Sam Owens – Behind the Lens

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Sam Owens is one of the state’s most celebrated photojournalists helping to tell West Virginia’s story. She was recently chosen among Time Magazine’s 51 Instagram photographers to follow in 2016 and is featured in a new website that launched today, www.womenphotograph.com. This week, she joined us to talk about some of her work and what goes on behind the lens.

This is my cousin Macee Ours. I took this in Scheer, West Virginia in August 2015 outside of my grandparents house. I always bring my camera when I go visit my family in Grant County. They normally joke about it being surgically attached to my hand. Macee’s used to me walking around with a camera. She tends to ignore me most of the time, in a good way.

I think a lot of the time the best photos I take are of people who can pretend I’m not around or at least pretend that I am not taking photos of their every move. Outside of family, my job is to get people to be comfortable with me and my camera being around.

I worked with Andrew Brown on this story for the Charleston Gazette-Mail aboutCoalfield Development Corporation, a community-based organization that provides occupational training, life skills and higher education to young people in Southern West Virginia, while working to revitalize communities by tearing down abandoned structures or rebuilding homes.

I spent several days with the young men enrolled in the program, including the man in this photograph, Jason Warrix. Coalfield Development helped Jason get a two-year associate’s degree and it helped him get a good paying job with Service Pump and Supply in Huntington, where he works on diesel engines and other equipment.

This was taken outside of West Edge Factory, one of Coalfield Development’s offices. Jason is a guy who works with his hands and is a tough worker. I wanted to make a portrait that portrayed him that way.

This is my grandpa, Merl Ours. He passed away in June 2016. This photo was taken in August 2013 at his home in Scherr, West Virginia.

Every year, my grandparents would have a huge garden in the back of their home. When he was alive, my grandpa was always working with his hands. He never wanted to sit still. He always wanted to be outside. I would follow him around as he did his daily chores, and he let me photograph him. He would occasionally make a funny face at me and then go back to whatever he was doing. He was one of the first people to let me follow him around with a camera. I give him credit for helping me realize how much I could learn about people and life by photographing quiet, real, and slow moments.

When I took this photo, I first noticed the contrast between the yellow and the red watering cans he held. I took some photos of him full bodied, but I thought it was more interesting to focus on his half tucked in white T-shirt and his old pants that were usually covered in dirt and soil by the end of each day.

One of the best things about living in West Virginia, to me, is the foggy mornings and the fog that creeps through the hills after rain.

This is a photo taken of my grandparent’s garden from their bedroom window in August 2015. I was shooting this early in the morning before the sun came out and dissipated the moodiness.

This was taken in December 2015, right after Christmas. I was driving through Parsons, West Virginia, headed back to Charleston after seeing family for the holidays. I’ve passed these crosses so many times. And that day, I finally slowed my car down (don’t worry no one was around) to snap a photo through my car window with my cell phone.

This photo is a reminder to myself to stop and take photos of the things that constantly grab my attention no matter how rushed I feel. The ones that I normally barrel past as I am in a hurry to get from Point A to Point B. It’s so easy to drive by things and say “I’m going to go back and take a photograph of that later,” or to tell yourself “I’m too busy.” Sometimes, it’s nice to let yourself go by your instinct.

June 24, 2016.

As everyone knows, massive, deadly flooding hit West Virginia in late June 2016. As a photographer at the Charleston Gazette-Mail my job was to drive around and document the flooding scenes. On June 24, I was driving down Jordan’s Creek, in the Clendenin/Elkview area, with a reporter. We noticed a row of photos caked with mud were lined up on the hood of an old truck to dry out in the sun. We became curious and decided to stop. That’s when we met Kathy Bostic, the woman in the photograph above, trying to rescue things from her home, which had been severely damaged.

When I first approached her, Kathy didn’t necessarily want to be photographed. She kept talking about how there were people who were much worse off than she was. I decided to stay and chat with her for a bit as she carried muddied plastic totes of photos out of her house. She began talking about how much she loved taking pictures of her family as she was laying them out to dry in the sunlight. As a photographer who thinks old photographs are like personal treasures, hearing this made me start to tear up.

Right before taking this picture Kathy told me, “Everything else can be replaced, but lives and pictures can’t.”

This photo was taken in October 2016 at the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. I and my former colleague Anna Patrick spent a couple days at the schools to show what life is like for the students there. I took this photo during a day we spent with the School for the Blind’s first and second grade class. My goal for thisassignment was to make images that spoke to how these students deal with their blindness while also dealing with everyday kid stuff, like forming an elementary school lunch line.

I walked alongside the students as they were traveling to lunch and bent down to take photos at their level. When shooting in the middle of a bright, sunny day, the light can be distracting or overpowering. You have to learn how to play with the scene and make the light work in your favor. I am always looking for ways to play with shadows and the light to make the subject of my image stick out.

Sam Owens is a photojournalist based in Charleston, West Virginia. A graduate of Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication Photojournalism program, Sam moved to West Virginia in 2015 to join the Charleston Gazette-Mail as a full-time staff photographer. When she isn’t out on assignment, Sam enjoys hiking, petting cats, reading and hanging with her family in Grant and Tucker County.

You can follow more of Sam’s work on her websiteInstagram and Twitter.

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