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Defying odds: The Appalachian photographer making waves around the world

Meet Houston Vandergriff, an award-winning travel photographer who is breaking barriers and defying stereotypes with his captivating photos. Houston, 23, has always had a knack for photography. He found a camera early in his life and quickly realized the power it gave him. Through his photos, Houston can communicate with people in a way that, otherwise, can be a bit challenging.

When Houston was born it seemed like the world was pitted against him. He was diagnosed as “unable to breathe, jaundice, low muscle tone, hole in his heart, open heart surgery, Down syndrome,” wrote Katie Vandergriff on Huston’s blog Downs & Towns. “Each specialist cited their own long list of things he might never do.”

Houston defied all the odds and now lives a life that is full of adventure and optimism.

Over the last few years, he has created a name for himself in the travel photography community. With his Nikon by his side, he has traveled to 49 states and 26 countries. After countless planes, trains, and taxi cabs, Houston has been able to create a stunning portfolio of work.

When asked what his favorite country was, Houston said, “All of them.”

Houston's passion for photography has taken him all over the world. He is pictured above in Iceland.

Unfortunately, the unveiling of COVID-19 in March 2020 put a screeching halt to Houston’s travels. On the bright side, this time at home has allowed Houston and Katie to sort through their photo bank.

“Some of our photos we’ve had for years, and we never even looked at them,” said Katie, Houston’s mother.

This time also allowed Houston to explore different ways to express himself. One of those was the popular app TikTok.

“On Easter Sunday me and my sister made a TikTok,” said Houston.

This 15-second video quickly explains Vandergriff’s story and showcases some of his work. Using the popular sound, “Bongo cha-cha-cha”, Houston talks about how countless people in his life doubted him, but now he is an award-winning photographer. In a matter of days, his TikTok began gaining major traction. Now, a year later it has over 10 million views.

“We’re still getting feedback for it. It’s been translated into six different languages,” said Katie.“ We’ve done 14 podcasts and shows as a result of the TikTok. Three were in India, one in Africa, one in New York and one in London. It went global.”

As the world begins to regain a sense of normalcy in midst of a pandemic, Houston and his family have decided to resume their travels. In August, Katie and Huston made their way to the south of France to explore lush, lavender fields. He also worked on his wildlife photography portfolio, taking photos of flamingos.

A lavender field photographed by Houston Vandergriff.

Houston has spent much of his life practicing and perfecting his skills behind the camera. In high school, he was extremely active in photography competitions held by 4-H, a non-profit organization that focuses on youth development across the U.S.

After graduating, he then went on to the University of Tennessee to pursue a professional development program in photography. Then, in 2019 he began working as an intern for the Oakridge National Laboratory.

“Whenever they needed to take pictures of people, they had Houston do it,” said Katie. “He makes people feel at ease. When he takes people’s pictures, they’re happy about it.”

Houston’s zest for life doesn’t stop when the camera is put down. He is extremely active in theatre and acting. He also loves to help around his community, but his volunteer ties stretch much further than his hometown of Knoxville, Tn.

After the devastating wildfires that took place in Oregon this Summer, Houston and Katie packed their bags and headed to a small town outside of Portland to do some mission work. Over the course of a week, they helped rebuild a church that was left in shambles by the raging wildfires. Houston explained that there were four groups from different churches involved in the rebuild.

During his work, he found time to shoot photos of the town and surrounding areas that had been affected by the wildfire. Katie said it is seldom they ever leave the house or travel without Houston’s camera. This commitment to photography has served him well.

In September 2021, Houston made his gallery debut at the Knoxville Community Darkroom, a non-profit that cultivates a love for the art of photography. Each month, the Darkroom features an artist in their gallery.

“I was excited to have Houston's work up, as were the rest of the board members at KCD,” said Kira Chambers, KCD Gallery Coordinator. “We had an exceptional turnout and an overflow of support for Houston and the gallery.”

His collection of photos was so successful that KCD decided to extend the gallery into October so more people could come to see Houston’s work.

Houston's work in wildlife photography.

“He has an eye for photography! His charisma and talent shine throughout his body of work. If we could all view the world like Houston does through his camera lens, we would be very lucky,” said Chambers.

In the face of adversity, Vandergriff decided to shine. This story is an awe-inspiring tale that proves the constraints of stereotypes are meant to be broken. As his achievements and accolades continue to rack up, his constant smile never fades.

Houston serves as a source of light for so many in his life. Through his work, he can capture the essence of his incandescence in a physical form. His camera is a tool that allows him to seamlessly communicate his perspective of the world and the beauty that lies within it. Houston's central goal is to bring others joy and he explains that, "Photography makes people happy.”


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