Will Okun Essay

Let's not mince words: I am charismatic, handsome, muscular, stylish, articulate, hilarious, intelligent, tenacious and innovative. Oprah wants me on the show, non-profits are desperate for my endorsement and young people hang on every word I speak.

Or not.

But as far as I know, the above-described rapper/mogul/semi-philanthropist Jay-Z (who also recently hosted the well-received MTV documentary "Africa: Water for Life") is not a fully accredited high school teacher and is thus ineligible for this amazing opportunity.

Which is where I enter the picture. Not only am I a high-school teacher of good-standing in Chicago, but I am also in possession of the unique perspective that Nick Kristof seeks.

Nearly every day after school, I go to students' houses to shoot photographs of the students with their families and friends. Since our school, Westside Alternative High School, is located in one of the lowest-income communities of Chicago, there is ample opportunity to photograph the poverty which seemingly envelops their lives. SNAP, a picture of a child sleeping on a mattress without sheets. SNAP, a picture of drugs and guns unhidden on collapsing couches. SNAP, a picture of another teenage mother handing her child to the grandmother for a "minute." SNAP, a picture of a young teen violently playing with a malnourished animal. SNAP, a picture of a 12-year-old boy in dirty clothes and no familial support who has no chance for money but to join the gang. SNAP, SNAP, SNAP!

But I do not take these pictures. These pictures have already been taken. Book after book, exhibit upon exhibit depict only the poverty and misery of the current black community in America. Unless you happen to live or work in a black community, it is likely that blacks are perceived by the majority of America as either extremely poor and sad (from the media and photographs) or extremely materialistic and gangsta (from rap music and videos).

Instead, I seek to capture the happiness and joy that can occur in everyday moments and the beauty that exists within every person, regardless of their income. Most importantly, I try to produce unique portraits that capture the essence of each person. Secondly, I want the people to be happy with their own photographs. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than going into a student's house and seeing my framed pictures on the walls. Lastly, I hope my photographs offer another perspective of black American teenagers that is largely inaccessible to the general public. (My photographs are posted on my www.wjzo.com Web site, which receives over 30,000 views a week from all over the world.)

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Big-time congrats to Will for penning a winning essay for the chance to join New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (and one other winner) on an all-expenses-paid trip to Africa. Will is one of my Chi-town homies and also happens to be the best photographer you may have never heard of, unless you’ve seen his killer Players’ Ball spread for Vibe, which undoubtedly won over Kristof for good.

It wouldn’t be shocking to see Will’s photography show up, well, anywhere — but to catch his name while scrolling through my Google Reader (scanning the Times’ newsfeed) came as a total surprise.

Will’s professional qualification for winning is his status as a teacher at Chicago’s Westside Alternative High. Congrats, Willy! (Will Okun’s photos are here, his winning essay is here).

Kristof’s Win a Trip contest spawned out of a 2005 editorial in which he called out to Bill O’Reilly to accompany him on a trip to Darfur, and later asked readers to contribute and sponsor it. To nobody’s surprise, O’Reilly declined. The NYT later launched a Win a Trip With Nick Kristof contest which was won by Mizzou Journalism Master’s student Casey Parks (See her NYT blog).

Another thing I just realized is that TimesSelect is being offered free to .edu e-mails — one more thing I can take advantage of before my graduation in a couple weeks. I can finally re-subscribe to the Op-Ed podcasts! Any other tip-offs on good ol’ student discount action so I can get ’em while I can?

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