Picturing Stories

Greg Kahn, B.A. '03, is an award-winning photojournalist.

January 04, 2010

By Menachem Wecker

Greg Kahn got his big photography break in the California Pizza Kitchen at Pentagon City. Mr. Kahn, B.A. ’03, had decided to stay on campus for the summer and was working at the restaurant. Chatting with some customers, he mentioned he was interested in photography.

“As soon as the words left my mouth, they gave each other a knowing smile,” he remembers. “They turned back to me and said they just so happened to work for National Geographic as photo editors.”

Two days later, Mr. Kahn visited the editors’ offices and presented his portfolio. They invited him to intern at the publication. He accepted, and the internship taught him a lot about the photo production process, he says.

Mr. Kahn had rubbed shoulders with National Geographic photographers before. As a senior in high school, Mr. Kahn was one of 10 students selected to attend a weeklong photography summit in San Diego led by National Geographic photographers. “Every day, we’d hear new speakers talk about their travels all over the world, the times they thought they wouldn’t make it and how good it felt to share others’ stories,” he says. “Having a world-renowned photographer looking over my shoulder was intimidating but such a valuable learning experience.”

Even this wasn’t the first time the ghost of Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson had been looking out for Mr. Kahn. Earlier in his high school career, he had gotten another big break, sort of. Many high school students have photographic aspirations, but Mr. Kahn had the initiative to convince the sports editor of the local weekly in Wakefield, R.I., to assign him to a high school baseball game. When the editor saw the photos, it was clear that Mr. Kahn’s wide angle lens was not long enough, but he told the budding photographer that he had a good knack for capturing the right action moments.

Saving up for the telephoto lens has paid off, and with the right equipment, Mr. Kahn, a staff photojournalist with the Naples (Florida) Daily News, has been recognized for his art. The National Press Photographers Association recently named Mr. Kahn its 2008 Monthly News Clip Contest National Photographer of the Year.

In 2008, Mr. Kahn won the association's monthly contest five times, scored second place twice in sports and in spot news and took third place one month in illustration.

Mr. Kahn attributes his photographic success to his time in Foggy Bottom. “My work today is heavily influenced by my experience at GW,” he says.

“People have said that my photography has a very strong design element to it, and that comes largely from the design classes I took at GW,” he adds. “One of my photography classes was simply photographing sandpaper with different film for a full semester. But after that class, I had figured out a method for producing spot-on exposures in my photographs, which now is extremely useful on tight deadlines at a newspaper.”

When he was applying to college, Mr. Kahn only cared about two things: photography and NCAA division I soccer. “GW not only offered both but had built very reputable programs in both,” he says.

He was invited to come to the soccer team’s spring camp, and he met with Jerry Lake, then head of the GW photography program. “After talking to Professor Lake for five minutes, I could see he shared the same passion for photography that I did,” says Mr. Kahn. “And that made all the difference.”

After college, Mr. Kahn attended a photo workshop in Kentucky, where spent a week photographing his first in-depth news story. “I was hooked,” he says. “I knew my career path was photojournalism.”

The workshop helped Mr. Kahn land a job as a photographer for the Independent Tribune in Concord, N.C. “I worked extremely hard at the Independent Tribune, because I had still had a lot to learn about the world of photojournalism,” he says. “I had all the tools from GW. I needed the experience of working at a paper.”

According to Mr. Kahn, there is a big difference between photography, which is picture taking, and photojournalism, which tells a story and works within a different ethical framework. “A lot of photographers will use Photoshop to manipulate images to make a pleasing photo,” he says. “Photojournalists cannot manipulate images, because we are trusted to tell the viewer the truth. We aren’t allowed to set up contrived situations unless it is a portrait and it is clear to the viewer that it is a portrait.”

One of Mr. Kahn’s favorite pictures he has ever taken is a portrait. On a trip with a friend to the Redneck Yacht Club in Punta Gorda, Fla. – a monster truck course where “they pride themselves on how much mud there is” – Mr. Kahn saw some fans jump a fence and run onto the course. “After they climbed back over the fence, I tracked one of them down and took a portrait of him, his face completely covered in mud,” he says. “In that photo, you could see his pride.”

Students are unlikely to find monster truck courses accessible for photographing in Foggy Bottom, but Mr. Kahn’s advice to aspiring photographers is to take full advantage of the city. “Washington has more to offer than any place I’ve come across,” he says. “It has all the free museums to study the great fine art photographers of our time. Being able to experience that on a regular basis is priceless.”

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