May 28, 2003
What does it take to shoot breath-taking photos on unforgiving deadlines?
"Absolute reliability," says Ken Kobre, professor of photojournalism. "No matter what, they get the picture and get it back on time." Award winners, he adds, come back with a "very special picture."
Willie Allen Jr., a graduating senior and award-winning photojournalist, meets both criteria. His stunning shots combine technical mastery with a vision for a wider, more open portrayal of groups often underrepresented in the media.
This summer he will join an elite corps of photographers as an intern at the New York Times. He will be the third SFSU photojournalist in as many years to do so.
One of 30 finalists screened from a much larger national pool, Allen earned the position because of his compelling portfolio and biography.
Jim Wilson, picture editor at the Times, says Allen showed a rare drive. "This is a man who had a career, a very lucrative career, and decided to be a photographer," Wilson explains. "That's something that really impressed us."
The 42-year-old Allen, a San Diego native, acknowledges it's been a lifelong dream. "Photojournalism is something I wanted to do since I was a kid," he says. As a youngster, Allen recalls, he was captivated by photos in Boys' Life magazine and thought it would be "cool" to travel around shooting pictures. Family members remind him that he always seemed to have a camera in hand.
But success behind the lens is only the latest of Allen's accomplishments. His first stint in college included an NCAA Division I-AA national football championship at Idaho State University. Later he enjoyed a successful career as a star bartender and corporate trainer for an upscale restaurant chain.
Despite such feats Allen says it wasn't until age 35 that he built the confidence to pursue his dream. "I was always one of the top people at whatever I chose to do," he says. "I decided to go do what I always wanted to do."
In 1995 he moved to San Francisco and began taking classes at SFSU. After getting sidetracked ("I was living the bartender life in San Francisco"), he returned to SFSU in 2000 and began the first of three newspaper internships that helped him build his top-notch portfolio.
Allen won several photojournalism awards in recent months, including the Luci S. Williams Houston Memorial Student Award. That prize carries special meaning for him because Houston, a slain photojournalist for the San Jose Mercury News, shared Allen's goal of embracing diversity through photography.
Spanning everything from city politics to sports and entertainment, his latest beat will run the entire gamut of the newspaper's coverage. "He'll be covering the city of New York," says Jim Wilson of the Times. "We treat the interns who come here as full-fledged members of the staff."
Past SFSU interns include Krista Niles and Mike Nagle. Niles contributed to the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
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