Photographer Wagner Shines a Light, Honors Others with His Camera

BVU alum Andre Wagner has spent one month on campus, mentoring students and sharing his story and passion for photography. His residency culminates in a photography exhibit chronicling his time in Storm Lake.

The path to national acclaim for street photographer Andre D. Wagner, a 2010 Buena Vista University graduate, started with a nasty bump.


“I had a tryout for the NBA’s Development League,” Wagner says to a group of students in Lage Communications Center on the BVU campus. “I came to BVU because I was recruited to play basketball. I’d played basketball for years and that’s what I wanted to do.”

He didn’t make it. And, for a time, it devastated the Omaha native.

“Trying out for pro basketball and not making it taught me that I really didn’t do everything I should to prepare,” Wagner says. “I knew what failure was at that point and it gave me a seriousness. It gave me a trigger in my brain, letting me know I was capable of doing something at a high level.”

It wouldn’t happen for a few years, but the seed had been planted, a seed that one day turned a former all-conference collegiate basketball player into a street photographer whose images and words have been broadcast on CBS This Morning and in publications such as The New York Times, Vogue, The Cut, The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, and more.

“Gordon Parks saw his camera as a weapon against racism and poverty. Since learning that, I’ve had a camera in my hand ever since.”

Andre D. Wagner

Wagner currently shares his story with students while shooting photos in and around Storm Lake, preparing to open a self-titled exhibit, “Andre D. Wagner: Reflections in Storm Lake,” which opens at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 14, in the Art Gallery at BVU’s Social Sciences & Art Hall. The exhibit, which also features several New York City photographs that helped Wagner gain national recognition, is open to the public and will be showcased until mid-November.

Wagner is a visiting Artist in Residence, whose monthlong stay supported by BVU benefactors combines education with artistry, a sharing-as-he-shoots stay in Storm Lake.

“I took photography because I thought it was an easy elective,” Wagner says with a laugh, describing for Photography 101 students his mindset as he sat in their place 16 years ago. “I quickly found out that Dr. Bruce Ellingson (now-Emeritus Professor of Digital Media) had other ideas. The class was difficult. The process was fascinating.”

Wagner sighs and smiles, then adds, “I think I got a C.”

It elicits a chuckle from Dr. Andrea Frantz, BVU Professor of Digital Media, who shares with the class that Wagner has recently come from shooting photos on the set of “Respect,” a film documenting the life of Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul.”

Andre Wagner works on his photography on BVU's campus.

Wagner majored in social work at BVU. With the athletic accomplishments as a guard on a three-time conference champion basketball team in his wake, Wagner spent time as a fifth-year senior finishing courses needed to graduate. He also worked at Faith, Hope & Charity, and did an internship serving Buena Vista County Juvenile Court Services.

Following his graduation and basketball tryout, Wagner applied for graduate school at Fordham University in New York City. He earned admission and headed to Manhattan, intent on earning a master’s degree in social work.

To make ends meet, he worked in a photo studio for two years. While the compensation for his work was satisfactory, Wagner felt unfulfilled, and disliked the idea of “being tethered to a computer and taking shots of products.” After a downturn in the economy, he was laid off.

A blessing in disguise? Yes.

Wagner began to act on his passion. During his off-hours the previous two years, he’d been attending photo exhibits and studying the works and lives of great photographers. A book about Gordon Parks, the first Black photographer whose images graced pages of Life Magazine, Vogue, and more, consumed his thoughts.

The former athlete began walking in the city 15 miles per day while snapping black-and-white images of people in their natural element; the neighborhoods, streets, subways, and storefronts.

“A street photographer needs a great camera, but also great shoes,” he says with a smile. “I’d take photos of kids going to school and then I’d eat early so I could capture the hustle and bustle of lunch. I’d shoot all day, develop and make prints all weekend. I did that for six years.”

His eyes and feet found him in positions where others dared not go. An empathy often associated with social workers permeated his work. A young Black man presented other Black children, and men and women in positions of vulnerability, curiosity, fear, and promise.

The New York Times invited him for a portfolio review, which led to assignments shooting portraits for The Times, one of the world’s leading media entities.

“Sitting in this room as a BVU freshman in Photography 101, I didn’t envision making photos like this,” he says.

Wagner’s silver gelatin prints show a Black teen whom Wagner has followed for years. Other shots depict Black children enjoying friends, skipping happily hand-in-hand along crowded streets. Another image freezes silhouettes of children turning cartwheels in the city’s sprinklers.

“This is sociology work,” Frantz says as members of her class examine images amid their questions. “Your subject (the teen Wagner documents) is moving in these images from being a carefree child to a teen who is now becoming self-conscious about how he looks.”

People have summoned the police on Wagner as his camera clicks. He’s received his share of nasty looks and admonitions. He’s been rejected hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times.

“I won’t photograph anyone if they don’t want me to,” says Wagner, whose wife is fellow 2010 BVU alum Lindsay Peoples Wagner, Editor-in-Chief of The Cut in New York City. “I’m not trying to make people angry. At the same time, I wouldn’t get great images if I was timid.”

His images caught the attention of CBS News producers in the wake of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis in 2020. Producers invited Wagner to share his photos and thoughts in a four-minute piece on the national show. Within the essay, Wagner describes how a construction worker saw Wagner shooting photos near what was once “The Secret Garden” in the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood of Bushwick. The construction worker picked up an iron rod and pointed it as he would a gun, laughing while “aiming” at Wagner.

“The guys made a joke out of my life just after George Floyd was killed,” he says.

The episode left an impression that continues to shape this photographer’s real-world immediacy, his message, and his belief that others will be seen and treated with understanding, with compassion, as whole persons.

“Gordon Parks saw his camera as a weapon against racism and poverty,” Wagner says to a gathering of BVU’s Student Association of Social Workers. “Since learning that, I’ve had a camera in my hand ever since. In my way, I am shining a light so that others may be seen. It is a gift that people let me into their lives. I want to honor people and be a voice.”