Quiet riots and magnum photography fine art awards

Aaron Hardin| Photo by Jay Bishop

Natalie Smith profiles new visual design professor, Aaron Hardin.

As I followed him into his office after class, he seemed to have missed the light switch. I turned to flip it on, but before I flipped it on, dim, overhanging lights slowly turned on.

“I just put these lights up and got this dimmer switch from IKEA,” visual design professor, Aaron Hardin said. With tattoos peeking out from under his rolled up flannel shirt, conformity was clearly not an adjective used to describe this new professor at Union.

Cameras sat scattered across Hardin’s desk with along with papers and different lens. “I haven’t had time to get bookshelves or pictures hung on the walls,” Hardin said. “But I have my lighting.”

Hardin grew up in the small town of Brighton, Tennessee. He grew up in a single mother home and became the “man of the house” at a young age. His next door neighbor invited him to church that quickly impacted his life greatly.

His youth pastor, who went to Union, took him in and treated him like a son. Once he started high school, he became really involved in Christian leadership and began to lead a Bible study at his high school with 15-30 classmates attending.

“I didn’t realize at the time the reality of that” Hardin said.

He felt like he was being called to the ministry. He only applied to Union, all the people he loved and respected went to Union.

“So why wouldn’t I?” Hardin said. “I came here and it was a total culture shock. I’ve always been rebellious in some ways, like a quiet riot.”

Hardin was the first member of his immediate family to ever attend college. He headed to Jackson, Tennessee as the “golden child” majoring in Christian studies, ready to change the world. When he received a C in his first Christian studies class he became disappointed, discouraged and confused.

Hardin changed his major to digital studies and went full force into his new found major. His senior year, he took a photography class during J-term that changed his life.

“I was practically done with undergrad,” Hardin said. “And I just found my passion for photography.”

Hardin graduated from Union with a digital media studies degree and stayed in Jackson to work at Charter Media, creating commercials and directing television shows. While working at Charter, his passion for photography never ceased. He applied for a part time position at the Jackson Sun, Jackson’s local newspaper, that eventually became full time. He worked there for three years as a photojournalist.

“That’s where I really learned my craft pretty well, from just taking pictures everyday,” Hardin said.  

Shortly after he started working for the Jackson Sun he got involved with a nonprofit group, Indigenous Outreach International.

During his time with the organization, he traveled to Ethiopia and Northern Ireland, spending time with indigenous groups and photographing their communities. He also maintained Indigenous Outreach International’s web page.

“I was making pictures, doing videos, redesigning their website,” Hardin said. “Every media-related thing, I kind of revamped while I was there.”

Hardin was there for three years while also working as a freelance photographer.   

“I decided that I was ready to grow and learn more, so I applied for a graduate program at the Hartford Art Institute in Connecticut,” Hardin said.

The graduate program was an international resident program. Hardin would travel often to study photography with different artists, while being mentored remotely by his main core group of faculty.

“Most of them were Yale grads,” Hardin said. “So it was really intense. I would work from Jackson, my classmates are from all over the world, and we would Skype in with our advisor once every two weeks and have one on one and talk about all the work I was doing and I would have to defend it.”

When Hardin and his classmates would meet together as a group, they’d meet in Hartford, Connecticut as well as New York, Berlin twice and Portland, Oregon.

“I got to meet some of my favorite photographers,” Hardin said. “That was my favorite thing.”

During his time at Hartford, Hardin also became an adjunct professor at his alma mater, Union University, in the fall of 2015 teaching a couple of photography classes.

While finishing his graduate program, Hardin received the Magenta Foundation Emerging Artist Award, finding himself on a list with emerging artists from America, Canada and Europe. He is currently working on a book of his most recent work, The 13th Spring.

The most recent award Hardin has received is the prestigious Magnum Photography Fine Art Award. People from 126 countries entered with thousands of entries for this award, and Hardin received it.

“You have to be willing to have goals and work towards those goals. And sometimes it takes years and years and years to attain those goals,” Hardin said. “And you have to be okay with that.”