A Photography graduate from the College of Art and Design, Powell shares with us her first impression of the photography program, her professional experiences, and the value of staying true to one's voice.
"I Thought it was Spam!"
Bethany Powell's ventures after graduating from Lesley are impressive: starting with a freelance assignment in her senior year with Sipa Press photographing college campuses for their stock library; moving to California with a friend, and a stint as a stringer photographer for a local paper there; and then a return to the east coast for an opportunity to work with Ken Burns. Following that whirlwind of experiences, Powell, a native of New Hampshire, moved home and fostered another passion: magazines. Powell reached out to her favorite publications, National Geographic included, and when she heard back from the magazine by email she said she was floored. "I thought it was spam!"
The rest, as they say, is history. In late 2001 she was hired to digitize National Geographic's image collection. Within 3 months Powell transitioned into a role as an assistant in the photo editing department. Once there, she realized something that became the foundation of her approach to her profession. Powell says this role allowed her to understand that, "at the heart of everything was storytelling." Watching stories unfold through the editing and layout process inspired her to pursue a graduate degree in design.
In 2005, Powell entered the highly competitive Masters in Graphic Design program at Yale University. Upon graduating from the program, Powell says she spent time freelancing and expanding her portfolio, primarily through designing photography books. Powell says that these working experiences were a privilege, as she was able to work with artists on such an intimate level.
Stories to Tell, and a New Way to do it
An appreciation for the permanence of print took on another shape at the launch of National Geographic's digital edition. Powell says her excitement was matched by a keen interest in expanding her skills in digital storytelling. When Powell rejoined National Geographic in 2011, there was a unity of this very interest and her established appreciation of the visual narrative process. As the Vice President Digital Product and Consumer Experience Powell emphasizes that much of her job is about reading photographs. She credits where she is today to her time at Lesley.
"If I hadn't started there, I wouldn't be where I am now. A lot of my job is reading photographs – collaborating with photo editors on the best way to tell stories on an iPad, for example. Photography plays a major role in my day-to-day work."
Powell also reiterates the importance of creating and maintaining an idea with respect to the value of curation and strong visual communication, regardless of the medium.
"It's my job to tell stories. It doesn't actually matter what the media is. Whether on paper or screen, I just want to be a good storyteller."
A Little Bit of Magic
When Powell first walked into the photography department at the College of Art and Design she said she was immediately taken with it. Of her initial impression she says, "I felt something magical when I stepped into the photo department."
She says this Photography BFA program stood apart from others for the surprising quality, craftsmanship, and originality of the students' work. Powell offers a vivid snapshot of the school at that time as a "funky" art school in Kenmore Square, a bit alternative, and "a super cool place." She also speaks to the high level of enthusiasm in and engagement of the students, noticeable even from the moment of her visit, where she was met by students happy to talk about the program and answer her questions. Powell says this said a lot about the teachers in the program, which is something she emphasizes to be a true asset of the program and institution.
Art School as a Lifestyle
Powell says that the path toward her profession was a very deliberate one and one that she does not regret. She credits this determination and confidence to a supportive family, but also to teachers who provided invaluable support. Through critiques, "where the object of the day is to be criticized," and a relentless and demanding schedule that seemed impossible at times, Powell says art school is a lifestyle that one must figure out how to incorporate into everyday life in order to make it work. Figuring that out for Powell came very much in the form of support from teachers and peers who taught her confidence. She says that, "you have to have a strong sense of self. Frankly, it gets harder when you start working, as the safety of the classroom setting is gone."
On the Next Step
On life after graduation and employment prospects, Powell underscores the absolute importance of networking and reaching out to people. She highly recommends internships, even for free, to gain experience and portfolio-building to expand opportunities for the future. Even though there are pressures of paying off loans and trying to find a job, Powell says that it's important to try to have as many experiences as possible: "Even if you can't find your dream job, intern to get one foot in the door. Be involved in some way."
It's no surprise that someone like Powell, invested in effective and captivating storytelling, extends a cogent last piece of advice to future College of Art and Design alumni and students: "Don't imitate. Our culture is so inundated with photography....Do your own thing. You'll get hired for a job because of your special way of looking at things."