Undergraduate study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill inspired both a love of photography and a passion for travel in freelance photographer Benjamin Porter ’72, owner of Small Footprint Travels in Asheville, North Carolina. Porter was among the first Morehead-Cain Scholars to travel abroad as he completed his Bachelor of Arts in American studies.
In his junior year, Porter persuaded the Morehead-Cain Scholarship administrators to let him pursue an independent study project in Europe. “When it looked like it was going to happen, I told another friend of mine, also a Morehead, that he should do it with me,” Porter recalls. “We spent half our senior year doing different independent study projects in Europe. I focused on the exile community in Paris and Sweden during the Vietnam War. In allowing me to do this, Carolina re-motivated and re-inspired me at a time when I was getting a little bored with my university education.”
Since 1974, the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship has been providing students with a four-year Summer Enrichment Program comprised of diverse, customized experiences that begin the summer prior to the first year of study. Many of today’s scholars pursue study abroad and other international opportunities.
“I’m really very envious of Carolina students today because they have so many opportunities to study and travel abroad,” he says.
As a student, Porter learned the power of photography thanks to an assignment in a photography course. His final project included an image of his mother’s childhood home in South Carolina. The photograph showed the house in disrepair, long since overrun with vines.
Porter showed the photo to his father. “I brought tears to his eyes,” said Porter. “He said, “Well, I courted your mother on this porch.’
“That gave me a taste of how powerful photography can be,” said Porter. “I strive to create memorable images.”
Porter’s career path interweaves his interest in photography with his passion for travel. After graduating from Carolina, he spent two years working in a public defender’s office. When his service was complete, he decided he was ready for travel.
“I sold my belongings and went to Mexico to attend language school for two months with the goal being able to find a place in South America to live and photograph,” he says.
He learned Spanish and found his way to Bolivia, a country that captured his imagination. But before he could stay and live there, Porter needed to replenish his funds.
“Over the next five years or so I would do any kind of job to support myself and get back to Bolivia. I was even a merchant seaman for a while, although I learned that career is not as good for seeing the world as it is for seeing the inside of a ship,” he says.
He returned to live in Bolivia, visiting the U.S. regularly to exhibit and sell his photography.
In 1984, after a brief stint in New York City, Porter moved to Asheville, North Carolina. He worked as artist in residence in the community college system, before seguing into curriculum design. Porter eventually founded and directed the photography program at McDowell Technical Community College in Marion, North Carolina, in 2000.
Porter has a deep commitment to the humanities. “I’m a real believer in a complete person,” he says, “The humanities help to develop young people in a more holistic approach to life, to the world and to self-growth as human beings.”
Porter explains that the wide scope of education offered to him by UNC prepared him not just for his work as a businessman and artist, but for his work with people around the world.
After working at McDowell Technical Community College, Porter returned to life as a freelancer, traveling and photographing panoramic and reportage photography, often for non-governmental organizations. He also began an annual return to Carolina to photograph the graduating Morehead Cains.
“Every year for over a decade, I have done a panorama of the seniors who are graduating on their banquet night. I use a 90-year-old large wooden camera that rotates to create the panoramic view, and I make the black and white prints myself,” he says.
While still splitting his year between North Carolina and Southeast Asia, he also felt ready to act on the recommendation of friends and acquaintances to serve as a travel guide to his favorite destinations. Porter has traveled to over 70 countries and has lived in Bolivia, Brazil and Thailand. In addition to Spanish, he’s learned Portuguese and elementary Thai.
“Three or four years ago I realized I was ready to take small groups of 6 to 12 people to these places I go, with a company I named Small Footprints Travel. The tours’ themes are photography and food, and are a combination of getting off the beaten path, being comfortable and still seeing classic sites,” he explains, adding that people can participate in the tour even if they have little or no photography experience.
Myanmar (Burma) ranks high on his list of places people should visit for a unique cultural experience.
Reflecting on his own circuitous path, Porter encourages students to create their own global opportunities. “Go forth, go to the world and find a way to do what you want to do, even if no one is paying you to do it. If I’d waited for some kind of grant to send me to South America, it never would have happened,” he says. “You have to find a way to follow your passion.”