Matt Lester is a photographer for higher education institutions across the country. He works with quite a few Canto customers, like the University of Redlands and the University & College Designers Association (UCDA). We had a chance to chat with Matt about the exciting journey that led to his love of documentary storytelling!
Hi Matt! Can you tell me a bit about your background and what you do?
My background is photojournalism – right out of college, I worked at a newspaper. I wanted to work on projects that were more in-depth, like magazine and editorial photography, so I transitioned into doing freelance work. My wife is a writer, so we would team up on projects and be able to provide both the writing and the photography.
One of our clients was an international relief and development agency based in Pennsylvania, and the director of communications wanted to do National Geographic type storytelling. My wife and I got to work on projects where we had a week to study women’s issues in, for example, rural Bangladesh. We would live in a village while photographing and writing about daily life there.
The agency had an opening for a full time writer, and my wife got the job, so we moved to Pennsylvania from Texas. When we were living in Texas, I did some work for a graphic design firm that had higher education clients, and I realized that photojournalism and documentary storytelling translated well to higher ed.
In the northeast, there’s tons of colleges and universities. It was the market I could delve into and tell those stories. So, now I’m a photographer specializing in work for higher education, specifically student recruiting, admissions, material, fundraising and advancement.
That’s an incredible story! Do you have a favorite place you’ve been or project you’ve worked on while abroad?
I’ve been to Afghanistan a couple of times and that’s one of my favorite places to travel. It’s beautiful and people are so hospitable and friendly. The last time I was there was about three years ago and we were photographing a girls education project in some rural villages.
A lot of the things I’m photographing on these trips are education projects, which have been a fun way to give back and capture education at a very different level. The kids are hungry to learn and see education as a way to make their lives better.
If you could only photograph one thing for the rest of your career, what would you choose?
I really enjoy capturing interaction between people. On campuses there’s the serendipity of running into things happening. I’ll walk through the library or student center, find this great group of students and ask if I can photograph for 15 minutes while they’re studying or hanging out. The atmosphere of a university is energetic! People are excited to be there, they’re learning and they’re having a good time. There’s so many stories just happening, it’s a great environment to work in.
Since universities have transitioned to digital learning environments, how do you stay inspired?
We live in a colonial city that’s been around since the mid-1700s with all these compact neighborhoods. My wife had the great idea of walking every block in the whole city, so we ordered a paper map and just started walking. It’s been really cool because it gives me a creative outlet to focus on architecture and street photography. We’ve lived here for 15 years and it’s like we’re traveling in our own town. We’re seeing new things that we hadn’t seen before, like details on buildings and color palettes. When you’re driving by and moving really quickly, you just don’t notice those things.
Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?
Photographers tend to get typecast for doing a certain kind of work or subject matter. It’s important to figure out what you want to photograph and focus on that. From there, build a client base and get known for your subject matter. I feel like I stumbled into doing higher ed work and realized, ‘Wow, this is a lot of fun. I really enjoy doing this.’