Arts & Culture

Wichita photographer turns childhood mischief into successful career (+video)

Austin Mann: The eyes for a portrait

By Oliver Morrison
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By Oliver Morrison

Editor’s note: Austin Mann’s father was previously a professional photographer. An earlier version of this story said he dabbled in photography.

Austin Mann was alone in his room with the lights out on a Saturday night in 2005.

His friends were out drinking, partying, having fun. He was waiting for a drop of water to land in his blue cereal bowl. At the exact moment it hit the water in his bowl, he pressed the shutter down on his camera just as he triggered the flash.

And there it was: A ripple with perfectly curved rings appeared on the camera’s screen.

He’d been at this for hours. Finally, with the lights turned off, the drop of water appeared without a blur.

Mann, a Wichita native, has since gone on to travel the world shooting photographs that have been featured everywhere from National Geographic and the New York Times, to giant billboards on the sides of highways and the displays in Apple stores. Mann is now using his success in photography to help other freelancers and entrepreneurs.

But at that moment during his sophomore year at Baylor University in Texas, Mann was just messing around. He didn’t realize that, just after the biggest spiritual crisis in his life a few weeks before, he’d found his avocation.

By Oliver Morrison

A few weeks before he’d woken up in his room, hung over, the keys to his car missing and black sharpie marker scribbled all over his face. Partying was typical of the life Mann was living at Baylor.

But that day word quickly spread to Mann that a young pastor on campus had died tragically, after dropping his microphone into a baptism pool.

Several of his friends were distraught, and Mann, though he didn’t attend the pastor’s church, had chatted with him a couple of times. So he found himself at the funeral, on Nov. 1, 2005, listening to testimony after testimony about someone who had greatly affected the people around him.

Mann remembers the ceremony still, including the pair of sunglasses that had been left in the empty seat next to him. “In an instant, I found myself thinking, ‘Wow, if I died today, people would say, ‘Austin was a nice guy and could fix computers,’ ” he later wrote.

He walked out of the church in a daze, as if he was in a movie where the sound had been cut out, he said. He couldn’t remember how he made it home that day.

He didn’t know what to do exactly, but he knew God was challenging him. He decided to put an end to the nights of drinking that he’d once imagined were the privilege of leaving behind all the rules in Wichita that he had hated so much. Without parties to go to, he had a lot of free time on his hands.

So he did what he always did in Wichita when he was bored – he started tinkering. He picked up the camera that he’d been given a few years before and fiddled. He dropped water into cereal bowls. He climbed on rooftops. He crawled on the floor in janitorial closets. He would stay out until the sun came up to capture the unusually soft light of the sunrise, and if it didn’t look right when he tried to edit it back in his apartment, he would go out again.

He started to feel a sense of purpose.

As a child, he’d swap the heads of basketball players on the iMac he’d mowed lawns to pay for. In middle school, he programmed his Palm Pilot to change TV channels during class. At Trinity Academy, he and some friends once tried to drain the pond in front of the school before someone noticed the whirring of the hidden pumps.

Up until that point in his life, he was creative and competent but hadn’t put it to productive use. Then a local pastor, who had once been a missionary in Africa, took Mann under his wing and told him that he too would travel to Africa.

“I’d (rarely) been further than Hutchinson pretty much growing up,” Mann said. “I had never thought about leaving the country, and it was in two months that he wanted to send me. I had no passport, I was 20 years old and I was just like, no, I am not going out of the country, that’s crazy.”

But in two months he found himself in Tanzania, working with a school. He took a portrait of a girl named Anastasia, careful to capture the life and beauty in her eyes, and gave her mother a copy, a rare gift in their town.

Mann wanted more.

By Oliver Morrison

By the end of his senior year, he had an offer from a nonprofit to pay for him to travel to a dozen countries over two months, with his dad, who used to be a professional photographer himself.

From there the offers kept coming, mostly from nonprofits, but also companies like Nike and Apple. He traveled to Iceland and wrote a review, which went viral, that compared the cameras in the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4s. Apple featured one of his horizontal photos on its website.

But a few years ago, around New Year’s, he was sitting with his dad at Cinnamon’s, a deli in Wichita, reflecting on what he’d accomplished that year: He’d slept in 141 different locations, moving from one place to another, about every two and a half days.

But he was exhausted and realized he wouldn’t be able to do all the projects that he wanted to in the coming year. Plus, he noticed that his girlfriend, another traveling photographer, often struggled to find a place to work. She’d go to coffee shops, if there was parking, and if the coffee was good but not too expensive, and if it had large enough tables to work on, and if it wasn’t too loud, and if it had enough power outlets for her devices.

There weren’t enough workspaces for young entrepreneurs like him and his girlfriend, so he created a business called WELD, which rents out desks and offices to freelancers and small businesses. Similar to other co-working environments in urban areas, for a few hundred dollars a month WELD provides its members with things such as craft beer on tap, a place to screen movies and, of course, unlimited use of a photography studio.

The idea is that now, even though less of his time is spent actually shooting photos, he is expanding the capacity of creative, mission-driven people like himself to do 20 times the work he could do alone. WELD recently expanded from Dallas to a second location in Nashville.

It’s not only what an entrepreneurial leader might have done, Mann said, it’s what Jesus did. “(Jesus) wasn’t out preaching on the mountain tops all the time. He was investing in the people around him, specifically in 12 (people), to equip them to go out into the world,” Mann said, adding that other aspects of spiritual and business leadership are different. “There is an exponential impact when you’re investing in a platform that is foundational for people to unleash the potential inside them instead of just doing it yourself.”

His disposition to get in trouble and break all the rules finally has a constructive expression, he said, and he thinks more people should be trying to break rules. “That’s a key part of being an entrepreneur, knowing how to buck the system and seeing better solutions and not subscribing to a system just because that’s the way everyone does it but asking yourself is that the best thing, is there a better way.”

Although Mann spends more time in Dallas and Nashville these days, he was in Wichita for his 30th birthday Sept. 9. That was the day the new iPhone was announced, so his phone was ringing constantly.

After stopping by Backwoods to look for gear for his upcoming trip to Switzerland, he climbed into his car. He cares more about how fast his car will go than how it looks, he said, so it will get him where he wants to go more quickly.

“I don’t spend a lot of time looking through photo albums of my life or even reflecting on my own pictures,” Mann said. “I just keep pushing forward.”

Reach Oliver Morrison at 316-268-6499 or Follow him on Twitter: @ORMorrison.

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