The first time award-winning photojournalist Billy Weeks ’84 flew to Central America, he was on assignment for the U.S. military in 1999. He was bound for El Salvador, where American troops were helping to rebuild schools and buildings in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch.
When the enormous aircraft landed, an Army major began banging on the windows of the plane, screaming Weeks’ name. His urgent message was that Weeks’ father had suffered a major stroke. He quickly returned home where his father died months later.
Something about that experience has forever tied Weeks to the people who live on the isthmus. He has returned 10 times, often on assignment, but not always. With his camera he tells the stories, like the joy of baseball in the faces of young children learning the game in the Dominican Republic. In Honduras, he has captured sad, frightened faces—they telegraph the desperation of never having enough.
In his own life, Weeks’ beginnings were humble. It is important to him to address issues of class, race, and poverty because he feels it can affect the way others think. “In the end, I am photographing myself,” he explained.
Weeks’ classes in communication and art introduced him to two of his mentors, Dr. Peter Pringle and Bruce Wallace. The most critical comments of his work came from Terry Hamrick ’78, then Publications Coordinator for UTC University Relations, where Weeks worked as a student. “I appreciated that a lot, it made me think. He didn’t hesitate to tell me when something was bad. We need more people to be honest with students so that they learn,” Weeks said.
He thinks of UTC as more than a university, rather a “neat community.” He is proud to teach classes in the Department of Communication.
While he was still a student in 1984, Weeks was hired by The Chattanooga Times, where he worked for more than 25 years. In 1999, he was named the first Director of Photography and Graphics for the combined newspapers, the publication now known as The Chattanooga Times Free Press.
In January 2010, Weeks left the newspaper business and began his independent career as a documentary still photographer. His exhibitions and published work have been seen in the Hunter Museum of Art, Mainx24, The Art of Photography Show in San Diego, CNN, Photo District News, Communication Arts Photo Annual, Black and White Magazine and Atlanta Celebrates Photography. He is most proud that his work was twice selected for first prize in the Gordon Parks International Photography Contest, in 2011 and 2013.
“To be connected to Gordon Parks is a responsibility I don’t take lightly,” Weeks said. “He was the first black photographer to document social justice. He was a tremendous storyteller, a tremendous photographer…an icon in the photojournalism world.”
In April 2011 devastating tornadoes in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama became international news. Weeks was commissioned by the Associated Press and The New York Times to document the aftermath. As a Ringgold, Georgia, resident, he had friends who were affected. The disaster was personal for Weeks.
“You can’t walk up to anyone and just take a picture. You have to show them respect. It’s in the approach—that is how you gain access.”