By Anya Shukla
Adem Wijewickrema’s aunt, a photographer herself, gifted him his first camera when he was only five years old. He’s been taking pictures ever since: of the places he’s traveled, cars, and the city. In eighth grade, Wijewickrema also started a photography business; now, he gets booked for birthday parties, car shows, sports videos, and even a New York Times bestsellers’ food showcase event.
Additionally, Wijewickrema leads the 60-person photography club at his high school. He starts the year off by asking members to bring in photos for him to critique, then he teaches students about camera basics, like f-stop and shutter speed. Afterward, the club takes field trips around the city to practice what they’ve learned.
“There are not a lot of people my age who actually have a camera and can call themselves a photographer: everyone just takes photos on their phone. So the fact that there are sixty kids coming to me—week after week—who are interested in this… it means a lot to me.” Wijewickrema said.
However, with programs like Photoshop costing over $400 per year, he decries the barriers preventing many students from pursuing photography. “Photography should be something that everybody can do,” he said.
Nevertheless, throughout his work, Wijewickrema advocates for continued practice. “You can’t really just go watch YouTube videos,” he said. “You have to go and actually do it.” To that end, he’ll often sit on a bridge near his house for two or three hours, honing his skills by experimenting with his camera.
At first, Wijewickrema took photos to gain social prominence. “I just took photos to post on Instagram, and I did it to get the likes and the followers,” he said ruefully. But in 10th grade, his perspective on photography changed. His school requires all sophomores to create a personal project, and for his, Wijewickrema interviewed and photographed refugees in Egypt, where his mother’s family lives, and Atlanta, his hometown. Then, he combined their stories into a podcast.
“After all the interviews I did, and after all the interviewees I talked to, I can still never understand what they’ve been through,” Wijewickrema said. “But at least other people can go listen to their stories, or see the photographs, and get some kind of understanding.”
His project transformed the values driving Wijewickrema’s work. Now, he aims to educate his audience on foreign countries and others’ experiences through his art.
While Wijewickrema, who lives in Georgia, has faced racism while photographing, his greatest source of pressure is his family. His grandparents, skeptical of photography’s ability to provide for his aunt, caution Wijewickrema from making the same “mistake.” But he doesn’t believe his family should define his career: “You don’t have to go to the big-institution college—the Stanford, the Harvard, the MIT—where [your family] wants you to go. Going to an art school is perfectly fine.”
Now, Wijewickrema sees his aunt, who’s worked for National Geographic and Skynews, as a role model: “She’s the reason why I’m really interested in [photography] and why I’ve done what I’ve done.” She’s prohibited him from interning with her until he’s an adult, so he’s eagerly awaiting his eighteenth birthday this August.
But he doesn’t exactly want to follow in her footsteps. His dream? Work fashion shoots and travel on the side, taking freelance photographs wherever he ventures. At the end of the day, he said, “I don’t want to be my aunt. I want to be better than her.”