PICTURE/SHOW: Kyle Vass on taking his best shot

By KYLE VASS | june7.2021 | WestVirginiaVille.com

A little over a year into my work doing audio journalism, I realized every story, regardless of what medium it’s being told through, needs pictures. Every time an editor would ask me to get photos, I’d agree, reluctantly. Having neither a game plan nor expectations, I’d pull out my iPhone at some stage of my reporting on a story, futz around, and think to myself: “Eh, this isn’t great. But, it’ll probably do.”

Between uninspiring smartphone pictures and clip art, I think most reporters (who aren’t photo-journalists) don’t worry about it too much. But, I worry about everything too much. 

When I took my worries to lifelong friend and renowned photojournalist, Lacey Johnson, I learned it only took about $500 and a few hours of learning how to use a DSLR camera and I, too, could make my photos not look like shit. I was reporting on an episode of the podcast “Us & Them” at the time, about surviving homeless during COVID-19, and thought I’d give it a shot. 

That story led me to realize photography was going to be something I’d be incorporating into every story from then on. But it also created a bit of an obsession.

Currently, I still shoot on the Nikon D700 I bought to shoot photos for that “Us & Them” episode. I can not recommend it enough for someone just starting out or for professionals. It’s relatively cheap and renders colors better than any other DSLR I’ve seen on the market. I also shoot on a Nikon Z6ii, but use it mostly as a backup. Eventually, I’ll use the Z6ii to shoot documentary work. 

If my foray into journalism has taught me anything, it’s that you should feel free to jump into another medium, if you feel the call. I promise — your seemingly unrelated skill sets will transfer over from one format to the next, but only so long as you remember to keep your curiosity high and expectations low. 

Children remember KJ Taylor

Kyle Vass photo | may2021

These kids came out for a block party to remember the life of KJ Taylor, an 18-year-old shot and killed on the West Side of Charleston WV on April 7, 2021. In the days following his death, a lot of young children showed up to remember him as a role model and standout athlete. This photo was edited by Lacey Johnson. 

The World’s Hairiest Angel — and a Guy

Kyle Vass photo | may2021

This was my first attempt at staging a shot. I was shooting on a medium format film camera (Hasselblad 501cm) and wanted to make it count. I had a handsome model, Matt Rowe, a cool dog, and beautiful scenery. So, all I had to do was not screw the settings and hold the camera steady. The dog’s name is Nina and she has her own Instagram: instagram.com/worlds_hairiest_angel. So does the model: instagram.com/bigcitychickens.

Ron Sowell

Kyle Vass photo | may2021

West Virginia musical icon Ron Sowell, leader of the “Mountain Stage” band, was at a party where musicians were invited to jam. I took this shot moments before trying to keep up with Ron on my bass. It was shot from the chest, so I was lucky to get the composition and even luckier to get it in focus. 

Carmon Plante

Kyle Vass photo

When I went to interview Carmon Plante about her son, Joshua, being unjustly held and sentenced to life in prison, she told me she still had the clothes he was wearing the day he was sentenced in court. I didn’t realize until she walked back out with them that she keeps them neatly pressed and hung. When I was going through the photos, I felt like this composition emphasized him being missed in the house. 

Chan Vass

Kyle Vass photo

My mom didn’t have her mask or glasses on when I pointed the camera at her. She quipped, “Oh, you want to take my picture? Wait a second.” And then she put it on, mask intentionally over her eyes. She hates having her picture taken, but likes the way this one turned out. 

Danielle Walker

Kyle Vass photo

This shot of WV House of Delegates member Danielle Walker and her security guard was a bit of a fluke. I was holding the camera in the palm of my left hand and shooting with my left ring finger so that I could mic her for an audio story I was doing with  Crystal Good and Leeshia Lee for Scalawag. “This was a completely awkward way to hold and shoot. I didn’t have a chance to review any of the shots, so I was blown away when I got home and found this gem.”

Waiting Game

Kyle Vass photo

On Thanksgiving Day in 2019, I drove up to Charleston WV to see if I could find any unsheltered folks and talk to them about their experiences with homelessness in Charleston. That’s where I met Tommy. He and some friends were hanging out under and overpass. Over the next year, I kept in touch with Tommy, as he got rehoused and shared a lot of his personal struggles with me. Here he is waiting on an HIV test result at a harm reduction event on the West Side of Charleston WV.


RE/PRINT: Community Seeks Police Reform After Shooting On Charleston’s West Side: may52021: On April 30, Charleston Police officers shot a 33-year-old Black man, while attempting to make an arrest on Charleston’s West Side. The incident has left many in the community wondering why police resorted to shooting the man who had brandished a knife.

SOCIAL/MEDIA: Recalling a life ended too soon in WV’s capital city: april10. 2021: The shooting death of an 18-year-old student-athlete killed April 7, cast a pall over West Virginia’s capital city, as yet more senseless gun violence robbed a family and community of a bright light.

5 QUESTIONS: Kyle Vass on street-level addiction reporting & telling audio stories: dec62020: Multimedia journalist Kyle Vass on hitting the streets of Charleston WV to report on the addiction crisis and the art of audio storytelling.

DRAGLINE: Charleston, W.Va. officials dancing around police reform one year after beating of unarmed woman: july30.2020: This Dragline piece by Kyle Vass follows up on a Charleston Police Department incident in West Virginia’s capital city in October 2019, which has dropped from the headlines. The story has not received the sustained attention it deserves and this article helps fill some of that gap.

PODCAST | A Coal River Homeless Camp Tale of Survival: june17.2020: Homelessness is something most people see on a regular basis here in West Virginia. But what about the homelessness we don’t see? Kyle Vass takes us into a St. Albans homeless camp at the heart of community fight over their riverside existence.

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