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Zhao's photo wins national award

Linda Su '24

Selected for American Vision Award


April 12, 2022

Zecheng (Roy) Zhao ’22 (Beijing) is taking his first black-and-white film class at Culver Academies this semester.

“I wanted to do it before I graduated,” he said. “I don’t have access to film and a darkroom back home.”

Zhao familiarizing himself with the nuances of black-and-white photography carries a touch of irony. He just won the highest national award available to a high school student – the American Vision Award – for a black-and-white photo of an older Chinese chef (above) in his hometown.

The American Vision Award is only awarded to the top 100 student artists in the National Scholastic Art Show, which is held in New York City. He also won a Gold Medal for the photo, which was needed to qualify for the top honor.

“I was really surprised,” Zhao said. “I’m proud of what I’ve done.”

Culver students regularly participate in the regional competition at the South Bend Museum of Art. Five students submitted 30 entries submitted works this year. Zhao had entered two years ago and received two honorable mentions for his photos. At the urging of his advisor in China, who is helping him with college applications, he entered more – a lot more.

“The limit on submissions was 15,” he explained, “so I decided to enter 15 photos.”

The results were six gold keys, three silver keys, and six honorable mentions at the regional competition. He also received a regional American Vision Award for “The Chef,” one of just five given out across all categories. His gold key photos advanced to the national competition in New York, where Zhao picked up the new honors.


Roy Zhao in the darkroom at the Crisp Visual Arts Center.


“I never thought I would win that many awards,” he said. “The Chef” was one of just 2,000 medal winners selected from the 260,000 works of art and writing. More than 100,000 students from across the country participated. Only regional AVA winners were considered for the national awards.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                “The Chef” was taken on his last day of the long COVID summer break back home, he said. He had some time, so he decided to take his camera out and hit the streets. He found a set of basement stairs by diner and decided to investigate. The basement wall next to the steps was partially open let some light in. That is when he saw the chef staring at him.

“He wasn’t very happy,” Zhao explained. “He had been working all morning and he was getting his only break of the day.” Zhao quickly explained what he was doing and took the shot. He originally shot the photo in color, then used Adobe Lightroom to adjust it to black and white.

“I like black and white better because of the higher contrast,” he said. As he switched the photo between color and black and white on his computer, Zhao pointed out the higher levels of light highlighting the man’s face. Some of his other photos, taken on the streets of Los Angeles, had similar results.

Zhao has been shooting photos since he was six or seven years old. For the past five to six years, he has been experimenting with manual settings to give himself greater control. He did switch to aperture priority for the winning shot because the light was changing so rapidly as he went down the steps to the diner’s basement. He used a first-generation Sony A9 set on 2000 ISO with a f-stop of 32. His zoom lens was set at 70 mm.

His college plans are not settled, yet, though he is learning toward Babson College. One thing is certain, though. His camera and, he hopes, a new 50 mm prime lens will be making the trip with him.

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