text and photography
by Kayla Salas
“Surgery was successful! New kidney is functioning to specs, and my labs are looking good … I can be back among society fully in another few weeks. I can be in outdoor venues … which is keeping me from going stir crazy!” writes Senior Adjunct Instructor of Photography David Bess in a text message late June 2019 after major kidney surgery.
If we go back just three months, before David knew he would be waking up to a perfect transplant surgery, you could still find the same optimism and joy in his voice that this June text message reflects . . . .
It is just another Thursday, class has dismissed at 2:55 p.m., and David is now ready to wrap up the week. His students reluctantly drift out of the classroom, happy to have just spent two hours in their favorite class with their favorite professor. Their teacher’s personality drove the lesson plan. “David’s teaching style is kind and reassuring. He is very respectful and gives good advice,” says Dorothy Gartsman, senior photo major.
David is equally delighted to have completed yet another work week doing what he loves, but as he makes his way home, he must tend to what has been in the back of his mind all day. He is a photographer, a teacher, a minister, a voice actor, a Disney collector, and now a stage 5 polycystic kidney disease patient. David holds more titles than most, the latter being the most striking. Yet, despite his illness, David continues to be an inspiration in the Photography Department at the University of La Verne, as well as in every other aspect of his life.
He currently teaches three classes at the University, including Documentary Photography, a course on phone photography (How Do I Look Better), and he has recently taken on the job of overseeing the photography majors’ senior projects. Documentary photography, which is historically known as the class that made him La Verne famous, is an introductory photo course that is open to all majors. He describes this type of photography as, “the visual cataloging of life, in particular, the existence of mankind and what we do.” Because of its name, documentary photography is often thought of as being associated only with journalism. In trying to define the style, David asks himself, “What is a document?” to which he answers, “It’s a source of information that records the history of something. So I think documentary photography is actually a lot more wide open than it might at first sound.” It is quite fitting that he is now also directing the Photography Department’s senior project class since the 2018 retirement of department head Gary Colby. This means that present day photo majors are starting and ending their experience at ULV under David’s guidance.
Before gaining his teaching role, David was a student in the Photography Department. After finishing his bachelor’s degree in 2012, he was invited to teach the documentary class, which was originally designed by Gary to meet the needs of journalism. “I’ve always loved teaching, and this was a marriage of two of my passions, and it was a marriage made in heaven.” His students say he is kind, patient and supportive. He is also inspiring. “I learned from him to just keep trying until I get it right and not give up,” says Gartsman.
It all began with an interest in making photographs. A 7-year-old David, with a child’s fascination for the world around him, unwrapped his grandmother’s Christmas gift, a Kodak Instamatic and was soon photographing everything. This fascination deepened after his wife gifted him with his first 35 mm film SLR. “Having the 35mm just opened up a whole new world,” he says. His camera never left his side, and since he has enjoyed pointing his lens in a number of directions. David’s most current interest lies in making abstracts. “I consider myself an eclectic photographer. I love photographing pretty much anything; if I can see it, I photograph it.” What started as a “hobby” rooted into a career the first time David was asked to shoot a wedding. “It was probably about 1984, and it was really about having people look at the images and enjoy them. Even though I liked my work, it was nice to see someone else actually enjoy it too, and that there was enough interest in the work that they were willing to pay for it.”
His photographic talent is only the beginning of a long list of capabilities. Getting married? Looking for someone to officiate your big day? Not only can David photograph your wedding, he is also an ordained minister. “I marry, bury and all the above,” he recites. Growing up in the Baptist church and moving to be a devout member of the Protestant Pentecostal denomination inspired his religious association. “I felt the call to ministry when I was fairly young. Actually, I preached my first sermon when I was 13.” He considers his work in the ministry to be a primary part of his life, and he often does it for little or no pay. As with photography, he has decided that one of the best ways to exercise this passion is to teach. David is a professor at the Southern California School of Ministry, teaching theology on a regular basis. However, he says he is still a student as well. He has a master of arts degree in theology, a master’s degree in divinity, and is currently working on his master of fine arts. He holds future plans to start work toward a Ph.D. in ministry in the fall. “I feel fortunate to be not only what I would consider a lifetime learner but also be able to teach as well.” David personally is part of the Assemblies of God denomination and attends North Hills Church in Brea, occasionally assisting in one of its sister churches in Ventura.
If you have watched the claymation series, “Clay Kids,” then you have already heard David in action. Yes, heard. In contrast to the helpful role that he plays at the University of La Verne, David is the voice for the character Doctor Ed who, according to the Clay Kids Website, “has no friends and hates children—but the kids can sometimes persuade him to help them out with their schemes.” This stop motion television show that hit the airwaves in June 2013 focused on “misfit kids” moving through their adolescence. It uses humor and magic to keep things interesting. The show was actually produced in Spain and then distributed to worldwide TV stations. “I would record here in Burbank and on the line would be the producers in Spain. They’d hear it, translate it over, and then say, ‘OK, that’s good,’ and we’d move on to the next piece.” Since most of the action overseas, he was typically recording by himself. “I only knew one other local actor so most of the time I was talking basically to the wall.” David has also voiced a cardiologist for a drug manufacturer, along with other smaller roles. “In my early days, I was a pharmacy tech and so one of the reasons I got that job is because I could pronounce the words.”
His first gig, however, can be traced back to high school where he would announce basketball games. “I was a horrible athlete, but I had the voice. I would bring in my own music and play intros.” He also recalls announcing at attractions during his time working at Disneyland. This indirectly led to an extensive collection of Disney memorabilia. “It’s nothing I really intended to do; it just kind of started. I blame my sister; she bought me a couple pins, and its mostly just odds and ends stuff I have.” Some of his collection includes seaweed from the submarine voyage ride at Disneyland and trading cards representing every major addition to the park from the 1950s through the ‘90s. Right now, his favorite items to collect are the limited-edition tee shirts. Despite having kept up with Disney for so long, his favorite character is still the classic Mickey Mouse. However, he feels best represented by Pinocchio as a dreamer and the dwarf Happy because of his light heartedness. These are both qualities that those who meet David can easily pinpoint. It is clear that David regularly cycles through a number of wonderful skills and is loved by the people around him, but life is not always the way that Disney would have you believe it to be.
In his mid 20s, David was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (PKD). In the blink of an eye, it reached full blown stage 5. PKD is a condition in which cysts develop in or on the kidneys. As these cysts continue to grow, they begin to inhibit kidney function. David’s particular condition is hereditary. His mother suffered from it so he knew to watch for the signs in his own body, but it had never been much of an issue until recently. Throughout this journey, he has been very open to talking about his illness; he initially reached out to family and friends on Facebook in order to inform them and to ask for help.
Because he is past the stages in which he can be assisted by medication, his main treatments are dialysis and dieting. Aside from this, his main goal is to receive a kidney transplant; however, that has proven not to be as simple as it sounds. “In California, if you don’t have a living donor, the wait list is about 10 years, which is one of the longest wait periods in the country.” Curiously, he always remains in high spirits. This he attributes to his faith and his strong network of family and friends. Recently, he has found three matches through the UCLA transplant program, with a prime candidate who is undergoing physical testing and may quite possibly save David’s life. “I’ve been very, very fortunate to have people who are willing to give that type of gift. I’ve had a number of people from across the nation who have tested on my behalf.” Many of these people are “church folks” reached through social media. Again, David looks toward his faith and the people around him to keep his life balanced. If given the chance to give advice to someone in his position, he offers, “Never lose hope. There’s a biblical principal about not worrying about tomorrow; we’re only promised today.” ■