“You have the world at your fingertips, and it’s kind of up to you guys to figure it out,” Robert Clark told a group of Hays High School students Thursday morning in the school’s lecture hall.
The photographer whose works have appeared in National Geographic, Time and the book “Friday Night Lights” told students at his alma mater that while the digital world has made the world more connected, that’s not necessarily for the better.
“The world’s smaller, and I think you can take advantage of that. But also, I would guard your privacy. Once you sign up for these things, it’s over and you’re out there,” he said of social media platforms.
Social media has potential to teach, but can also be abused, he said.
“I think a lot of the digital media platforms are not used to educate, they’re used to elevate. I’m not sure what some people add to the discussion of being human,” he said.
Clark, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., is back in his hometown for his 40th class reunion. His sisters, Linn Burke and Cindy Clark-Maddux, and father, Russell Clark, accompanied him to the Hays High presentation.
Clark said he found it interesting that most of the students he spoke to Thursday hadn’t been born on Sept. 11, 2001 — the day when Clark ran with his cameras to the top of his loft building after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center and captured a series of images of the second plane crashing into the second tower. The photos were published in Time magazine.
“I still have a really kind of weird relationship with the photos. They’re still hard for me to look at,” he told the students.
But what led him to being in New York that day and a career that has taken him around the world started right in Hays, he said. From the example of his father — who owned a men’s clothing store, The Village Shop, on Main Street — and his own experience as a cross country runner, he learned a good work ethic, he told the students.
“I wasn’t great,” he said of his athletic days, “but I showed up every day and I ran the distance and I did all the work I had to do.
“My dad, he worked hard as anybody I know. Worked every day, worked late. You know, it’s just a good work ethic. I think it’s one thing that will get you far,” he said.
Finding something he loved to do early in life and taking a chance to better his skills also helped, he said. He shot photos for The Hays Daily News sports department, where his brother was sports editor.
“A lot of my friends who I’ve gone to high school or college with never really figured out what they wanted to do,” he said.
Clark went to Kansas State University, taking internships at newspapers around Kansas and other parts of the country during school breaks. After graduation, he worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He quit that job to shoot photos for “Friday Night Lights” in Texas, then went back to photojournalism at newspapers in Cincinnati and in Utah.
“I kept going to smaller and smaller newspapers because I wanted more control over my pictures. But then I decided what I really wanted to do was improve my pictures,” he said.
In 1992, he moved to New York with only $2,000 and a friend’s couch to sleep on, he said.
“I worked for some very talented magazine, portrait and advertising people to learn about lighting and things like that,” he said.
One of those portraits was of New York radio announcer Don Imus for Penthouse magazine, which Imus then used on his book cover. That led to Clark shooting 40 book covers for Simon and Schuster.
“Sometimes you just have to take the chance, and even if you fail, you know you’ll have learned something,” he said.
“That’s always been one of the things I liked about photography is that you can improve on a daily basis. It’s this kind of roller coaster in this career that I really like,” he said.