A Photographer’s Journey Out of Addiction

The first 32 years of Daniel Bowyer’s life were chaotic, impulsive, and reactionary. It is a familiar and tragic story. A baby born to drug addicts and adopted by a nurturing schoolteacher, only to be deprived of a male role model when his adoptive father failed to grasp fatherhood. As a teen and as an adult, Bowyer has been in and out of recovery as a meth addict and arrested on drug charges. He has succeeded nominally at several different careers before being ousted. He even came close to marrying a girl he thought was the love of his life. Bowyer attributes his addiction and previous desire to end his life to repeated disappointment in those around him. Throughout these trials and mistakes, his mother stood by him. In his words, she was an overextended enabler who couldn’t just watch her son kill himself.

“I believe she shouldn’t have helped me. I wanted to die. I was just too chicken shit to kill myself.” said Bowyer.

Despite their contentious relationship, Dian Bowyer’s love for her tortured son would become the catalyst for a turning point in Daniel’s life. Their journey to the South Pole eventually lead to the fateful day when a scheduling error put Daniel in the wrong news photography class and turned his obsessive tendencies into what former L.A. Times photojournalist, now campus newspaper advisor, Gerard Burkhart, calls “a force of nature.”

“In 2011, my mom took me to Antarctica and I fell in love with photography,” said Bowyer. He was standing on the side of the cruise ship, struggling to take a picture of a seal resting on a floating iceberg with his phone. Beside him, professional photographers wielded their long lenses with apparent ease. A self-proclaimed gearhead, Daniel wanted professional equipment too. A year later, Daniel bought his first DSLR camera -– a used Canon T3i, by skipping meals and borrowing money from his mother. He went on to photograph everything that crossed his path.

Dian, however, questioned Daniel’s motivations. As a failed theater actress whose own mother would accept nothing but stardom, she believed that the arts were best suited as hobbies and wanted Daniel to be a lawyer.

Although Bowyer refuses to be confined to a single style of work, Burkhart, who’s now his mentor said, “He seems to have a natural talent for sports photography.” The well-respected professor recounted the day they met, in 2014, when he accidentally kickstarted Bowyer’s academic career as a student journalist. “…I had changed the meeting time to one of my introductory photography classes that Daniel was supposed to be in. When he showed up, it was the college paper class and he just jumped in and volunteered for an assignment anyway.” Burkhart recognized Bowyer’s determination and kept him at the school paper, anyway. Bowyer attended both the introductory class and the advanced news photography class simultaneously, and according to Burkhart “was gun-hoe from the start.”

At 35, Bowyer is snubbing out a cigarette as he finishes a short break and strolls past the famously enormous fig tree by the south entrance of Santa Monica College. He walks back to the Corsair newsroom where he is co-photo editor of SMC’s student newspaper. What most of his classmates and colleagues don’t know is that Bowyer is a renaissance man who barely sleeps. Over the course of two hours, at close to midnight, and just hours before he was scheduled to pack equipment and head out to the Santa Monica Pier to secure a coveted spot at the finish line of the L.A. Marathon, he spoke about growing up as an adopted child — whose biological mother was a drug addict. Simultaneously, he was proofreading an article he’d written about the male perspective on feminism.

Asked why he went back to school at age 32 when he also worked as an audio engineer in a recording studio, Bowyer said it was because he needed school to stay sober. Daniel’s struggle with his addiction seemed to motivate his career and bring him self-realization. “I had a nervous breakdown in front of my mom begging her [to let me] go back to college, to let me figure out my life,” he said.

To Bowyer, it was a desperate attempt to stay out of trouble. To everyone else, it was his resilience and work ethic that put him where he is now. “I did not know he was an addict when I first met him. His drive to produce content to the best of his ability, pushes not only me but everyone who works with him, to work as hard as he does.” says 22-year-old Marisa Vasquez, a co-editor with Bowyer at The Corsair. “To have the ability to maintain stability in the midst of addiction is remarkable.” On Bowyer’s juggling of academic pursuits and personal challenges, Burkhart says, “I’m a type 2 diabetic, and if I’m not careful, it nips away at my health. Sometimes, I just really want that cheesecake, and I think ‘If Daniel can stay sober, I can be disciplined about my eating.'”

When told about her son’s success as an award-winning student photographer and the internship offer at an NFL team as the assistant staff photographer, Dian’s reaction was “Is it a paying job?” To Daniel, the relationship with his mother often revolved around money and her distrust in him due to his struggle with addiction. “I succeeded in photography because I don’t listen to my mom anymore.”

In Burkhart’s opinion, Bowyer and Vasquez not only kept the school paper functioning when it went through a crisis, they’ve also rejuvenated the organization. “They went above and beyond what we expected from them,” said Burkhart. “Somebody said extraordinary circumstances make ordinary people do extraordinary things,” he continued. “Daniel took the long way around, but he started out as an extraordinary human being, as he is.”

When asked where they thought Daniel would be in 10 years, Marisa thinks he would likely “be a photographer at the L.A. Times.” Gerard Burkhart laughed and said, “Anywhere he wants to be.”