Henry and a friend’s dog, Dutch, in a classic Norman Rockwell-style slice of Americana photo. “It is a moment I will cherish forever—a reminder of a time when Henry, my youngest child, was a carefree cherub,” David says.
Embracing traumatic life experiences, David LaBelle captures quiet moments and humor in pictures
David LaBelle knows first-hand how grief can shape a person’s life. He also knows the power a positive mentor can hold over an unruly teenager. He has used both grief and teaching as cornerstones of his professional photography career.
David has been employed at 20 newspapers and magazines in nine states since 1967, and is featured in this magazine. He has taught at four universities—despite only having a high school diploma—and seven of his students have earned Pulitzer Prizes for photography.
He describes his body of photography as a combination of “human and humor,” and says that to be human means to have extremities in both joy and sorrow.
“Often, humor and sadness are on display at the same time,” David says.
The Student Years
Looking at his list of professional accolades, it may be hard to believe that in 1966 David nearly became a high school dropout. He says three people were truly instrumental in his life.
“My mother was my matrix,” he says, “and there was my high school photography teacher, Denning McArthur.”
The third person was Margaret McKean, a news reporter with the Ventura County Star-Free Press from 1969 to 1979.
Raised on a 10-acre farm in Oakview, California, David loved learning and says he was curious about life. However, sixth grade meant change in the form of a bus ride to an urban school. The city school was a place of turmoil. David had to take to his fists in a “hit-or-be-hit” lifestyle.
“That was a hard time for me as a kid,” he recalls.
David’s hands still bear scars from those years.
He had attended fewer than 40 days of education his sophomore year at Ventura High School when a school truant officer finally caught up with him.
What had he been doing? Mostly hunting and hiding out in the hills, but also taking photos with his mom’s Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera.
David says about the only thing that kept him coming to school at all was the chance to walk down the hallway near the photography classroom and stare at work displayed on the walls.
Photography class was popular, the waiting list was long and David was a troubled student with a poor track record. School officials told him there was no way he would be allowed to enroll.
Seeing her son struggle was hard for Jeannette LaBelle, says David. In secret, Jeannette sought out Denning, the school’s photography instructor, and begged him to take on her son.
“He told me 25 years later what she’d done,” David recalls. “He said, ‘I couldn’t say no to her. I had 300 other people waiting to get into class, but she pleaded for her son.’”
Once enrolled in Denning’s class, David says his life as a student changed.
“Photography gave me a reason to get up and go to school—it gave me a voice,” he says. “I wasn’t a good writer or speaker. In this way I could show what I felt.”
David’s grades improved and he became a focused student.
Denning’s class was more than a photography basics tutorial.
“He read to us about the Vietnam War,” David explains. “He taught us that life was first and photography was second.”
The Big Flood
David was a 17-year-old high school senior when devastation hit Ventura County in January 1969. The skies poured and the rivers flooded in monumental proportion.
The LaBelle home was completely lost as San Antonio Creek rushed through it. David, his mother, younger brother Steven, sister Susan, and two neighborhood friends, John and Cindy—who had spent the night—were tossed into the current. David’s father—separated from his family when he went to his nearby Quonset hut garage—was clinging to the roof of the structure when he was plucked to safety by a helicopter.
David watched as his mother was swept away by the current—one of 13 people who died in the flood.
“Each of us—except my mother—were rescued by helicopter, me being the last,” David says. “I almost drowned. I was barely alive.
“Watching my mother die—well, that was going to change me, of course.”
A day or two after the flooding, David recalls a news reporter calling his father, Charles LaBelle, and asking to speak with the family about their experiences. It was then that David met Margaret McKean.
“She was so compassionate,” he says of the woman who interviewed him. “She was professional, but she was so compassionate and I remember thinking, ‘I want to be like her. I want to be there to help (people at their most vulnerable times). I want to be a bridge for them. I want to be a comfort.’”
David returned to school and to Denning’s class.
“He never said much,” David remembers of the time, but Denning pulled David aside after class one day to give him a quilt and share a few quiet words.
The instructor’s steadfastness was an anchor for the grieving teen. Their friendship would continue for the rest of Denning’s life.
Survivor Turns Photojournalist
As David took stock of his life after the flood, he realized this event and the people most influential to him would be a platform for his life focus.
“I thought, ‘I want to be a teacher like him, and a journalist like her, and I want to have compassion and see the best in people, like my mother,’” he says.
David took a job with the Ventura County Star-Free Press and began his career as a photojournalist while still in high school. Like many aspiring photographers, he yearned for recognition.
“When I was younger, like anybody, I was hungry for awards,” he admits.
David began earning them. His first professional award came at age 19, when he received the National Press Photographers Association’s Region 10 Photographer of the Year Award. He captured the award the next two years, too.
“Suddenly, I was in this national spotlight,” David recalls. “I went from Ventura as a real hot shot.”
He yearned for a Pulitzer Prize, and took news jobs in some of the hardest-hitting areas in California, including Ontario and San Bernardino.
“Both cities were violent,” David says. “I think during my first week in Ontario there were eight people killed.”
Burnt out, he took a job doing manual labor in the California oil fields. David realized he was not making a difference, so he resumed his photojournalism career, spending a year at a paper in Anchorage before returning to California. When the newspaper in Goleta folded, the ownership group offered him a job as a reporter/photographer at a paper in Kansas.
“After a month or so, it was clear I was a far better photographer than reporter or writer, so they made me their first full-time photographer,” David says. “I’ve always been a kind of brush breaker. I’m going to go through the stickers and break a path.”
Becoming a Teacher
About this time, David realized his professional focus had changed.
“Twenty or 30 years ago I decided I was going to be a better teacher than a globetrotter photographer,” he says. “I also wanted a family. That was a choice I made, and I wouldn’t change it. In my life, the greatest thing that defines me is that I am a connector.”
Throughout his news career, David always taught photography on the side.
“I was a year out of high school when I taught my first class,” he says.
A conversation with the photo editor at The Sacramento Bee changed his life.
“He was from Western Kentucky University, and he said they needed a photo teacher there,” David says. “I didn’t have a college degree, but he convinced me to interview for the job anyway.”
David landed the job at age 36. Western Kentucky had created the first Photojournalist in Residence program in the country, recognizing work experience was equal to a college degree.
“The students were so hungry,” David says. “They asked so many questions. We turned that sucker around.”
He went on to instruct students at the University of Kentucky and Kent State. In 2016, he began building a program at a university in Florence, Italy.
David feels deeply that he made the correct choice balancing his talents.
“A friend once told me, ‘David, since I’ve known you, you’ve always wanted to change the world—and you do that through teaching,’” he says, then chuckles. “I tell my students, ‘You are my epistle read by all men.’”
David has never stopped chronicling life through a camera lens—and he especially delved into it working alongside his students. He has worked on special projects featuring both homeless people and those in the final stages of life.
As a photographer, David says his greatest influences have been Jesus Christ and Norman Rockwell. He wants to showcase life and love through the everyday man.
David says that showing love through action is the most important gift he received.
He says he often thinks of the kid he once was, and hopes how he lives his life honors those who helped him.
Today, David travels the country hosting photography workshops. He covers basic questions about using a camera, but his focus is how to connect with a subject.
“It’s the human connection that’s at risk of going extinct,” David says. “We had better take time to preserve what’s important.”
For David LaBelle’s perspectives on photography and life in general, visit his blog, bridgesandangels.wordpress.com.