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Dave can teach you something about photography—and life, too

Interviewing Dave LaBelle, you’re not sure if you’re talking about photography or the gospel. Turns out, it’s both.
You’re also pondering life, something Dave photographs everywhere he goes — pretty much without restrictions.
“I look at life much like Ecclesiastes,” he said from his home near Chattanooga, Tenn. “There’s a time to laugh and there’s a time to cry, and that’s the way our lives are. If you have too much of one, you’re going to be out of balance, and it’s going to smother you.”
So Dave shoots it all: birth, death, sadness, humor. It’s not a matter of if he will photograph something; it’s a matter of how. And let me tell you: This tall, smiling writer/photographer with the Santa Claus beard knows the how of telling stories through images. He worked for 20 newspapers and magazines and taught photography at three universities. He’s also been preaching off and on for 20 years.
If you want to see his work for yourself, read his book, “The Great Picture Hunt 2.” Or listen to his advice on storytelling in “The Lesson,” a series of videos at vimeo.com/8021072.
I met Dave in Elberton, Ga., a couple of weekends ago. He was there with other photojournalists, coaching students from the University of Georgia. The local newspaper, The Elberton Star, was their host.
Dave went feature-picture hunting with a student named Natalie Minik. The two of them popped in on a couple in their 80’s in Bowman, Ga., and told them they wanted to tell their story: the story of two African-Americans who’d lived in this little town all their lives, who picked cotton in the local fields, who are part of the fabric of that community.
The wife didn’t want any part of it. But Dave persisted.
Two days later — after a lot of talking and some of Dave’s praying and singing — the woman said OK. And as he was leaving, she told Dave, “You know, you’re the nicest white person I’ve ever met.”
Did Dave cross that imaginary journalistic line by getting too close to his subjects?  “I would do that,” he said, “whether I had a camera or not.”
You see, Dave feels like he belongs everywhere, so much so that he’s liable to offer you a hug in your own house. “I did a lecture in Ohio,” he said, “and I stood in line for 15 minutes, and I bet I hugged a hundred people. … What a joy that is. Whether you get a picture or not, you get a chance to experience with another human being and to share with them. And that’s the best thing in the world.”
So here is a quick lesson on storytelling from this award-winning photographer: You need to be curious. You need to invest. You need to be compassionate. You need to care.
And, I would add, it wouldn’t hurt to be Dave LaBelle.
Dave’s latest book is titled “I Don’t Want To Know All the Technical Stuff, I Just Want To Shoot Pictures” (greatpicturehunt.com). 

Phil Hudgins’ column is published in many newspapers around the Southeast.