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Q&A

Dodging dog bites, photographing Michael Phelps and the importance of volunteerism

A selection of Ken Smith photographs.

Behind the camera with computer science staffer Ken Smith

By CORY NEALON

Published November 21, 2016

Ken Smith photographs a Polar Plunge event.

If you’ve adopted from the local SPCA, chances are Ken Smith has met your pet.

If a loved one competes in the local Special Olympics, chances are Ken Smith has cheered them on.

That’s because Smith — a computer systems administrator in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering — spends nights and weekends volunteering with his camera. He shoots pictures for these organizations and others, helping to publicize their efforts and, ultimately, further their respective missions.

The work — behind-the-scenes and challenging — suits Smith fine, as his School of Engineering and Applied Sciences colleagues can attest to. UBNow recently talked to Smith about how to best photograph dogs, fun sports to watch and the rewards of volunteerism.

Special Olympics New York Summer Games, Brockport. June 6, 2015.

What organizations do you/have you volunteered for?

KS: Mostly Special Olympics New York and the SPCA. But also the Veterans’ Administration; Team Red, White and Blue; Ride For Roswell; American Cancer Society; and Footsteps of WNY.

What inspired you to volunteer?

KS: I always felt people should give back to their communities as best they can. I have my parents to thank for instilling that in me.

How did you get started?

KS: I received a campus listserv email list asking for volunteers for the Special Olympics New York 2012 statewide summer games at UB. The rest is history.

Did you receive formal photography training?

A member of the veterans support group Team RWB takes part in the Buffalo Marathon. May 29, 2016.

KS: Other than a high school photography class, I’m self-taught. A little book reading, some information from the web, but mostly just lots of practice.

What type of photography do you enjoy most?

KS: Sports. That’s why I’m grateful to Special Olympics New York. Contrary to what some people may think, these athletes have amazing abilities. I face the same challenges that other sports photographers face taking their pictures.

What’s your secret to getting dogs to look at the camera?

KS: Some sort of noise or food often works. But there is no single answer. Sometimes, you just need patience for the right moment.

Ever been bitten?

KS: Just once. But I was quick and the dog mostly got a mouth full of my shorts. Otherwise, no unpleasant incidents.

Michael Phelps during a presentation about his foundation at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. July 26, 2015.

You photographed Michael Phelps? How’d that come about?

KS: I volunteered at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles in 2015. These events draw celebrities. I was assigned to take photos of Michael Phelps who was promoting his foundation. He ended up swimming a few laps for the crowd. He is probably the most well-known celebrity I have taken photos of.

What advice do you have for others considering volunteering but don’t know where to start?

KS: Find what you have a soft spot for. For me, it is people (or animals) facing challenges caused by things or events out of their control — that’s a common theme in my volunteer work. Another theme is veterans, who deserve all the thanks we can provide. And we lost my mom to cancer, which is the other theme.

Is there a particular photo session/event that stands out from the rest?

KS: The 2015 Special Olympics World Games. I’m standing in the middle of L.A. Coliseum shooting the closing ceremonies and suddenly realize some photos on the big screens were ones I had taken earlier that week. It was surreal. I haven’t been to a “regular Olympics” but it can’t be much different. The athletes, volunteers and fans were amazing.

A Special Olympics athlete and a Law Enforcement Torch Run officer hold the torch at the Special Olympics Monument. The Law Enforcement Torch Run movement serves as the Guardians of the Flame of Hope and is a major fundraiser for Special Olympics worldwide. June 10, 2016.

What would you like the chance to photograph?

KS: I’d like to be a regular at national- and international-level Special Olympics events. This December, I’ll be shooting the Team USA Training Camp in Vermont. If all goes well, I may be the team photographer at the 2017 World Games in Austria.

You’re camera shy. What’s up with that?

KS: I like to fly under the radar. In fact, the only reason I agreed to do this article was the hope it might inspire people to volunteer!

Where will you be shooting photos next?

KS: I’m at the SPCA every Thursday.

Editors note: To see more of Ken's photos visit his online portfolio.