My best teacher

Dillon McNeil is a senior media studies major.

PHOTO COURTESY OF DILLON MCNEIL.

In a few weeks, I’ll graduate from USF. Though I’m excited to finish school and move on with my life, I’ve loved the time I’ve spent as a student here. It’ll be hard to say goodbye. 

It’s been a journey full of crossroads and plot twists. For three long years, I was a student-athlete, living out my lifelong dream of playing college baseball. Looking back, it seems like I spent nearly every second of those three years on the field or in the weight room, pouring blood, sweat, and tears into a game that I’d worked to perfect since I first picked up a bat and glove at five years old. 

Growing up, I loved baseball, and was proud to be a baseball player. It was all I ever wanted to do. In college, the game became something different. With what was demanded of myself and my teammates, it became a job, and as a walk-on, I wasn’t being compensated for my work. It became increasingly difficult to justify the hours I was spending working on what had begun to feel like a child’s game.

During my junior season, I began to wonder if I still wanted to be a baseball player. I felt disconnected from my identity as an athlete. Searching for motivation, I asked myself, “why do I play baseball?” and couldn’t find an answer. I had fallen completely out of love with the game. In a postseason meeting with my coaches, I told them I was hanging up the cleats and leaving the team. My baseball career was over. 

Up until the spring of my freshman year, I was undeclared. Taking Mark Taylor’s Intro to Film Studies class that semester inspired me to declare as a media studies major and a film studies minor. I’d been vaguely interested in film growing up, but Professor Taylor’s course cemented it as a pillar of my life. It taught me what it means to value and think critically about film, and more importantly, art. 

During my sophomore year, I learned the basics of video production in a class taught by Danny Plotnick, and began to create short films of my own. My passion for images continued to grow, and although I’d only been trained in moving pictures, I became interested in still photography as well. When I wasn’t working on a video project, I was taking photos, trying to teach myself the mysterious language of color, composition, and light that serious photographers speak fluently. 

Over the last few months, my video work has felt less significant as photography has become my primary focus. As I’ve become aware of the various genres of the medium, I’ve found myself specifically drawn to street photography. Some of my best memories from this semester are from long, aimless walks around our beautiful city with my camera.

PHOTO COURTESY OF DILLON MCNEIL.

These walks, and my camera, have taught me a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I love my major, and I’ve learned a ton from my media studies classes, but I’ve always felt that the most valuable lessons are the ones that can be directly applied to my day-to-day life. I learn these lessons through photography every day. 

One thing I’ve realized is that beauty and nuance surrounds us at all times, available to us as long as we are present enough to see it. Photography has changed the way I move through space. It has transformed me from a passive and disconnected individual moving through the city to an active and engaged observer, inextricably connected to my surroundings. 

I recently read a book about Henri Cartier-Bresson, a French photographer who did much of his work walking the streets and capturing seemingly trivial moments in beautiful ways. The book refers to the “visual rhythms” of which Cartier-Bresson so masterfully captured. His photos turn seemingly insignificant subjects and backgrounds into visual poetry, bringing order to the chaos of urban life. Deeply inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s photography, I’ve worked on training my eyes to work the way his did, aligning shapes and structures in ways that turn the city’s random visual cacophonies into well-composed and intentional works of art. This process has taught me that life itself is art.

Lastly, I’ve learned that you can’t take your camera everywhere you go, and you shouldn’t. You can’t take a photo of everything you see that might be worth photographing, and that’s okay. If the photo you are about to take feels unoriginal, or boring, or meaningless, or shallow, it’s better to lower the camera and look at the world through the best lens you have: your eyes. To take a photo is to stop time, to freeze the constant motion of life in a frame that will live on after the moment has passed. Taking too many photos turns your present reality into a means to an end, the here and now becoming just another opportunity for a photo that will soon be buried in your camera roll. Learning to distinguish when to put down the camera has allowed me to become more aware of my level of presence in any given moment, whether I’m isolating myself from my surroundings or allowing myself to embrace the present and be here now. 

When I graduate from USF on December 17, I’ll bid farewell to the media studies department, and along with it, some truly incredible professors. People like Mark Taylor, who gave me the vocabulary to speak and write about film, and Danny Plotnick, who showed me that I could make my own. Leaving these people and countless other media studies professors who have challenged and inspired me is a tough pill to swallow. But as I leave behind my identity as a student of this university, I’m still very much a student of another school. My classroom is the world, and I can go to class any time I want. All I have to do is pick up my camera and walk out the front door.

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