Published: Aug. 21, 2020 By

Ross Taylor didn’t have to review his camera’s screen to know that he wasn’t getting the portrait he wanted.

It was the spring of 2010, and Taylor, then a photojournalist at the Virginian-Pilot, was covering a historical re-enactment in Norfolk, Virginia. 

As he tried to photograph a young boy, he knew there was potential for a great image––if only he could get his subject to relax. Even from a distance, he could see the boy’s jaw was clenched, a dead giveaway, Taylor says, that someone is uncomfortable. So on his third attempt, he opted for an approach he’d never tried.

"I asked the father if he wouldn’t mind standing with me," says Taylor, now an assistant professor in CMCI’s Department of Journalism. "I immediately watched the boy’s face begin to relax."

The striking portrait he ended up capturing––a child with freckled skin, dramatic blue eyes and strawberry hair tucked beneath his top hat––landed on the front page of the next day’s paper. It also set in motion the launch of Taylor’s blog and workshop, both titled The Image Deconstructed, which have brought together countless photographers throughout the years. 

Last spring, this work was recognized by the National Press Photographers Association, which named Taylor the winner of this year’s Clifton Edom Award, honoring the individual who most "inspires and motivates members of the photojournalism community to reach new heights."

Taylor’s own photography is intense and often delves into delicate topics. In 2011, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work documenting a trauma hospital in Afghanistan.

His recent projects––a documentary called The Hardest Day with Luke Rafferty and a photo series called "Last Moments"––capture the intimate bond between people and pets by documenting the at-home euthanasia process.

Earlier this year, "Last Moments," was featured in publications including The Washington Post, Daily Mail, People and Buzzfeed––where it was viewed more than 1.5 million times in a single week. The Hardest Day is currently making the rounds in at least a dozen film festivals throughout the country, including as the Best Documentary Long at the American Golden Picture film festival, which people can purchase tickets to stream throughout August.

"I find great purpose in human connection, and that has always been a driving force for almost all that I do," Taylor says. "I think connection and community are important because I lean on those to enable me to have more purpose and meaning in my life."

Early in Taylor’s career, however, it was the absence of community that most shaped him. Though he recognized that many of his early images seemed "forgettable," he says, he struggled to find the resources he needed to improve their quality. 

The groups he did find were devoted to helping photographers hone the more technical aspects of their craft––such as composition and lighting––and often felt unwelcoming and limited in scope, he says.  Few, if any, provided community or focused on softer concepts of photojournalism––story, character and meaning––which have ultimately made the difference between good work and great work throughout Taylor’s career, he says. 

"I think a lot of what we do may at some level be an attempt to resolve something within ourselves from an earlier experience," he says. "I didn't feel like I had the resources and support that I was looking for coming up."

Over time, Taylor learned to use what he calls "predictive behavior" to elevate his images. By mentally cataloging his subject’s behavior throughout a shoot, he was able to correct his own technique accordingly––as he did during the early shoot for the Virginian-Pilot

This is the process that helped Taylor start turning images into compelling stories. And once he figured it out, he wanted to share it with the world. 

In 2010, Taylor launched his blog, The Image, Deconstructed, where he, and other photographers would take a photograph and examine the "mental approach" behind it. The blog’s first post is his own experience from the historical re-enactment. Today, it features over 200 entries with interviews from photographers detailing their own story within a story.

As he’s built this community online, he’s taken it offline, too.

In 2015, he started a now-annual workshop by the same name. Its purpose, he says, is rooted in the "care of the individual" who comes to the workshop.

"There might be people who are really shy people, who are quiet––people who don't have a lot of resources," he says. "I want to create an environment––led by people who are at the top of our field––who look out for those who may not have as many resources as others. That was important to me."

The workshops have taken Ross’ career and work full circle, allowing him to finally create the community he was seeking all along. 

"I like being creative and I like sharing people's stories––and I care deeply about others," he says of the workshop. "This is a good way to have a connection with them."