Emmy is on a trip with her brother Kristian and her Grandmother. After playin in the forest for a while she cools down her feet in the lake. She looks through the clear water on the ground of the lake and explores the water very slowly. (From the story “One in Eight Hundred”)

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.

A man walks through the hall of the city hall Bremen, the venue of the 470. Schaffermahlzeit. He is followed by his assistant. (from the story ‘Men Only’)

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.

Guenther Wallenhoefer is an organic farmer from Italy’s northern most province South Tyrol. He lives in the small town of Laatsch where he has been fighting together with other activists against the heavy use of pesticides by local apple farmers. The area is one of the biggest connected fruit cultivation fields in Europe. Pesticides threaten the harvest of the few organic farmers in the valley. The strong winds often blow the pesticides from the neighbors onto their fields. In August of this year a referendum in the town was held, initiated by Mr. Wallenhoefer and his colleagues. 75% of all inhabitants voted for a ban of all pesticides in the farming area of the town. At the time the portrait was taken, the future of Mr.Wallenhoefers organic farm was still unsure since it was before the referendum. The positive outcome might shine much further than just his region in Italy but throughout all of Europe, since this is the first time that a town has voted like this in the European Union. (From the story “Sin Began With Marlene”)

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.

Niels Calundan stands at a traffic light in the town of Bad Hersfeld, Germany. The red light shines in his face. Mr. Calundan is a Danish businessman who travels often to Germany to strengthen his connection to the German market. He is on the road a lot and driving hundreds of kilometers each day when he is in Germany.

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.

Karina is holding Emmy on her arm in the evening hours of a long summer day. The sun is still shining warm through the window and Emmy enjoys the comfort of her mother. Emmy enjoys the physical closeness. Even with strangers, she often hugs them without knowing them. (from the story “One in Eight Hundred”)

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.

On the way back from shopping in the next town, Karina pulls over at the side of the road and starts to play with the kids in the green cornfield. Kristian is more than one year younger than his sister but they are about the same stage of development. (from the story “One in Eight Hundred”)
It is Emmy’s fifth birthday and the grandparents are visiting for brunch. While Karina is chatting with her father in law, Martin holds Emmy in his arms. Both seem to be drifting away with their thoughts. (from the story “One in Eight Hundred”)
On the way back home, Emmy stares out the window into the danish countryside as daylight fades. (from the story “One in Eight Hundred”)

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 a long day Karina and Martin sit on their couch and watch TV. They both work a full job but manage to spend a lot of time with their kids. While one of them takes the kids to kindergarten, the other goes to work early to come back earlier and pick the kids up.
Emmy is playing hide and seek with her father. The two of them went to a small lake while Karina and Kristian went to the city to see a movie at the cinema.
While playing in the house with her brother and her mum, Emmy fades away in her thoughts for a short moment.

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”

Karina just woke up Emmy. The wall is sprinkled with light reflexes from the pailletes of Karinas shirt. In 2004, around 60 children were born with Down’s Syndrome in Denmark, the number sank due to national screening policy down to 21 in 2012.

Wezel estimates that he will graduate in Jan. 2016, and is to start his internship at National Geographic this spring, barring any visa complications.

All photos by Mario Wezel

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