See his work at Shabanathuman.com
From a middle-schooler just looking for a place to fit in to a seasoned photographer, Shaban Athuman learned to tell stories through his lens.
Athuman photographed college athletics for the Associated Press and the Kentucky Derby for Getty Images. He won top honors in New Mexico for breaking news photography. Richmond Times Dispatch editors recognized his work was special. The staff produced a Sunday-edition wrap for its Virginia daily to showcase a photostory of his. Most recently, his imagery has appeared in the Denver Post.
These credits all belong to a guy who’s in college. But it almost ended before it even began.
As freshman at Salem High School in Virginia, Athuman struggled in a sea of 1,200 students. He was headed down the wrong path, and administrators suspended him for fighting. He didn’t fit in.
Not surprising for someone who spent his first 12 years in a refugee camp under the military protection of the Tanzanian government. His parents, originally from Burundi, fled from the civil war ravaging their East African country. He said his family had no defense from criminals who ransacked their encampment. There, his family witnessed neighbors robbed at gunpoint.
Immigrating to America was the right choice for them. But, life in the states took some adjusting and required Athuman to learn English, his fifth language. He had only taken a two-week course before starting seventh grade.
IN THE MIDDLE
Alone, scared and unable to communicate fully with his classmates, Athuman remembers the day he saw some kids with a magic black box. He recognized it from the encampment when relief workers visited and showed residents how they looked in the viewfinder. It was a camera, and until that day, he had never seen himself clearly. To him, it was magic.
Administrators asked adviser Nancy Page to accept the new student onto her middle school staff, because they knew with her family’s military background, she would watch over the quiet refugee learning his way around a new culture. Once she saw his interest in cameras, she made sure he was involved in assignments. She watched him eagerly attend events and gleefully snap hundreds of images. Not many of which were in focus.
But, she saw him try his best.
When high school staff application time came, Page asked adviser Katie Lewis to find a place for Athuman, knowing yearbook would provide a home for him.
The transition was harder than expected.
Missed assignments. Poor quality. Lack of effort. Lewis made the only decision she could. At the end of his freshman year, she took him into the hall and said she could not reserve a space for someone who was not contributing. Athuman pled with her. “If you give me one more chance,” he said. “I will never let you down.”
His editor-in-chief Austin Rakes pulled Athuman aside and talked to him about the difficulties of dealing with cruel people and actively choosing to see life’s positives.
“He saw if he lost yearbook, he would lose his dream,” Rakes said. “Even from freshman year, he knew yearbook was his ticket for what he wanted to do.”
She said photography was his outlet for expression.
“I couldn’t always find the words to thank people,” he told her, “but through photography I can show them.”
And it turned into more.
“It was special I got to see him from when he first came in as a staffer and struggled with writing,” Rakes said. “He turned to photography, and he changed. Even though English wasn’t his first language, you don’t need to speak a certain language to take beautiful, inspiring pictures.”
That summer, Athuman researched the owner’s manual of a staff camera, watched videos about settings and composition. He bounded into back-to-school staff meetings with thousands of images to satisfy a 10-photo assignment.
“He worked tirelessly and didn’t complain,” Rakes said. “Seeing all of his pictures and how proud he was of the work he accomplished, it still gives me chills just thinking about it.”
Through yearbook, Athuman learned photography is not about the events. And, even though he got a second chance, he realizes photographers don’t. Photography, to him, is about setting the stage and letting the actors act.
“My job is to understand people and their stories,” he said. “To empathize with them.”
As he readies himself for a career as a professional photographer and as offers from major, national news organizations roll in, Athuman knows where he got his start. When a yearbook family embraced the kid who needed a home, the zero who became something more.