, and I am extremely grateful to Scholastic for giving me this opportunity and opening so many doors for my future.
From everyone at the Belin-Blank Center, congratulations to Benji Bear and good luck with all of your future endeavors!