Recently, Live Water Foundation had the pleasure of hiring local photographer Sura Sohna as the exclusive cameraman for our Junior Wai Koa program. In addition to being an extremely gifted self-taught shutterbug, Sura has an inspiring and empowering story that immediately drew us to want to work with him. Though the circumstances that brought him national attention on the Ellen Degeneres Show were anything but ordinary, unfortunately the story of poverty and desperation that would ultimately lead to his incarceration is all too common in the Annapolis community where Sura grew up. After being sentenced to 13 years in prison for burglary, Sura was released 12 years early due to the tremendous work of his childhood friend and youth philanthropist, Brandon Harris.
We sat down with Sura to discuss his interest in photography, his upbringing in Robinwood, and his plans for the future. Follow Sura’s instagram to view his portfolio, and be sure to stay tuned to our socials as we continue to share more of his work.
How did your passion for photography begin?
I had always wanted to do photography. I just was doing a lot of other things other than photography, you know. And then last year, I was in prison and I just came to this conclusion… like, I just wasn’t doing anything with my life. And I felt like that’s something I always wanted to do — I always liked films, movies. Every time I watched a movie it wasn’t just to watch for entertainment, I was always watching to see how the actors react, to see how the camera moves… I’ve always liked that type of stuff. So, that’s what I wanted to do. And I made my mind up, so I just started ordering books and guides for photography and started studying them. By the time I came home I knew everything about a camera. I knew what to do with shutter speed, everything. It helped me out a lot.
Is there a particular style of photography that interests you the most?
I like all photography. When I first got released, I wanted to do more personal pictures like portraits. But, I felt like I could do even more and just started exploring, and coming in with an open mind. I’m still keeping an open mind and just taking pictures of everything, as you can see on my business page. I take pictures of cars, I do landscape photography… I love it.
Were you able to practice in prison?
Not really. Only certain people can have a camera in there because they had a certain job, but I talked to them and they showed me certain things…. so there was a little bit about it I learned [in person]. But most of the stuff I learned, I self taught myself.
Can you talk about how you got involved in crime?
I got involved in crime mostly from my neighborhood. My neighborhood in Annapolis, it’s one of the most high crime neighborhoods… I just saw older people doing it, and then seeing people my age in it. You know, my family — we didn’t really have much. We used to wear the same clothes, and didn’t really have much food, stuff like that. We’d have the electricity going off. So, it was just hard. And I saw other people doing things and you know, I just felt like it was normal to do. I’d see people taking care of their families and giving them everything they need, doing better than me but in an illegal way, and I just felt like “that must be the way to do it”. I feel like it was just bound to happen. It’s what I grew up into, it’s all I knew. It seemed like the legal way was too hard. In that neighborhood, success is just not getting in trouble. (But that’s not really success.)
The community you grew up in is part of the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis, who we partner with for our Junior Wai Koa program. What’s your take on the program?
I love the program. They’re helping by basically putting those kids in a different environment. And [Live Water President and Co-Founder] Brian, you can tell he really loves the water. So he’s just spreading that love, and taking [the kids] to a different environment which is killing two birds with one stone to me. It’s teaching them about the water but also showing them how to kayak and paddle board. That’s something that I want to do someday — I want to get to a spot where I can help other people. That’s what I want to do. So I feel like the program is really amazing and inspiring.
You’re 23 now. Where do you see yourself and your photography at 30?
If you ask me, I feel like my business is going to be everywhere globally. By that time, I’ll be out of film and photography school and I’d love to be out shooting as the director of photography.
What are your plans for film school? Did you get accepted somewhere?
Oh no, not yet, I’m still finishing my GED. But, I know I’m going!
Well, that’s definitely the way to be thinking about things — instead of saying “I’m hoping to go to film school” say to yourself “I am going to film school.” That’s a great perspective to have.
I actually feel like I do it so much now that I don’t even realize it! There was this one person that I was in prison with, and he told me that what a person thinks is what a person is. And I didn’t really get what he was saying at first, but he said he was just going to give me time to think about it. Then finally when I thought I got what he meant, I came back to him and I said “whatever you think or believe, that’s what you become.” And that was it, that’s exactly what he was saying.
So, keeping in that way of thinking, we know you’re going to be successful in the future. You said you’d like to be able to do something to give back, do you have any idea what that might look like?
Just like Brian did, I will make a program myself. And like my friend Brandon who started his program, the Coalition for Success. He made a GoFundMe and raised over $30,000 and took a group of kids to Puerto Rico. I want to do something like that, I want to give kids a different point of view on life. I don’t just want to be their mentor. I want to do that, but I know that most kids don’t want to listen. You have to have them work up to something and set goals. I want to set field trips with their families and show them a different way of living and different aspects of life.
Do you have anything else coming up this summer?
Next month I’m actually going to the National Geographic photography camp. A friend of mine helped me get selected which was awesome because there’s only like 15 people that can go throughout Maryland.