How a Background in Social Work Made it Click

Andre Wagner, Class of 2010, has but an instant to capture his subjects in action. A certain emotion or reaction at just the right time and place. But not only does he use his artistic skill to create an image; he also uses his eye for reading people and situations, stemming from his lifelong dedication and empathy toward others.

Andre Wagner, Class of 2010, has but an instant to capture his subjects in action. A certain emotion or reaction at just the right time and place. But not only does he use his artistic skill to create an image; he also uses his eye for reading people and situations, stemming from his lifelong dedication and empathy toward others. His tools are an innate sense of place and a Leica 35mm film rangefinder, which together create intimate artwork of New York City residents found in black and white on gallery walls and pages of the New York Times.

Before Wagner turned his focus to the streets of New York, he spent his time on the hard wood. “I wasn't that interested in the arts when I was young, and I could have never imagined back then that I'd be doing this now.” Wagner says he had a “serious dedication” to basketball in high school and college, which led the record-setter to two IIAC conference championships as point guard on the men's basketball team. “At BVU, I was able to pursue my passion and figure out what I wanted to focus on academically, and that's how I fell into social work.” Wagner says that he's always enjoyed working with people and basketball helped him become a role model for youth in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. “Basketball really helped me at BVU as well, because I was the captain, and those leadership skills helped me feel like if I were put in an elevator with a stranger, I'd have the same great conversation with a CEO that I'd have with the custodian.”

Wagner, a self-described people person, continued social work at BVU. By his fourth year, he was a few credits short of graduating and found himself at a crossroad, choosing between continuing school for a fifth year or pursuing professional basketball. When he didn't make the Iowa Energy team in Des Moines, Wagner jumped back into his sociology courses and dabbled in a few of Dr. Bruce Ellingson's photography classes for a second major in digital media. “A black and white photography class was where I really learned how to use a camera and develop film. For an elective, it was so much work that I couldn't believe it was only three credits. But, it was obviously the start of something big for me.” After graduation in 2010, Wagner moved to New York to attend Fordham University to pursue a master's in social work. “I still wasn't thinking about pursuing art at this point, but by living in student housing and exploring the city, I was exposed to people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and culture, and a new way of life, which is what made it click for me. I found a way to use my social work background as an art form, and I completely changed gears.”

All of a sudden, New York had opened up new, unexpected possibilities for Wagner. He finished his first year at Fordham and took a job at a photography studio to completely immerse himself in the industry. Wagner began learning more about the photography medium, using his camera, proper lighting, and worked as an assistant and stylist for e-commerce products. Wagner began taking photos of people in his neighborhood and in public, crowded spaces all throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan. “I use photography as a visual language to engage with what's happening in America right now. I try to demonstrate that through my images,” he says. His background in social work helps him navigate spaces respectfully and he says that he is sensitive as to not invade people's space as he takes candids. “I'm sensitive to disturbing someone, so what I'm doing in photography is a different approach than most people take. I'm invested in the photography, the people, and I try to highlight that.” In addition to working with youth and families in his neighborhood, Wagner has also spent the past three summers teaching photography classes at a camp for underprivileged, inner-city youth. People watching the professional hone his craft may witness him adjusting his camera's exposure and working with natural lighting, but he also brings light to his own community- in black and white. According to Wagner, the inspiration that drives him is his first black and white class with Ellingson, where he learned to work with the two colors alone. Wagner's favorite photographer Robert Frank said, “Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.” And for Wagner, his passion is that personal storytelling and symbolism of which Frank spoke. “A lot of what first impacted me were the stories about life and the un-posed people out in the world. I try to feel like a part of what's going on around me to create books, or collections of images that tell a story,” he says.

One of Wagner's latest projects, a photo book, took three years to complete as he took photos of people coming and going and sharing space on the New York City subway. “Photography can be so impactful. We're bombarded with images daily, but photography is informative about culture in today's world.” He describes how as time passes, photography gives society a hard copy of the world as it once was, providing insight for the present and future.

Wagner's solo exhibit at Papillion Gallery in Los Angeles received an outstanding review in the L.A. Times. He has also showcased his work in solo and group exhibitions in New York, Paris, and Los Angeles. In addition to his upcoming column in the New York Times, some of Wagner's photographs have also been featured in New York Magazine, Business Insider, Feature Shoot, PetaPixel, and The Great Discontent.

Along with street scenes, Wagner is often hired to take portraits for publications, with subjects such as Usher, singer-songwriter Erykah Badu, Broadway star Keke Palmer, and actor Mahershala Ali. While Wagner recalls jamming out in his childhood bedroom to Usher, he somehow isn't star struck around celebrities. “It's so cool, but they're just like any other person, so I bring calmness to a shoot. It's like we're just hanging out and I know editors appreciate that from me.”

That same relaxed feel is mirrored in Wagner's workspace. One bedroom of his apartment has been transformed into a darkroom, fit with a sink, an enlarger, and other equipment granting him complete control of his work. “I like being hands-on with what I'm doing, and I'm dedicated to the long-term process from shooting the film, developing it, and hanging it up on my walls to find what works and what doesn't.” Andre says that working on the film himself keeps him sharp and on his own timeline.

From his tiny darkroom to secluded sandy beaches, Andre's work takes him all over the world, including Hawaii to photograph Sperry Top-Sider shoes for advertisements during Humpback Whale watching season. When taking a look at Wagner's Instagram, you may find an occasional color photo, but his followers typically see him using his talents to showcase real people in real settings, bringing out their real emotions through black and white film. Wagner's next project is a photo book filled with images that draw symbolism from his own life. He says, “For me, things in life are black and white. I'm either going to do something and give it my all, or not do it at all.”