Rachel Trotter | Feb 28, 2020

David Hume Kennerly Teaches History with Photos at RootsTech

It all started with a photo snap of the family cat. That’s when Pulitzer prize winning photographer David Kennerly discovered he liked to take pictures. From there, his life has been a journey of telling stories through photos of some of the most historical moments in history over the past 55 years.

RootsTech attendees were awed by Kennerly’s photo journey in Friday morning’s keynote address.

Ground-breaking Photojournalism

“A really great photo makes you sit up and pay attention,” Kennerly said.

And people have been paying attention. Kennerly’s ground-breaking photojournalism of Vietnam, Robert Kennedy’s last moments, and the day-to-day lives of presidents Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton and Bush junior were all on display during his address, as well as many other fascinating and wonderful photos.

Kennerly explained that some of his most prolific moments as a photographer came in his early years when he traveled to Saigon to cover the Vietnam War. He admitted that he knew his life was in danger in some moments, but didn’t think much about it because he was trying to capture history. It was those photos, along with several more, that won him the Pulitzer Prize at a young age.

“I didn’t even know that I had been nominated,” Kennerly said humbly.

How Photos Tell a Story

One of Kennerly’s favorite photos from his Vietnam experience was that of a small group of Cambodian children playing with water buffalo in a lake. The joy on the children’s faces was infectious. Kennerly said he loves capturing a moment of happiness in the midst of so much sorrow.

“For all the bad things in my life I still remain optimistic. I believe that human nature and spirit prevails over adversity,” he said.

Kennerly also showed a photo of George W. Bush and his family on the night of his first presidential bid where he discovered the vote was too close to call.

“Look at the story in this photo,” Kennerly said.

He then showed close-up shots of each person in the photo – Laura Bush’s clenched hands, Jeb Bush’s concern, and his father and former president’s anticipation.

Kennerly said that sometimes he would have to dig deeper to take the photos that told the story. He found that to be true with many of his presidential photos when he was the White House photographer.

“There is something to be said to being in the room where history is made….in the ‘room where it happens,’ like in Hamilton,” Kennerly said.

The Power of Photography

“I’ve spent my whole career photographing people in the act of being themselves and making history and changing history,” Kennerly said.

That showed through his priceless photo collection. Many in the audience remembered points in their lives when the photos were snapped – even most recently with presidential debates a few weeks ago and when President Trump was inaugurated.

He noted that photos should not be minimized, especially in the world of family history.

“The power of photography is something that all of you use in your research. It really is able to move mountains,” he said.

Watch the full address here.

The David Hume Kennerly Archive is now permanently housed at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.  You can learn more here: https://kennerly.ccp.arizona.edu 

Rachel Trotter

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