“Rebuilding After the Floods” is only one piece in December 2014 UNC graduate Carolyn Van Houten’s portfolio, which won her the 70th College Photographer of the Year award — a competition open to undergraduates, graduate students and recent college graduates. On Feb. 26, Van Houten won the 2015 Newspaper Photographer of the Year award in the 73rd annual Pictures of the Year International competition, which is open to professional photographers worldwide.
Journalism professor Chad Stevens said her success could be an unprecedented feat.
“I don’t know of any other person who’s won College Photographer of the Year and then in the same year won the professional Photographer of the Year. It’s like two totally different leagues,” he said.
When Van Houten came to UNC as a physics major who enjoyed photography as a hobby, it was Stevens’ photojournalism class that changed her path — a path that also includes winning three first-place Hearst Journalism Awards, being placed on Magnum’s 30 Under 30 List and working four internships in one year.
Now, she’s a staff photojournalist with the San Antonio Express-News, Van Houten’s next step is a three-month internship with National Geographic Magazine.
While Van Houten is proud of being recognized for her work, awards and accolades aren’t what motivate her.
“If a picture or a story can make even a little bit of positive change for even that one family, it might not be sweeping social change, but it did a little bit of good,” she said.
Her boyfriend, Ray Whitehouse, whom she met in a photography workshop and who is currently pursuing his master’s in journalism, said Van Houten’s passion comes from her connection with others.
“That sort of desire to spend time with people and get to know who they are and be in those sort of intimate moments is something that has remained throughout her work,” he said.
When Van Houten published the installment of photographs that featured the Bamberger family’s struggle to find the money necessary to rebuild their home, the local community helped the family get back on its feet.
“This tool that she uses, of photography and storytelling, she’s able to make other people feel, and I mean, I think that’s the heart of what we do in documentary work,” Stevens said.
For Van Houten, heart is what makes the story.
“If there’s a lot of heart in it, that pushes past everything else.”