Last week Ohio University student Brad Vest was selected as the 66th College Photographer of the Year. He also placed first in the competition's documentary category for his series on Travis Simmons, who he met in 2009 on the day Simmons was released into home confinement from a West Virginia state prison.
“It has come a long way from there,” Vest says. “These past two years have been about him trying to get past the mistakes he’s made and create a steady life for him and his children.”
The University of Missouri administers the annual contest to recognize student photographers around the world. Judges this year reviewed the work of 721 students from 132 colleges and universities in 21 countries.
“It’s just an honor to be chosen,” Vest says. “And to be able to put those photos in a place where more people can see them.”
He says the photos tell a story that’s all too familiar in rural Appalachia, where prescription drug abuse runs rampant. He has spent countless nights in Simmons’ one-room camper along the Ohio River, watching him struggle to break off old ties and stay out of trouble.
“It’s sort of come to a point where I’ve known him for so long that when these issues come up, I’m so accepted in his life that I’m almost supposed to be there,” Vest says. “I built that kind of relationship through time and just through being completely honest about why I’m there.”
Simmons’ probation is set to end early next year, and Vest plans to turn his story into a book for his master’s project.
“Obviously I love a lot of the photos and the story meant a lot to me,” Vest says. “But not nearly as much as just being able to keep in touch with Travis and watch his daughters grow up and see how he has changed.”
- Brett Roegiers, CNN