WKU alumni shares life experiences on storytelling and photographing celebrities

Chris Stanford, filmmaker and commercial photographer based in Atlanta, speaks to WKU’s photojournalism students and faculty on Tuesday March 26.

Jake Dressman

A former photojournalism student and current photographer gave a presentation Tuesday night in Jody Richards Hall, talking about his life and recent work in photography and film.

Chris Stanford, who graduated from WKU in 1997, has worked with celebrities including Serena Williams, Drew Brees, Fall Out Boy, Migos and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“If I’ve worked on any craft, it’s the craft of being able to connect with people,” Stanford said. “Spend time with people, and be a human being yourself.”

He added he is not the best photographer, but said people want to be around others with an infectious passion for what they do.

He graduated as a photojournalism major from WKU and landed an internship at the Washington Post immediately after, which turned into a year‐long contract as a freelancer.

He then worked for a suburban Chicago newspaper for two and a half years before deciding that he didn’t love the newspaper world. He moved back home to the Atlanta area, where he did freelancing work for four years, shooting local and national football games, as well as NASCAR races and golf.

“I was on the road for over 200 days a year,” he said. “I had little kids then, and that was just a grind.”

He said he “saw the light” when he went to a conference where photojournalist Alex Webb, said “I am not a journalist. I am an artist.”

“That just really freed me,” Stanford said. “I began to embrace that I’m not a photojournalist, I’m a storyteller.”

Now, the minimum pay Stanford said he accepts for a job is about $10,000. He said he has no problem talking about money because of his “super poor” background.

“The fact that I could even go to college is a miracle,” Stanford said.

Stanford directs commercials and other promotional material for companies including Pepsi and Little Caesars Pizza, and also takes portraits for musicians, artists and athletes.

When he got a job from the Rolling Stone magazine to shoot a possible cover for Fallout Boy, Stanford said he was told to find a place where the band can have a good time.

“I had this great idea: I’m gonna rent a gun range for skeet shooting, bring coolers of beer and get a bunch of food,” Stanford said. “This is gonna be so much fun.”

However, when the band got there, they told him they were all against guns and sober.

“This was the most un‐rock and roll photoshoot of my whole career,” Stanford said. “But, you still gotta connect with him.”

Stanford ended up taking the picture they used for the magazine cover, even though things didn’t go as he had planned.

Mission, an athletic apparel company, paid Stanford to go and train with athletes and document their training regimen in the process. He worked with Serena Williams and Drew Brees on this project.

“Man, she was fierce,” Stanford said about Williams.

Stanford also does work for Pepsi, who sponsors Dale Earnhardt Jr. He said he developed a close friendship with Earnhardt Jr., and he has continued to work with him on various projects—including an upcoming feature film.

Stanford credited his classes at WKU for many of his success, especially a class he took under former photojournalist‐in‐residence Jack Corn. He said in every single pitch he makes to a company, he talks about one of the first assignments he was given in Corn’s class.

“One of the stories Mr. Corn gave every year was the farmer story,” Stanford said. “He said, look, if you can gain enough trust to get into a farmer’s kitchen before his cup of coffee at 5:30 a.m., then you can get into any room, anywhere in the world the rest of your career.”

Broadcasting major Casey Warner said he originally attended for extra credit, but he left impressed by Stanford’s message.

“Chris is a very driven individual who showed me that a big part of your career should be not only the technical aspects but making connections and building relationships with clients and co‐workers who can further advance your career down the road,” Warner said.

News reporter Jake Dressman can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected].