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Florissant Valley Campus

Bradley Rayford: A Moment behind the Camera Lens

Bradley Rayford earned a pair of awards from the National Association of Black Journalists for features he shot during the unrest in Ferguson in 2014 for MSNBC.

St. Louis Community College has always attracted a student with a story. Part of the appeal in attending the college is that it’s open – no matter where you are in life, the college will accept you, help shape and mold you, and give you a fresh start.

Bradley Rayford is different. He didn’t need a fresh start. He needed an educational institution that would give him access to mentors and experiences to realize his dream of becoming a professional photographer. Rayford, 23, is studying mass communications STLCC’s Florissant Valley campus.

You can spot him everywhere. On any given day, you’ll see him walking across campus, camera in hand ready to shoot a new angle. Or, he may be seen in the Campus Life office, helping on a project, encouraging fellow students, or again, taking a photo.

“One of the most important things my father taught me was to just show up ready to work,” Rayford said. “People see me with my camera and think I’m supposed to be there, I’m supposed to be working. I like the feeling of blending in and being part of the scene.”

Rayford’s father is Oscar Rayford, veteran cameraman for KMOV-TV. One would think that Bradley’s love of photography and journalism was handed down from his father, but his story doesn’t really begin with a camera. It begins with a badge.

As a child, Rayford had dreams of being a police officer or a fireman. He changed his mind upon entering middle school – his dreams of being a photographer flourished under the tutelage of Earnest Sharp, a photographer at his church. Young Bradley was often tasked with assisting Sharp during weddings – his job was to get the shots Sharp couldn’t.

“Sometimes I’d have photos of the carpet or the chandelier, things that I thought would be interesting or maybe I’ve have a great angle on them,” Rayford said. “Mixed into the carpet and chandelier photos would be candid shots. Mr. Sharp encouraged me to stick with the candid, reactionary shots – he didn’t need carpet photos.”

Thus Bradley Rayford’s career as a photojournalist began at the young age of 14.   

He bloomed at Hazelwood Central High School, working diligently on news projects and journalism advisory committees. Electronics weren’t allowed in the school, but somehow, Rayford always had his camera in hand. He stayed busy, joining the student council and becoming the school’s unofficial photographer. He was everywhere and he was ready to work and learn.

Upon enrolling at STLCC-Florissant Valley, he brought with him the same work ethic handed down by his father and his drive, inherited from his mother. Although he doesn’t describe himself as a true scholar, Rayford says he makes up for it with his dedication and determination to hone his natural abilities as a photographer.

“I’m in no way shape or form a 4.0 student,” Rayford said. “My strengths are my determination to learn, my interest in finding mentors and my need to tell a story. As a photographer, I’m always looking for ways or opportunities to find stories and visually communicate what you won’t find in words.”

As he did in high school, he got involved in student government and campus newspaper. These opportunities lead to him meeting and talking with campus leadership who in turn, gave him opportunities to tell and communicate his own story.

He has impressed Renee Thomas-Woods, association professor of communications/mass communications who also serves as the program’s coordinator.

“I think his natural curiosity helps him in being the media professional he is growing into. He has learned to look at the world from different perspectives,” Thomas-Woods said. “Bradley also has a natural eye to frame stories through photography and a strong work ethic to improve his skills as a photojournalist and videographer. I think part of what makes him good is his desire to capture and tell great stories through images.”

Two major events would change his life and help him find focus.

In August 2014, Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by Police Officer Darren Wilson. Brown’s death lit the fuse on a power keg that had been waiting to explode for decades. Rayford found himself in the middle of the Ferguson unrest – both on the ground and at Florissant Valley. And it was right where he wanted to be.

“Two things shaped me regarding Ferguson. As a Florissant Valley student, I had the chance to meet with then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, which almost left me speechless,” said Rayford. “I was excited to meet him because of his stature in this country. Also, when the Ferguson unrest began, I was right there. I had many moments when I thought, ‘Should I be doing this? Should I be in school? Am I telling the right story?’”

Rayford’s work didn’t go unnoticed. Because of the Holder visit, he was one of a handful of Florissant Valley students who were contacted by media to give their perspective on Ferguson. MSNBC reached out to Rayford and he ended up freelancing for the network.

“I can’t tell you how shocked I was, but I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” he said.” I mean really, what college student gets a chance to freelance for MSNBC?

“Being a student at Florissant Valley has given me the chance to use my photojournalist skills – there are so many people on this campus who have not only taken an academic interest in me, but they care about me personally.” He added. “Everyone I’ve met always has a minute to talk or give advice. I’m not sure if I would get this same hands-on attention at a four-year university.”

The National Association of Black Journalists also noticed his work. He won two national awards in the 2015 Salute to Excellence in Digital Media category.

The mini-documentary he created for MSNBC, “Ferguson: A Resident’s Perspective,” won first place in the Online Project: Feature category. A piece he did with MSNBC’s Trymaine Lee and Stefanie Cargill, about a group of Ferguson protestors’ surprising effort to keep Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson in power, won best Single Story: News.

Winning those awards answered all his questions and boosted his drive. Rayford continues his studies and is expected to graduate from STLCC in May. He also runs his own photography business and is on call to the college to take photos at board meetings, campus events and community events. And yes, his camera is ever present.

“My goal is to become an Emmy Award-winning news producer,” Rayford said. “I know how hard I have to work to reach that goal. I have to stay consistent, use my resources and continue to get involved – those three things have gotten me to where I am today and I know they will carry me forward.”

Rayford’s work can be found on his website, www.bradleyjphotography.net.