Professional photographer Michael VanDerAa first picked up a camera when he was a junior at Timothy. He wasn’t actually interested in photography—he thought the class would be an easy A. But something magical happened in the darkroom. Under the the soft glow of the red lights, he slipped the silver gelatin paper into the tray of chemicals. And an image slowly emerged, first in shades of gray, then deepening to shades of blacks.
“There is something incredibly beautiful about photographic paper wet in a tray of developer,” Mr. VanDerAa says, who graduated from Timothy Christian High School in 1988 and is now the photography teacher. “I thought it was — and still think it’s amazing.”
Mr. VanDerAa went on to study art studio at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois. But instead of seeking a job in the arts, he joined the family business. And his love for images and photography and art faded into the background.
But in 2003, Mr. VanDerAa received a gift: A digital camera. With a camera back in his hands, his creative world and passion for photography surfaced again. “I photographed again for the first time 2003,” Mr. VanDerAa says. “It was mostly pictures of my kids. And it wasn’t really until 2010 that I started to take myself seriously as a photographer.”
As an alumni and also as a father of two boys who attended Timothy, VanDerAa had deep connections to the community. So in 2011 when there was an was an opening for a photography teacher in the high school, he jumped at the opportunity. VanDerAa once again found himself in the same darkroom that had sparked his creativity so many years ago.
He was determined to share his love of the fine art of film and darkroom development with his students. So while many other schools are shuttering their darkrooms, Timothy’s is thriving and active.
“It’s critical for students to really understand the origin and history of photography,” Mr. VanDerAa says. “It forces students to learn in a way that you just can’t teach with a digital camera. We do some really interesting assignments like lumen prints, pinhole images, direct positive portraits, and photograms. Within a matter of weeks most students say they are excited to be working in the darkroom.”
Mr. VanDerAa’s classroom is also a fully functioning professional studio. “I am convinced the best approach as a teacher is to come alongside the students as a student myself and not only practice the craft, but learn and explore together,” VanDerAa says. “I designed the studio to work exceptionally well for me professionally and as a learning environment. Students have access to equipment in the studio that other schools only dream of.”
It’s not unusual to see Mr. VanDerAa out and about on campus with his students capturing candid moments or collaborating together in the studio. He’s photographed hundreds of Timothy students over the years—documenting games, hallway antics, and he’s even recently ventured into senior portraits. But for Mr. VanDerAa—whether it’s a highly stylized senior portrait or a state-bound track athlete— photography is more than just a beautiful image. It’s a way to tell a story. To capture a moment —no matter how fleeting—forever pausing an ongoing narrative.
Photography, at its root, is drawing with light. These drawings, according to VanDerAa, allow him to step into social dialogues as a Christian artist. “Photography is a way to help me process and intellectually raise questions that I may never find the answer to,” VanDerAa says. “It’s almost a form of seeking truth.”
His most recent creative pursuit, Moord Velden, led him to one of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago. Moord Velden, which in Dutch means murder fields, tells the stories of seven people who were affected by gun violence in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood.
Roseland, which is nestled on the far south side of Chicago, straight off the Dan Ryan Expressway, is only 35 miles away from the western suburbs. Once a Dutch enclave, Roseland is now plagued by gangs and drugs and an ongoing street war that impacts the everyday lives of its residents.
Everyone in the neighborhood has a story. There’s Tanika Williams, who lost her 17-year old son, Darnell. Phillip Walker, who not only lost his brother but also his niece, Endia Martin. And Roger Nelson, who lost his father when he was gunned down outside a church.
And the death and grief and violence go on and on and on.
VanDerAa discovered that although steeped in tragedy, the stories, and the people of Roseland, were not without hope.
Hope and redemption still live in Roseland.
And that is what VanDerAa captured when he set up a makeshift studio in Roseland Christian Ministries. “The redemption is really two-fold,” VanDerAa says. “There’s the ministry of Roseland—even though they live in the bleakest place in Chicago, it makes a difference in their lives. Many of the people I photographed thought no one cared about their loved one’s death. No one wanted to listen to them. But if I can bring one of these stories to the forefront and show them that someone does care—then that is redemption.”
VanDerAa’s project didn’t solve any of Chicago’s social problems. Roseland is still violent. There’s still an endless stream of shootings reported on the evening news. But he stepped into a social crisis, focusing his camera on grief-stricken mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. And with just an image he gave them a platform and a place to lament and remember and honor loved ones. And this, he says, is how he lives out his faith.
“Christians need a stronger voice in visual culture and need to engage others in our visual dialogue,” VanDerAa says. “Our reformed worldview calls us to step into culture and not retreat from it.”
You can read the story of Moord Velden in its entirety and view the images at moordvelden.com. To view Michael VanDerAa’s portfolio and learn more about his senior portraits visit his website michaelvanderaa.com.