By Elaine Laps
KENT, OHIO – At the age of 15, an old Minolta Maximum 7000 was his camera of choice, but only because it was all he could afford and Grandpa would accept installments.
The first pictures came back blurry, too dark or too bright.
But the young man kept going, and this year Haraz Ghanbari, graduate of Kent State University, is the National Press Photographers Association’s National Student Photographer of the Year. The award tops an already impressive list for Ghanbari, including last year’s Ohio News Photographers Association’s Student Photographer of the Year.
The eight-year journey from blurry to award-winning photography has been documented every step of the way. Ghanbari has gathered so many clippings from freelancing for local papers to interning for the Associated Press that it would take a long, rainy day just to flick through them all.
As it should, each picture tells a story — and as a collective group, the pictures show that Ghanbari has experienced more than the average 23-year-old.
"I’ve been around the block a few times," Ghanbari said. "In this business you’re exposed to a lot of things and it eventually gets to you."
From fatal crashes to house fires that claimed lives to capturing people burying their loved ones, Ghanbari has been there camera in hand. Experience has taught him that the value of a good picture is not just in the graphics, but in the emotion captured.
"I use my camera to connect to my subject — like a catalyst for human emotion," Ghanbari said. "Some people treat their subjects as objects, but I like to think I’m at least compassionate toward mine."
Growing up, Ghanbari used to watch tapes of journalistic photography with his father, also an awarding-winning photojournalist, and sometimes he would see his father cry as the images played on screen. As a child he wondered why, but as a man entering the professional world of photojournalism he empathizes.
"Sometimes when I’m taking pictures of families who are sad and crying, a tear will roll down my cheek," Ghanbari said. "This job takes a certain type of person."
As well as working for AP and The New York Times, Ghanbari has worked as a military journalist. He signed up for the Ohio National Guard at the age of 17 and in 2001 spent six months in Bosnia as the official photographer for a two-star Army general.
Whether it’s his military training, his father’s influence, or his passion for capturing pictures that cause people to think, Ghanbari will stop at nothing to get the best shot.
At 15 he rode his bicycle to the scene of a crash on the interstate by his house, jumped the fence, and boldly told the police he was with the press. This past summer while covering the trial of the Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, he broke away from the herded media, set up his tripod on top of his car on the other side of the street, and captured the shot of the day.
"Editors don’t want to hear excuses of why you didn’t get the picture — they want to see the picture," Ghanbari said. "That motivates me."
As a graduate fresh out of Kent State, Ghanbari knows he has a lot more to learn, and he appreciates the freedom his professors gave him to learn through experience.
"My professors were receptive to my last-minute calls telling them that I had to miss class because The New York Times needed me," Ghanbari said. "They realize that completing an assignment in the field is more than I’ll learn in a classroom."
Although he has a wealth of experience and fine tutoring, Ghanbari still believes that he is not above unfavorable assignments. "You learn being a grunt, you learn getting crappy assignments, and you learn getting great assignments," he said. "I’m still young. I still have a lot to learn."