The School of Communications hosts an exhibition of senior Al Drago’s photojournalism work as an Elon University undergraduate.
To a passer-by roaming the McEwen Communications Building’s second-floor hallway, the framed image of a Duke University basketball fanatic might not seem like the most representative snapshot of a person’s Elon University experience.
But if an individual considers not the fan depicted but the image’s photographer, journalism major Al Drago ’15, the photo’s selection comes into focus.
“These photos, in a nutshell, are my college experience,” said Drago, surveying the 28-image photo gallery the School of Communications is hosting to celebrate his undergraduate work. “It’s not a wild fraternity party or meeting a celebrity who came to campus, it’s working every day and making photos of my community, of the people in Raleigh or Durham, and of my friends. This gallery is my experience at Elon.”
Before he photographed the headgear-wearing Blue Devils fan, Drago recalled attending three Elon classes that day, his last one ending at 5:15 p.m. Forty-five minutes later, he was at Cameron Indoor Stadium, squeezing in a little homework as fellow photographers filed in. Then Drago shot the campus celebration during Duke’s Final Four win, edited and uploaded his work for the (Raleigh) News & Observer – where he was freelancing that night – and exited the arena around 3 a.m.
“I worked an eight-hour shift after going to class all day,” he said. “School and freelancing is a like having two full-time jobs. If you look at these photos in the gallery, most of them were taken on a Saturday or maybe a Tuesday afternoon when I didn’t have class.”
Drago’s commitment to his craft has long been apparent, and he’s supplemented his education with a series of notable internships with The Baltimore Sun, the News & Observer, The (Durham) Herald-Sun and the (Burlington) Times-News.
Along the way the chief photographer for “Elon Local News,” and former photo editor for The Pendulum, has been recognized on the state and national levels, including being named the 2015 student photographer of the year by the White House News Photographers Association.
Randy Piland, senior lecturer in communications, paid Drago the ultimate photojournalist compliment, calling the senior a “hustler.”
“Al goes where the news is and where the good pictures are – whether its halfway across campus or halfway across the state,” Piland said. “And that is what a good photojournalist is all about.”
The photo gallery, which was set up in April, highlights Drago’s willingness to seek out stories, whether the action is at Elon’s Festivus mud party, a migrant village in Morocco, or a farm field in Clayton, North Carolina.
Some of Drago’s most moving gallery images are from his photo story, “Rising from the Ashes,” featuring a family that lives on the property of the Daniel Pitino Shelter, a facility for homeless women and families in Owensboro, Kentucky.
One image depicts Shelly Shrum and her daughter, Phoenix, curled up napping on the living room floor. “After they fell asleep watching ‘Barney,’ it was just me, a stranger who they met three days ago, alone in their house,” Drago recalled, sharing a bit of the photograph’s backstory.
Drago expressed appreciation for being the sole subject of the School of Communications’ gallery, which is usually reserved for photojournalism class projects.
“As a journalism major, I basically live in McEwen, so I walk these halls every single day,” he said. “It is incredibly humbling to see my photos up there. It is a wonderful way to end my time here at Elon.”
While each image has a story, Drago admitted one photograph in the gallery was more personal than others. It features a Turrentine Middle School baseball player pressed against a dugout fence and lost in his thoughts.
“Almost all of these other photos on the wall I shot on assignment for publications, but this baseball photo I shot for myself,” he said. “After my last final exam last spring, I went out on my own with my camera, and I found this middle school baseball game. I found this kid looking glum in between innings, and I made that photo. I wanted to make an image just for me.”
Does that happen often? “It seems I never do it,” he said.