Independence Day: The birth of a photographer

This week we celebrate the Fourth of July because it’s the birth of our country. Me, I celebrate the Fourth, but with another reason in mind. The Fourth of July marks the start of a new chapter in my life — you could even venture to say a new birth. Let me explain.

To tell the story, let’s go back to 1986. A gallon of gas is $.89, The Oprah Winfrey Show debuts nationally, A Ford Mustang costs a $7,452 and every kid in the country wants a Nintendo NES. Meanwhile, I am seriously struggling in the sixth grade at Vanstory Hills Elementary School.

To say I had a hard time in school is an understatement. I just didn’t seem to grasp things as easily as my friends did. Two years earlier, I received part of the answer — dyslexia. This learning disability was the reason I experienced difficulty when learning to read and interpret words and letters.

I was placed in special ed courses, had tutors and got additional help from my mom after school. They all tried to encourage me, but school felt like a waste of time; the more effort I put in, the more it felt like I had failed.

I remember being angry and now, looking back, I realize that I did not appreciate the effort that everyone put into cultivating me into the person I am today. One teacher especially — Michele Loiselle. She tried everything she could to spark my interest in learning. I didn’t even want to go to school, let alone go to her class. Years later, I now see how hard she worked to help me learn …and how much I resisted. Through all this she persevered, and the anger inside of me worked to resist, but one day that all changed.

Mrs. Loiselle "Atta Boy" award to Christopher English

Mrs. Loiselle invited a friend to class — Cindy Burnham. Cindy was a staff photographer from the Fayetteville Observer-Times. She shared a slideshow that gave a glimpse into what it took to be a photographer.

As I sat there viewing her pictures, the gears in my mind started to churn. But the pictures were just part of it. Cindy’s stories of what it was like to take the pictures lit the spark that Mrs. Loiselle had been working so hard to ignite.

For a kid who had trouble learning, the idea of taking pictures and telling stories without words took over my mind. For the first time in a while, I was not angry about being different. I started to work harder, and the fact that it took more effort to learn the same things my friends got so easily did not make me mad anymore. This was the beginning of embracing my learning disability and starting to see my future.

Soon the school year ended and summer began. At home, I must have talked and talked about Cindy’s visit. And, to my surprise, my dad actually knew Cindy and must have let her know what an impression she had made on me.

Thursday, July 4, 1986, I got the call that changed my life forever.

Cindy called and invited me to tag along with her on a real newspaper photo assignment. To this day, I still remember riding in her Toyota Celica to the assignment. Cindy drove fast; I had never ridden in a car that actually passed other cars.

We arrived at an Independence Day Celebration. I thought I was merely going to watch Cindy take pictures, but Cindy had more in store for me. As I sat in her car, she got her cameras out of her trunk and when she returned she handed me a Nikon FM2. Cindy then spent time teaching me how the camera worked. She taught me everything from loading film to setting the exposure and how to focus.

Soon, I was walking around the festival watching her every move. I remember her urging me to watch people and take pictures of them celebrating the Fourth of July. Finally, I felt special for a different reason than I did in school because I was finally learning something at normal speed. It felt right — I felt normal.

We were at the festival for a little over an hour, but it felt like all day. At the end of the day Cindy processed our black and white film. She showed me my roll of film and my pictures were better than I thought. Cindy selected an image to print. The next day the newspaper published my picture and for the first time ever my name was under a picture in a newspaper.

Not only did that day change my life, but so had the effort all my teachers and mentors had put into opening my eyes to see past my learning disability. I just needed help finding something worth learning.

If you see someone who is interested in what you do, please take the time to inspire them. A short time with them could help open their eyes to what is possible — and might even change their life.

Thank you to all of the teachers and mentors who helped me see my future.

I’m proof that teachers and mentors don’t get the recognition when they deserve it. I’m sorry that I did not truly recognize you when you were working so hard. Special Education teachers: Michele Loiselle (Vanstory Hills Elementary School), Florence Edwards (Hillcrest Junior High School), George Graham (Terry Sanford High School).

The entire Fayetteville Observer–Times photography staff took me under their wing and helped me to become a photographer. Thank you to: Cindy Burnham, Ken Cooke, Johnny Horne, Marcus Castro, Steve Aldredge, Dick Blunt, Cramer Gallimore, Jay Capers, Swane Hall, and Bill Shaw.

Chris English, photographer

Chris English is Co-founder and Director of Photography at Tigermoth Creative. He has a passion and an expertise for visual storytelling that allows him to notice the small details of a shot that add depth and emotion, a rare ability in the marketing communication world. He brings to life a full narrative that captures the very essence and energy of any organization.