Find Your Passion: Photography's Influence

Mark Lent Today, a student researcher in UA’s McNair Scholars Program, Lent was present for the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on that fateful day in 1986 when Ronald E. McNair and six other crew members lost their lives. (Photo by Samantha Hernandez)

By Sarah Caroline Willcox

A picture is worth a thousand words, and Mark Lent can prove it.

Lent, a 41-year-old senior at The University of Alabama, has spent half of his college career researching the thought-provoking effects of photography.

The telecommunication/film major and McNair Scholar has conducted a two-year research project on the theory of exemplification, pioneered by Dr. Dolf Zillmann, professor emeritus of communication and film at UA.

Basically, the exemplification theory says if you take a neutral article and supplement the article with a photo, the reader’s perspective of the article will change depending on the picture.

In Lent’s study, he focused on the current war in Iraq and global warming.

“For example, we took an article about the war and paired it with photographs of people waving American flags and then photographs of protest images,” Lent says. “Most people’s point of view will go along with what the photo shows.”

Lent says he and his faculty mentor, Dr. Johnny Sparks, paired the pictures with articles, including statistics about the war. They gave their subjects one of 10 photographs—six pictures supporting the war and four opposing it— and one article, and each time, the visuals carried more weight than the text.

Mark LentLent stands on the steps of UA’s Reese Phifer Hall. (Samantha Hernandez)

“The research is very important in advancing understandings of the effects of visual media,” says Sparks, former assistant professor of telecommunication and film at UA. “Mark is an outstanding student with tremendous potential as a communication researcher and teacher.”

Currently finding success in his research, Lent endeavored to accomplish his educational goals for many years. At 16-years-old, Lent began his career as a photojournalist for a local newspaper in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

“By the time I was about 20, I was working three jobs: one for the newspaper, one for a rental car company and one stocking a drugstore,” Lent says. “Eventually, I ended up at The Tuscaloosa News and became a staff photographer in 1990.”

Lent says some of the first assignments he had with The Tuscaloosa News involved photographing troop deployments, as Iraq had invaded Kuwait just three days prior to his first day of work. Growing up with a father in the military—he lived everywhere from Syracuse, N.Y. to the Netherlands—Lent says it was an interesting perspective being on the other side of the camera.

“I’ll never forget those families saying goodbye, and no one knew what was going to happen, or if they would see their families again,” Lent says. “To be the person who documents that visually was just really incredible.”

After four years at The Tuscaloosa News, and getting married to wife, Kristi, Lent began considering furthering his education at UA. Achieving a 4.0 GPA after his first semester at UA, Lent received word from the director of the McNair Scholars Program, Dr. Nancy Campbell, that he was eligible for the McNair scholarship.

Mark LentLent has trained his lens as a photojournalist since he was a 16-year-old in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. (Photo by Samantha Hernandez)

Named for astronaut Ronald E. McNair, who died in the Challenger space shuttle flight in 1986, the McNair Scholars Program was started for individuals who are either first-generation college students or are underrepresented in graduate studies, who meet financial criterion. Students who are accepted to the nationally-funded program participate in research and other scholarly activities.

“I applied for the scholarship because it is so research-oriented, and the experience will really help in grad school,” Lent says. “I think after you get through all of those life experiences and work for a living for 20 years, you appreciate a good opportunity when you get it.”

Coincidentally, Lent was present at the Challenger shuttle launch on that fateful day in 1986 as a freelance photographer for a wire service. He says he even had the chance to briefly meet McNair before the astronauts boarded the shuttle.

Lent says his research at the University and opportunities made available by the McNair program have been invaluable to him. Sparks says Lent could continue his research with the exemplification theory in graduate school.

“I expect Mark to be an attractive prospect to graduate programs throughout the nation,” Sparks says. “Ultimately, he will be a valuable asset as a faculty member for some lucky university.”

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Sarah Caroline Willcox is a senior at The University of Alabama, majoring in public relations, with a minor in English. She is from Birmingham.

This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.