For a look behind the lens, VCU photographer Kevin Morley shares ‘Photoadventures’ from his decades in the field
By Joan Tupponce
For seasoned photojournalist Kevin Morley, every situation and person photographed is unique, and that makes taking photos that tell their stories exciting and challenging.
“My goal is to accept whoever or whatever I am photographing and get images that are as honest as possible,” said Morley, a photographer for Virginia Commonwealth University Enterprise Marketing and Communications since 2017.
He likens taking pictures to being parachuted behind the lines into a situation.
“You don’t know what you will get when you land. It’s a visual puzzle,” said Morley. “I like trying to figure it out. I try to learn something from each job.”
Now he is sharing his perspective, in both pictures and words. His book “Photoadventures: Real Stories about Real Pictures by an Unfamous Photographer” was released in January and is being carried by Barnes & Noble (including its VCU bookstore location), Amazon and BookBaby. The collection provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of assignments Morley shot during 34 years on staff at the Richmond Times-Dispatch daily newspaper.
Morley’s first book, a 2009 children’s title called “The Stinky Pirate and the Princess,” featured layouts by nephew Kevin Groat, a graduate of the VCU Brandcenter. Groat also did the layout and cover work for “Photoadventures” and reworked the layout for the e-book version.
Family roots, vintage flair and a scientific mind
Morley’s love of photography is rooted in how much his father enjoyed taking photos on family vacations, and how his mother always tried to see the best in people. He tries to translate that humanity into his photos.
“If you can relate to an aspect of any of the stories in my book, then I have succeeded,” he said.
Morley initially wanted to be a writer, but the pull of photography was strong. At age 12, he discovered his first yard-sale camera – think, vintage Kodak Brownie – and continued to buy models, including an old Kodak bellows camera. He still has them: Most are stowed in boxes, but 20 favorites found a home in his office.
“In fact, I shot a few assignments for the Richmond Times-Dispatch with a Zeiss Ikon bellows camera that uses 120-size roll film,” he said. “My uncle gave me that camera when I was 16.”
Morley has always been drawn to composition, light and aesthetics – basic elements of photography that have layers of complexity and lend themselves to a scientific mind. (He said he considers himself a “science nerd” because of that.) His “lightbulb” moment about a career path came during a senior-year high school trip to Italy.
“I was discovering things, meeting people and photographing these situations,” he said. “I was sharing with people by showing them my photographs. I enjoyed that.”
Morley earned his degree in journalism from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he worked as coordinator of the renowned Pictures of the Year International Competition that is administered by the school. Photographer Melissa Farlow, who was a photojournalism instructor there, remembers Morley standing out.
“He was this upright, honest, positive person,” said Farlow, who lives in Pennsylvania and Oregon. “He was reliable and very professional. When I taught him, he stood out as someone I could count on to be a leader in class.”
Morley was also very confident and determined to do things the correct way, she said.
“He also had a quirky, spirited sense of humor, and I saw that in his new book – even in the pictures he chose and what he wrote about them,” she said.
Adventure and perspective from the field
After college, Morley joined the photography staff at The Times-Dispatch, where he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won numerous state and national awards. His work also appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Newsweek.
“Photojournalism is who I am, what I love very much,” he said. “I am passionate about it.”
Morley started writing “Photoadventures” five years ago, gleaning material from the notebooks he saved during his decades with The Times-Dispatch. “Many of the stories were rough drafts with notes and quotes,” he said.
Photographers often say their photographs are like their children: all unique in their own right, making it impossible to pick a favorite. Morley is no different, but he does have a few adventures he loves to recall – especially his assignment at White Tail Resort, a family nudist colony in Virginia’s Southampton County, where he had to embrace a clothes-free attitude while working.
“It was a bizarre story,” he said. “It’s a whole other world.”
Memorable for other reasons was a three-week trip to Africa for a story on Baptist mission work. Morley visited two large camps for refugees of the Rwandan civil war; Baptist missionaries were among many nonprofits helping the displaced. One camp was in Tanzania, and the other was in Goma, Zaire (since renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
“I spent a week in each camp and went by canoe into Rwanda on one of the days while in Tanzania. It was beautiful to see people helping other people,” Morley said. “What I took away from that is how people can give of themselves for people they don’t know.”
On a later trip, he traveled to Uganda for a story about missionaries from Virginia volunteering there.
“We were in the middle of nowhere, a remote location. I’ve never seen more stars,” Morley said. “Again, I saw people giving of themselves to help others.”
Another chapter in his book concentrates on prayer, something he loves to photograph.
“When a person is communicating with their God or a deity, it’s the most special, important moment in that person’s day,” Morley said. “I respect that. It’s a sacred time. If they allow me to photograph them, I take that very seriously.”
And getting into someone’s private bubble takes a lot of trust. “It takes some experience to understand that,” he said.
Morley also captures the lighter moments in life, which often are moments of spontaneity. Consider the candid shot of one young man giving his friend a wedgie, a photo Morley calls “the flying wedgie.”
“They had no idea I was taking the photo. I took it with a long lens,” he said. “It was funny.”
Deep experience and ready for more
Morley taught photography at the University of Richmond for 28 years as an adjunct professor and has been the official photographer for the Richmond Forum since 2013. He especially enjoys feature photography, and he admits he still gets butterflies before taking photos. He has learned over the decades to just let life happen.
“I am not going to get worked up and nervous. I’m just going to be prepared. You have to keep your camera to your eye and be a fly on the wall,” Morley said.
He remembers what a photo editor at the Providence Journal once told him: Be the first there and the last to leave.
“Be open to any possibility and have fun. When the stars line up, it’s great,” Morley said.