Pre-Viewing Reading 3: Will Okun’s Winning Essay (excerpt)

In 2007, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof invited teachers and college students to apply to Win a Trip with Nick.” Medical student Leana Wen and Chicago teacher Will Okun wrote the winning essays that gave them the opportunity to join Kristof on a reporting trip to central Africa that summer. Reporter tells the story of their trip. Below, we have included excerpts from Wen and Okun’s winning essays. What do these texts reveal about the winners’ reasons for taking this trip? Why do you think Kristof asked a teacher and a college student to join him?


Nearly every day after school, I go to students' houses to shoot photographs of the students with their families and friends. Since our school, Westside Alternative High School, is located in one of the lowest-income communities of Chicago, there is ample opportunity to photograph the poverty which seemingly envelops their lives. . . . But I do not take these pictures. These pictures have already been taken. Book after book, exhibit upon exhibit depict only the poverty and misery of the current black community in America. Unless you happen to live or work in a black community, it is likely that blacks are perceived by the majority of America as either extremely poor and sad (from the media and photographs) or extremely materialistic and “gangsta” (from rap music and videos).

Will Okun, a white American, poses with a group of black Congolese young men.

Instead, I seek to capture the happiness and joy that can occur in everyday moments and the beauty that exists within every person, regardless of their income. Most importantly, I try to produce unique portraits that capture the essence of each person. Secondly, I want the people to be happy with their own photographs. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than going into a student's house and seeing my framed pictures on the walls. Lastly, I hope my photographs offer another perspective of black American teenagers that is largely inaccessible to the general public. (My photographs are posted on my www.wjzo.com website, which receives over 30,000 views a week from all over the world.)

This is the perspective I will bring to Africa with Nick Kristof. While America is only presented with images representative of Africa's poverty and misery, I will seek stories and photographs that will offer our young people a more comprehensive depiction of African people and culture. I hope my photographs and stories will present young Africans with an opportunity to educate, communicate with, and relate to young Americans. In addition, I hope to produce photographs and stories that will emote pleasure and pride from the Africans themselves.

Source: Will Okun, "Winning Essay: WIll Okun," New York Times, April 29, 2007, accessed September 19, 2010.

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