Worth A Thousand Words, Photographer Andrew West

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I wish I were a better writer! It would take a far superior wordsmith than me to accurately describe the magnificent photographic images of Andrew West, Fort Myers Beach resident and photographer extraordinaire of the Fort Myers News-Press. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then perhaps Hemmingway might be able to use a million syllables to express the emotion and vitality in West’s work. To the three dozen attendees of his program that concluded the 2018-19 Mound House Lecture Series on Tuesday evening, April 9, it seemed as though West placed the entire audience in the front row of a breathtaking fireworks display, as photo after photo elicited Ohhs-&-Ahhs and gasps of “Oh, Wow!”

While now calling Southwest Florida home and extolling his love of Fort Myers Beach, explaining that “my kids graduated from the Beach Elementary School and the Mound House is the gem of the island and a truly beautiful spot,” West explained he could not originally hail from further away. “I was born in Alaska, as my Father was a university professor and my Mother a schoolteacher, and that is where I acquired my love of the outdoors and nature, as Dad is an Ornithologist and photographing birds a passion of mine. After all that cold and dark, however, I was ready for a change, so I went to The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and eventually made my way into journalism and have now been a photographer for The News-Press for over 21 years.”

For more than an hour, West regaled the crowd with a montage of his photography from several assignments over the past five years, covering the recent water quality crisis to the Parkland shootings, Hurricane Michael to the devastating Haitian earthquake, the opiate crisis to his nature work. “I try to find a different angle, to bring art and reality together, to help people look at these situations in a different light, bringing together all the different elements, so you see everything in a complete format rather than simply a straight-forward fashion, where emotions all come together. Often I get permission to take my shots, and it really comes together when an intimacy develops between the subject and me, so they often forget I am there, and that is important in telling the story.”

Beauty Out of Horrificness

“Some of the worst situations I am in, like the aftermath of the Parkland shootings, at the most devastating time in people’s lives, produce the best photographs. I am showing you a lot of gloom-&-doom but that is often what I do – making beauty out of horrificness is part of my job, allowing you to feel the emotion while telling the story all at the same time.”

He calls the best work of his career covering the Haitian earthquake that resulted in roughly 250,000 deaths. “I went right after it struck, then a month, two months, 8 months, and a year later, where people were still struggling to get by, living in a huge tent city and standing in line for 8 hours for one bag of rice. Those images were at once haunting and magnificent, telling the tale of human tragedy and the human spirit. Even in the worst situation, you try to make pretty pictures.”

Andrew recalled being asked to cover Hurricane Michael. “I thought, ‘man, what am I getting myself into,’ when the roof of our hotel blew off as we got pummeled by 150 mile-per-hour winds for three hours, with water firing through the roof and walls like out of a firehose, while you try to keep yourself and your equipment dry, and then there was a natural gas leak to deal with, while trying not to freak out that you may die!” Conversely, bird photography, owing to his upbringing from his Father, are what he most enjoys, with Lovers Key and the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area his favorite places to take pictures on Fort Myers Beach. Fifty-three minutes into his program, he asked how much time he had left, with the audience answering almost in unison, “you have a lot more time!”

Support Journalism

After enthralling the gathering for over one hour, Andrew concluded his presentation with an impassioned plea for his profession, saying, “Journalism right now is a really rocky road, where writers and photographers get cut from the workforce all the time, and especially photographers who get let go in favor of retaining reporters, but it is important to our communities that you have us, for the good of our nation and people. There is a lot of angst today, as people want their news, but often we don’t have the staff anymore to give it to them, so we work on ways to provide you more with less, while still doing the best job we can with what we have. Most advertising dollars used to come to print, but now it goes to digital, with less newspaper subscriptions and more to webpages. I am glad people like my work, but it cannot come to you for free. Journalism news still provides you with the best we have to offer, but we need you to support us!”

The Mound House, at 451 Connecticut Street, is the oldest standing structure on Estero Island. The Town of Fort Myers Beach now operates the Mound House as a museum complex that offers numerous educational programs each month, including guided tours to explore the 2,000-year-old Calusa Indian Shell Mound, beach walks, and kayak eco-tours. It is open Tuesdays through Saturdays through April 27 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then shifts to Tuesdays, Wednesdays, & Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information and a program schedule, call 239-765-0865 or visit www.moundhouse.org.

 

By Gary Mooney
gary@fortmyersbeach.news