Faculty Spotlight: Stephen Wicks Exploring Humanity Through Photography

The only current faculty member who has worked at Phillips Academy, Abbot Academy and the merged Phillips Academy, Stephen Wicks, Instructor in Art, had lived the entire life of a full-time photographer before arriving on campus over 38 years ago. Wicks’ photographic experience ranges from army photography to commercial photography to photojournalism, where he realized his passion.

Three weeks after graduating from high school, Wicks found himself in basic training for the army. At the time, there was a draft for the military, so Wicks had decided to enlist by himself right out of high school. Because of his deep-rooted fascination with Life Magazine, his admiration of Robert Frank, a Swiss-born photographer, seeing his visual arts teacher come alive in his high school dark room, among many other experiences with photography and the visual world, he decided to become an army photographer, where he shot everything from Public Relations images of people winning awards to taking photos of a murder scene.

The person who came to replace Wicks as an army photographer then connected him to a commercial photography opportunity in New York. After working for four years in commercial photography, Wicks began moving up the ranks and was eventually offered a deal by his boss–a deal that would set him on the track for a luxurious, glamorous lifestyle and mounds of money. After a week of deliberation, Wicks decided to turn down the offer in order to pursue his true passion of photographing people, photographing the truth about the human condition.

With photo essays on subject matter ranging from a polygamist society to gay and lesbian culture, in a time where matters of homosexuality were taboo, to an exploration of poverty in remote North Carolina, one Wicks’ objectives–both as a photographer and as a teacher–is to help people see a side of humanity that is not often exposed. He said, “What I would like to do with my photographs is awaken curiosity and interest in the viewers who would look at these photographs and want to know more about the world, to feel that there is a human side that maybe they haven’t connected with.” He added, “Of course as an educator, I would like visual texts of any kind to be more considered, to have young students today think more about what we are not seeing in the media.”

Despite his diversity in subject matter, however, there is one major theme that threads all of Wicks’ work together. “All of my work is about America,” said Wicks, “I’ve traveled around different countries, but I really don’t do photographic work elsewhere.” According to Wicks, this theme is one that many of his colleagues often lament. They often encourage him to photograph the rest of the world, but he said, “So many people, they say to me when they see this documentary work, ‘I had no idea this was going on in America.’” He added that while so many people love to travel the world, they realize that they don’t really understand their own country. “It says something about the era we live in too…there’s a whole industry dedicated to getting us on a cruise, or going to the Alps or something like that.”

Another theme in many of Wicks’ photo essays is that he drives usually drives to his destinations rather than taking planes. According to Wicks’ calculations, over a period of many years (mostly over summers), he has driven over 180,000 miles within the United States to take pictures. The road to his destination is important to Wicks. He said, “The driving is really to feel the country roll under my car, and the windshield there is like my viewfinder on the country, and I’m just watching this movie evolving in my own window.”

“Being on the ground, driving, working at a rate of speed or time which I have total control over…I might drive ten miles today because I met someone I had no idea existed, or I might drive 500 miles because I was just in an open landscape, my mind was somewhere else,” he said, “I have an opportunity to follow life and discover it along the way.”

Wicks even outfitted one of his cars in the 80s by replacing the backseat with a bed, so he could sleep anywhere. “This is not the kind of travel where you say, ‘I’ve got a reservation at the Holiday Inn 550 miles away in Peoria, Illinois,’ because then you are going to the destination and you’re going to put blinders on. If you are prepared to sleep in a tent or sleep in your vehicle, you are going to be able to be having the journey, rather than just arriving at your destination.”

A big part of Wicks’ essays on humanity is his immersion in the cultures he explores. He said, “[Photography’s] like a ticket to real life, beyond the superficial, beyond the surfaces you get deeply into people’s lives. The camera can be almost like an ambassador for you where you can go. You can follow your curiosity beyond your comfort zone, usually.”

In order to be allowed to explore, however, Wicks needed to make the people he wished to photograph comfortable. After visiting the area in North Carolina for the first time (he had been hired as a consultant to take a specific image about birth control in a poor, mountainous area), he said, “I spent about a week going around these back roads, being introduced to these people and I thought ‘I’m here. I slipped through a seam in the curtain and I’m coming back here.’” Wicks eventually moved to North Carolina for a period of about two years, living in a cabin, drinking water from a pipe from the mountain spring–immersing himself in the culture of the people he was researching.

Through all of Wicks’ experiences, he has found that people are generally willing to open up about their lives. He said, “Although there were a few awkward situations, more often than not, I found myself welcome in the lives of people because I found that everybody has stories to tell, and everybody pretty much enjoys telling their stories if they’re given the opportunity.”

In order to share his work, Wicks created a program of slides and an unscripted presentation telling the stories of the people he photographed. He traveled with this presentation, deemed “performance photojournalism” by a reporter in Toronto, to auditoriums throughout the country. It was this process that attracted Wicks to video, a medium Wicks hopes to continue with in his retirement, because with video, he could capture not only images, but voices and sounds of the places he went. Other future projects include putting his auditorium presentations into a DVD set, and a potential future project on poverty in America.

To find out more about Mr. Wicks visit his web site,, or take advantage of the time you have left with him on campus and strike up a conversation with the man.