“From The Cavalier Daily, right? You are good to go,” a campaign official told me March 2, 2020 at the Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte, N.C. I was then given a blue pass with one word on it — “PRESS.” It was one of the most surreal moments in my life — I was a 22-year-old college student and photo staffer for a college newspaper joining photographers and reporters from prominent news organizations such as CNN, The Associated Press and Fox News to cover a rally for the President of the United States.
All of the photographers, including me, were standing at a stage directly across from the presidential podium. Because of my limited height and the giant equipment in front of me, I had to stand on top of a chair to take pictures, reaching the highest point of the stage.
Just three minutes into his speech, the Commander-in-Chief pointed his finger at me and my colleagues for the day and said “Look at all of that press. Look at all of them!” Almost immediately, tens of thousands of people looked at the press stage and chanted phrases like “fake news.” Still standing on a chair, I felt like I was on top of a cliff, overseeing an ocean of anger and excitement. At that moment, I stopped thinking of myself as a photography enthusiast, and started to see myself as a photojournalist.
Perhaps what has been more surreal is that just 16 days later, as the entire nation fell into the COVID-19 crisis, I started living all by myself in a three-person apartment. Now, just a few days away from a virtual graduation, the March 2 “Keep America Great” rally seems like a distant dream. In fact, my past four years at the University also seem somewhat detached from reality.
When it first started, I thought college was supposed to be the best four years of my life, because after graduation, I would have to deal with things like career and family. Ugh. So I felt that I had to experience everything and never miss a damn thing. To a great extent, I achieved that goal — I went out like there was no tomorrow in my first year, took 44 credits second year, visited 15 states and seven countries, held eight internships and won two contested school elections over three years.
But as I now look back, I know that my college experience was also offset by that desire to do everything. On top of all that I did at school, due to certain events in my personal life, I also sought desperately to transfer elsewhere — I filed dozens of applications, but failed miserably for two years straight. Ultimately, the excessive drive to not miss anything made me miss important relationships that might have otherwise flourished, and the fear of not being the best somewhat led to a total and brutal breakdown at the end of my second year. Well, cliché.
It was not until I joined the photo staff for The Cavalier Daily that I started to understand — in a world this big, one of the most important things is to find a balance between who I am and who I want to become.
One thing you need to know is that being on The Cavalier Daily photo staff is one of the most underrated extracurricular activities at the University. You get almost unlimited access to any event that happens at the University and beyond — basketball games, concerts, symposiums, protests and big-shot meetings, among countless other events. You also get to be super close to the action — one time, my camera almost got destroyed by a ball at a men’s basketball game.
During my tenure as a photo staffer, I have covered a variety of people — from a former Speaker of the House who lost his alcoholic father at a young age to basketball players at the University who exemplify courage and passion, and from a sitting president who has torn up the rulebook of American politics to an investigative journalist who provokes deep conversation on the legacy of American slavery.
For each figure, I usually take hundreds of pictures and go through all of them to pick the best ones afterward. It is truly fascinating how under close scrutiny, human emotions can be exposed no matter how much one tries to conceal them. From one second to another, a plastered smile can slide into a subtle glare or smirk.
Gradually, I have come to realize that people are the same in that they are all channeled by a struggle or comfort between personal desires/feelings and societal expectations/standards. Everyone — yes, everyone — has fear and pain. And we all have different life paths that are utterly incomparable to each other. It’s therefore imperative for us as individuals to learn from others with humility and kindness, but never compare ourselves with others in envy or arrogance.
As I bid farewell to my ephemeral college life in the midst of a global pandemic, I just want to again express my sincere gratitude for the University and The Cavalier Daily and leave a positive thought. The darkest hour is just before the dawn — in the long run, that is.
Winston Tang was a photo staffer for The Cavalier Daily.