If you browse Donny Bower’s Facebook page, you essentially scroll through posts after posts of Hatteras Island history that he has documented over the years as a photographer. With camera in hand, the 62-year-old Buxton resident has been Johnny on the spot at all the major events that have occurred on his island home for decades.
Bowers grew up on the island and learned how to take photos and develop film as part of an extracurricular class where the students produced a magazine — “Sea Chest” — filled with student articles and images on the history and culture of the island and its people. “We kind of looked at it as historic,” says Bowers of the experience.
He’s honed his craft by watching YouTube and other photographers. “What’s he doing different than me,” says Bowers. “Why is he so much better? You Share. It’s a give-and-take kind of thing.”
Over the years, he has captured images of houses falling into the surf, of the new inlet caused by Hurricane Isabel, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse move, the container wreck that caused hundreds of bags of Doritos to wash up on the beach, the dredge hitting the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, high school basketball games, 5-K runs, the annual 9-11 climb of the lighthouse, and the recent Worrell 1,000 catamaran race.
It’s been said by journalists that Bowers is fearless when it comes to getting the photos he’s wanted. He finds a way to gain access and succeed in his mission. Bowers remembers the advice he received from Bob Boyer a videographer with NBC. “Just keep walking until somebody tells you to stop.” This has served him well over the years; and he has the publications to prove it.
Bowers’ photos and writing has been published in a variety of newspapers including “Monitor,” “Island Breeze,” and the “Island Free Press.” He’s been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his photo feature on stand-up paddle boarding, “Paddle Palooza.” He’s also done work for WRAL during storms including sharing photos and doing live interviews.
As a longtime, competitive windsurfer, and well-known custom board shaper and repairer, Bowers also has written a windsurfing column and had articles appear in “Windsurfing Magazine.” He was one of the first four windsurfers on the island in the early 80s. “Back then nobody came here to windsurf,” says Bowers.
Outside of event photography, he also documents the utter beauty of Hatteras Island. He is into night photography. It took him three years to get a shot of the Milky Way above the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. “The Milky Way moves along with the earth,” says Bowers. “You’ve got to capture it at a certain speed.”
His portfolio includes the rickety Frisco pier before it was torn down, an aerial view of Shelly Island before it disappeared, and the infamous Serendipity House in Mirlo Beach prior to being moved. A panoramic view of the Albatross Fleet, some of the first charter boats to travel offshore, is a shining star in his collection. It represents the 75th anniversary of the fleet. His lens captured an inside view of the brick walls and spiral staircase of the Ocracoke Light that’s off limits to climbers. “Being a photographer has its perks,” says Bowers. “You get access to places.”
What pushes this mostly self-taught photographer to earnestly document the history of his home? “The challenge, it’s always the challenge,” says Bowers. “I see possibilities of how I can take it a step forward.” He enjoys passing on well earned advice to students he has taught such as being aware of what makes you, the individual, tick behind the lens. “If you walk by something, and you look twice at it, what made you look at it? says Bowers. “Capture what made you look.”
What’s in the future for this preserver of history? Creating a studio in the Buxton home he is renovating. Yes, along with photography and windsurfing, he is a skilled builder and woodworker. Once the studio is complete, he is considering teaching photography and offering printing services. The studio also will lend space to do onsite custom picture framing and mat cutting.