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Kerry Short retires after nearly 35 years teaching photography at Wanganui

By Madi Chwasta

Kerry Short didn’t just teach students how to take a photo.

He taught them how to create magic. That indescribable “wow-factor”. That moment — whether it’s a look in an eye, or a pop of colour — that makes you linger for a second longer.

“And when the kids realise they can do magic, they just want to keep doing it,” Mr Short said.

Now, after more than three decades of teaching Wanganui Park Secondary College students, the 68-year-old has decided to retire.

“I was just getting good at it, and before long you’ve been doing it for nearly 40 years,” he said with a laugh.

But Mr Short was more than good. He was one of the best.

And it showed on his last day when Mr Short's students formed a guard of honour, applauding and cheering him as he walked through the school in tears.

“Just seeing all the students and the noise and the clapping, I didn't expect it in the slightest,” he said.

“My mind went blank.

“It was beautiful.”

The heart-warming moment was captured on video, and was viewed by nearly 14,000 people on Facebook.

Mr Short said he also received hundreds of messages from ex-students — something that's not surprising given he's taught almost 9000 across the years.

Some have gone on to be among Australia's most talented photographers, including Jamie McFadyen and Marina Oliphant.

And all have been thankful for the connection with Mr Short.

“That (connecting with students) is the luxury of teaching photography,” he said.

“You can veer off and talk to them.”

And the chats turned out to be something he was remembered most for.

“Just hearing the kids say years later, ‘Remember that time we talked about this and that — it was so important to me’,” he said.

“I just wasn’t aware at the time how important it was to them.

“It shows you that the power of a teacher is immense.”

Teaching was Mr Short's first passion, even before his first camera.

He started his working life as primary school teacher in Gippsland.

It wasn’t until his mid-20s that he started taking photos.

“I saw a friend develop film in a darkroom, and I thought it was the most amazing thing,” he said.

“It hit me in the face.”

Kerry Short taught students magic: The photography teacher made sure each child in his class was seen.

Wanting to travel, Mr Short packed his photography gear into a Kombi van and drove around Queensland for a couple of years, living off the money he earned taking portraits of locals.

But missing the Victorian southerly winds and wanting to learn more, he returned to Melbourne.

Mr Short completed a three-year photography course at Prahran College, now the Victorian College of the Arts.

He always loved teaching, and he figured the best way to keep taking photos without the financial stress was by working at a school.

Mr Short had family near Shepparton, and came looking for land with his then partner Karen Utber.

The couple found work at Wanganui Park Secondary College after touring the grounds with then principal Leo Walsh in 1986.

“He took us by the hand, and walked us around the school,” he said.

“He was such a warm character.

“We knew this was the sort of place we wanted to be.”

When the school found out Mr Short was trained in photography, they helped him set up a darkroom, provided him analog cameras, and gave him his own unit to teach.

“So with that created, it just got bigger and bigger each year,” he said.

Student work: Fiona Evans.

And when given the option to convert the darkroom into a modern digital photography studio, he jumped at the chance.

Sophisticated lighting, hi-tech cameras, and dozens of computers with Photoshop catapulted the school into the digital age.

And all the while, Mr Short learned alongside his students and shared his own photography with them.

He said the set-up was thanks to the Wanganui principals over the years — Leo Walsh, Morris Sleep, Keith Grey and Ken Murray.

“It was all because of their support and the freedom they gave me,” Mr Short said.

“It was easy to have fun there.”

The support was rewarded with great success, too.

The school won the national Ilford Schools Photography Competition a whopping 24 times, as well as The Age photo competition 12 times.

The work of his students collected more than $120 000 in cash and prizes.

Student work: Svenja Proescher.

The success felt good, but it wasn't the main aim. The most important part for Mr Short was understanding what made his students tick.

This involved getting them to do the Myers-Briggs personality test to find out which students were introverts or extroverts.

“A lot of kids have really found that valuable,” he said.

“I had one kid who thanked me because the survey made him realise he’s an introvert, and it’s okay to be quiet.”

Mr Short also fostered a relaxed environment in the photography studio by playing music, including rock from the 1960s and 70s — to the feigned disdain of younger students.

He put in all this effort because he loved spending time with young people.

“Kids aren't weighed down with worry and concern,” he said.

“It allows humour to rise to the top. It’s just lots of fun.”

Of course, teaching had its challenges; but the challenge was never anyone’s fault, Mr Short said.

“If you recognise that a student presses your buttons, chances are it's because of an element within you,” he said.

“Teaching is a journey within yourself — you make adjustments within to be the best teacher you can be.”

Even now he still feels like he hasn’t finished that journey. He still wants to teach; but while he wouldn’t do it in the same capacity he has for decades, he’d be open to running classes in Shepparton, and is looking for ideas from the community.

Kerry Short's photography: 'Music of the Clouds'.

Other than that, Mr Short doesn’t really have any other plans.

He might travel and visit some of his old students he has kept in touch with, or may spend more time with his five children — Lorian, Lachlan, Imogen, India and Freya — who are all former students of Wanganui.

But there’s no doubt he’ll continue taking photos. His camera sits in his car wherever he goes.

But he thinks he’ll leave it all up to fate, which is nothing new.

“Fate has grounded me,” Mr Short said.

“I didn’t plan for anything I have done.”

That's all part of Mr Short's magic; and without planning for it, almost by accident, he was able to share it with thousands of students across the Goulburn Valley.