Mario Wezel Is the 69th College Photographer of the Year
The first-place winner discusses telling stories that matter, including the challenges of a family dealing with Down’s Syndrome
It was 4 am in Germany when Mario Wezel got the call that he placed first in 69th annual College Photographer of the Year, and he let it go to his voicemail. The second attempt woke him up, and when he saw that it was an American phone number, there was a moment of panic and disbelief.
“I didn’t say anything for the first ten seconds. I was mumbling at one point and kept asking if she [director Rita Reed] was really serious. At that point I was wide awake, it was too crazy to believe it,” Wezel says.
College Photographer of the Year, known as CPOY, was founded by Cliff and Vi Edom in 1945. The highly regarded student contest often acts as a “who’s who” roster of young photographers. As of 2005, the contest winner is awarded with a coveted internship at National Geographic, and a jumpstart to their career. If you look at the resumé of one of today’s successful working photographers, it’s not unusual to see a CPOY award on there from years past. Notable alumni include Patrick Witty (1996), the director of photography at WIRED, Matt Eich (2006), and Chad A. Stevens (1997).
Wezel, currently a student freelance photographer in Hannover, Germany, finds it hard to believe he’s joining those ranks. The only reason he was able to attend the University of Hannover for photojournalism was because another student dropped out. The portfolio Wezel applied with barely squeaked by.
Wezel first became interested in photography he was 15 or 16. In a story familiar to many photographers, his parents didn’t use their camera, so he just adopted it as his own. His earliest images were of his friends.
In his final year of high school, Wezel was looking for part time job, and asked the local paper if he could take pictures for them on the weekends. Wezel shot everything a normal staff photographer would cover: sports, politics, portraits, etc.
By the time he finally graduated from high school, he missed the deadline to apply to photo school. One of the staffers at his newspaper fell ill, so Wezel ended up taking his place and working at the paper full-time for nearly a year.
According to Wezel, everything he knew about photography prior to this point was “just practicing.” It was at his job that he learned how to tell stories with his pictures.
One of the most intimate narratives in Wezel’s portfolio is “One in Eight Hundred,” the story of Emmy, a Danish young girl with Down’s Syndrome. Wezel started the story as his final project at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, but was warned by many not tell a story about Down’s Syndrome. It had been done before, so why try?
“For me it was a different story,” he said.
In 2004, Denmark implemented prenatal screenings, resulting in a dramatic decrease of children born with Down’s Syndrome. According to a Copenhagen Post article from the summer of 2011, Denmark “could be a country without a single citizen with Down’s syndrome in the not too distant future.”
Karina and Martin, Emmy’s parents, were given a low risk of 1:800 at their screening. “Emmy was just the number one”, they told Wezel.
Wezel met Karina and Martin through an organization that connects parents of children with Down’s Syndrome. He wrote them a letter explaining why he wanted to tell their story, and in a week, they invited him to coffee. No busses were running, and Wezel, not exactly flush with cash, rented a car.
“I gathered the last pennies I had just to get to know them,” Wezel said.
The connection was immediate. After coffee, he came over the next morning to go with the family on a small trip to a farm. And according to Wezel, “it felt very natural.”
“I can’t just sit in the corner and wait for something to happen. It felt very normal to be playing with the kids and chatting with the parents,” he said.
After their initial meeting, Wezel spent about 3 months with the family on a regular basis. He still keeps in contact, and they try to see each other at least twice a year. At the time of this interview, he had plans to see them within the month.
“I’m visiting friends, y’know, its just not working on a project. It’s people who matter to me and I matter to them”
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