Time-lapse Philanthropy

In Features, Human Interest, Non-fiction on April 26, 2014 at 2:30 am
Courtesy of Conner Allen

Courtesy of Conner Allen

Written by Alex Ashley

On January 19, 2014, at 11:19 p.m., a desperate voice rang out through the realms of social media: “I haven’t felt this helpless in a long time…I honestly don’t know what to do.”

Earlier that night, 20-year-old Conner Allen, a Pacific Northwestern photographer, and Spokane native, had made a 20-minute stop at the Satellite Diner in downtown Spokane. When he and a friend returned to their car, they made a heart-stopping discovery: the windows of his friend’s car had been busted out, the vehicle had been ransacked and the tools of his trade—his camera and gear—were gone.

Standing on the side of the street, in the eerie silence that often accompanies snowy, winter nights like that one, Conner Allen slowly accepted a tragic reality.

He had lost everything.

In a subsequent late night post on Facebook, in a last-ditch effort, Allen pleaded with friends to keep an eye out for his missing gear.  “I hope whoever stole it needed it beyond all means and they had a family to feed or something,” read the post.  “I worked for years for that camera.  I still don’t have it paid off…I’m literally dead in the water.”

With a long list of “to do’s” ahead, and five booked weddings to shoot—one in San Francisco, California—Conner stood helpless.

He describes the feeling of pain and loss he felt when he came to the realization that his camera had been stolen: “I imagine [it’s] the same feeling as freezing to death,” he explains, “slowly going numb and then all I wanted to do was go to sleep.”

“A Medium of Art That is a Privilege…”

Although you may not recognize Conner Allen on the street, either by name or by face, you’ve likely seen his work—perhaps on a billboard in Spokane, between the covers of a magazine, or shared, liked and reposted among friends and strangers on social media—his work always preceding him.

Allen has been a fixture, loved by many and hated by none, in Spokane’s artistic community for quite a few years now, rapidly earning a reputation as a skilled mastermind in visual art.  “I started out wanting to become a fine arts major,” he explains.  “I wanted to become a curator for museums and clients.”

But in 2010, in his junior year of high school, Conner took a film class and, as he puts it, “fell in love with photography,” cutting his teeth on an old film camera, and moving his way up.  Now, just four years later, he wields a massive portfolio of top-notch photography, his work vacillating between different styles—from conceptual wedding and portrait photography, to projects that are a little more edgy and experimental—always learning but always impressive.

Nearly a year ago, Allen made the daring decision to take the leap and move into photography full-time, which he describes as a choice that has rewarded him with several milestones in his professional career: his photos have been featured in 23 printed publications; his portfolio includes published work in one of the world’s top fashion magazines, Vogue Italia.

Although Allen says, like any self-employment, work ebbs and flows from busy and demanding, to not so much, he is finding relative success in his first year relying on his passion and craft to support him completely.  Because his eye for photography is so in demand, he even has a few destination weddings slated for this year, with clients flying him around the country to offer his photographic expertise.

This year, Conner turned just 21 years old.

Omnipresent in Conner’s mind is a powerful quote by one of his biggest influences, renowned filmmaker and literary icon Susan Sontag: “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, eventually in one’s own.”

“Sontag made photography one of the clearest things in my life through her essay ‘On Photography,’” Allen comments.  “Photography is a medium of art that is a privilege in the sense that you are literally a tourist in someone’s reality, capturing their life and portraying it back to them, so they have a feeling of this past that they cling to hold onto.”

Although his outlook and ability span far beyond his years, Conner sees it all, and his place in it, through a lens of unpretentious humility.  “It’s a very humbling feeling,” he adds, “to be a part of someone’s life for a brief moment, and then offer them themselves in a photo, and seeing their reaction.”

“The Community I Built Myself Around…”

Because he is such a valued fixture in the artistic arena—because his work is eloquent and impactful, and his outlook modest and congenial—Allen shouldn’t have been as surprised as he was by what happened next.  But, as it happens, he was astonished.

The morning after the theft, Conner woke up to a full-blown rally of support by the entire Inland Northwest artistic community and beyond.

“By the time I woke up the next morning,” he recounts, “there was even a group that wanted to start a fundraiser.  People started offering condolences, offering to let me borrow their gear and even to donate money to help me buy another camera.  I had people I’d never met researching, eBaying and Craigslisting, trying to help in any way possible.” CustomSLR, an innovator and manufacturer of accessories for photographers, sent Conner a brand new tripod and camera strap as a care package for losing all his gear.  “The community I built myself around was outpouring in its support and help.”

On Tuesday evening at 5:30, Conner’s doorbell rang.  It was UPS.  The carrier presented him with a parcel much larger than he expected—he had been waiting for some smaller items to be delivered—and asked him to sign for it.  Thinking nothing of it, he brought the package inside and opened it.

Over the past couple days, Conner had received countless notes, text messages, tweets and shout-outs on Facebook, but none quite like this.  At the top of the package was a note from a friend and fellow photographer, Shana Rae Rosengarten, on whom Conner’s work had made an impression.  Underneath was a brand new Nikon D600, the exact camera that had been stolen from him just days earlier.

“At this point I was hysterical,” he says.  “I just kept rereading and rereading the letter, amazed at how kind and generous this person was.  I couldn’t believe it!”

Only a matter of hours after receiving his new camera, someone from Spokane called Conner.  ‘I know you just got a new camera,’ they said, ‘and I’d like to give you a lens.  Take it, I just don’t want to be named.’

“It turned out to be a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4,” he explains, “and it is just the perfect lens, exactly what I was using before.”

All of this happened in 72 hours; Conner had gone from “dead in the water,” completely void of a solution to his predicament, to being back—almost by some miracle—to where he had been just three grueling days before.

Conner Allen was back on top.

What the Future Holds

Conner’s plans for the near future are by no means one-dimensional.  Allen plans to expand his horizons, not just from an artistic standpoint, but from a business standpoint, which he admits is an area he is still learning to navigate.

Aside from building an even larger client base, Conner plans to expand in a few different directions.  “I want to start teaching more,” he says, “and I want to start writing for photography blogs.” With only four months of 2014 left, the start of autumn seems to find Allen busier than ever, with no signs of slowing down in the days or months to come.  With booking after booking dotting his calendar with to-do’s, and still more on the long list of “can you fit me in’s?” Allen never knows where he’ll find himself, other than on the road with a Subaru packed with gear, headed to the next place, the next shoot.

“A tourist in other people’s realities.”

Conner’s experience with the Inland Northwest artistic community, in light of the traumatic loss that kicked off his year, has done nothing if not motivate him to continue growing and evolving as an artist and photographer, moving full steam ahead, as it were, to whatever the future holds for him.

You’re going to be seeing a lot more of Conner Allen.

Some would call his a cautionary tale; others a story of inspiration.  But at its roots, Conner’s experience is a testament to the good in people, the beauty of our community and a reminder—highlighted in vivid fluorescence—that amid any wasteland of hopelessness, there will always be an oasis of human kindness to raise us up.

Months later, Conner still remembers opening the note that accompanied his new camera, and reading it.  “I immediately started crying,” he recalls.

Atop a brand new Nikon D600—an exact replacement—the note, inscribed in Rosengarten’s friendly handwriting, read: “Please accept this gift as a reminder that in our industry and in this world there is far more beauty than ugliness.  And that sometimes you don’t have to go looking for it…because it will find you.”

To explore Conner Allen’s work, visit his official website at, or find him on Facebook.

An abridged version of this story was published September 28, 2014 in The Spokesman-Review.  Read here:

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