At a school like RIT, fourth year Photojournalism major Tom Brenner's presence is definitely necessary.
That may seem like a pretty overzealous statement, but interacting with Brenner on any scale reveals what makes him so instrumental at this school. RIT students tend to keep their collective noses to the grindstone, plugging away at a seemingly endless stream of assignments and applications. Brenner, while certainly nothing less than busy himself, manages to capture those rare moments of explosive action and subtle inaction that lie in between the busywork. Soft-spoken yet articulate, Brenner's somewhat laissez-faire aura makes him approachable to his subjects and subtle enough to exist on the periphery of his stories. His creative and journalistic eye is remarkable, and his photos demonstrate a skill far beyond his age and help make him one of the most influential and skilled sports photographers at RIT. Talking to Tom, however, one can tell that he is focusing his talents on a much larger scale.
"Many people tell me that my job is easy because I just 'push a button,'" Brenner says.
"Telling a photographer he made a great image because [of] the camera equipment used is the equivalent of telling a chef he made a great meal because of the pots and pans used to make the meal. This profession is important because history is captured every day."
Brenner has his mother to thank for introducing him, albeit a bit accidentally, to the world of photography.
"My mother introduced me to photography when she gave me a disposable camera at the age of 5," he said. "The gift was not for any special occasion but rather to 'babysit' me, and I was hooked on photography after the first few dozen roles of film were developed."
It's the kind of story one is used to hearing from up-and-coming musicians and painters, just not photographers. Photography is the kind of medium that lends itself to images of people deliberately choosing it as a field of study rather than stumbling upon it through their parents. It fits with Brenner's narrative, though, which is a down-to-earth guy who just happened to find something that he was really good at. Although his introduction to the world of photography was accidental, Brenner's been honing it down to a science ever since coming to RIT.
"I think I later discovered what I could create through the journalism medium," said Brenner. "I could have taken courses in fine art photography or advertising, but I wanted to incorporate a little of each into journalistic, documentary-style photography. I’ve always had a passion for news and sports, so journalism fit well."
This passion for news and sports is something that is clearly evident in Brenner's work. He has been able to successfully marry both of these pursuits while interning at the Albany Times Union this past summer and while being one of the most prominent sports photographers at RIT. This, needless to say, has led Tom to capture some awe-inspiring moments on and off campus.
"The most striking thing I have ever shot was the image of a man lying in bed while on hospice care," said Brenner. "His family is seen laying on his bed consoling him just hours before he passed away."
That's not to say that Brenner's profession doesn't allow him to have some fun on the job as well.
"The best experience I have ever had shooting was going on assignment for my internship at the Albany Times Union where I was assigned to cover a hot air ballooning festival in Ballston Spa, NewYork," he explained. "In a last minute decision, I was flagged down by a balloon crew from Quebec, Canada just in time for a sunset flight. Once I jumped into the basket, I realized that none of the crew spoke English. After we hit a tree coming down, the crew treated me with champagne, since it was my first time flying. Afterward, my mother was furious. I forgot to tell her I was going for a ride."
A profession like photojournalism ebbs and flows, and Tom has had a king's ransom of negative experiences while out shooting as well.
"I was escorted out of the Steve Aoki concert in the fall of 2013," said Brenner. "I was verbally told I could shoot in the pit for the first three songs of the show. [The College Activities Board (CAB)] had said nothing regarding my presence photographing hundreds of hyped-up teenagers in the crowd. Granted, these photos had nothing to do with Aoki showing up in the pictures. After taking several crowd photos, a swarm of rent-a-cops [took me outside] and escorted me out of the Field House. To this day, I am apparently banned for life from shooting any CAB-sponsored events."
Brenner has amassed a great deal of photojournalistic experience during his three years at RIT. Through that experience, Brenner has seen the best and worst sides of his chosen profession, often simultaneously. With that in mind, Brenner expressed a desire for change within the industry.
"I would definitely increase the average wages that photojournalists have traditionally earned in the past," he said. "Times are tough, and staff positions are rapidly decreasing with the times."
Despite this somewhat bleak although fair sentiment, Brenner still heavily encourages those even remotely interested to pursue photojournalism as both a profession and an art form. The pay may be unreliable, and, as Brenner puts it, you may have to spend a good amount of time "out in the bitter cold," but the results can be almost life-affirming if you put all that you have into it.
"Go to the TR section of the library and learn. Check the news every day. Take video courses. Take business courses," said Brenner. "Life begins where your comfort zone ends."