To label Charles Leftwich a photographer vastly undervalues and oversimplifies his role in the lives of so many.
Many know him as a man that can be seen at any given middle or high school sporting event in Surry, Stokes, Yadkin and Forsyth Counties. Charles isn’t a difficult man to track down, either. His camera and infectious smile make him easy to locate on any sideline.
More than anything, Leftwich is a storyteller determined to capture life’s most precious moments. He lives a life of service and allegiance in which he constantly seeks out ways to better himself as well as his community.
He does so by engaging with every person with whom he comes in contact, whether that be on the sidelines of a football game or waiting for the president to arrive at the airport. Not everyone Leftwich photographs knows him by name, but the veteran shutterbug’s passion for serving others leaves a lasting impression on anyone fortunate to cross his path.
“I enjoy what I do,” Leftwich said. “I enjoy the relationships that my camera has allowed me, through God’s blessing, to be able to forge.”
He’s lived across the American South and East Coast as well as overseas. Family and education brought Leftwich to North Carolina, and he’s made it clear that this is where he plans to stay and live out his dream.
“A friend of mine helped me buy my camera, and God helps me with my talent,” Leftwich said. “I try to do the best that I can every day to show my friend that I’m appreciative for giving me the money to buy the camera I needed, and am thankful to God for giving me the ability and the health to sustain me so I may do the things I do creatively.”
Growing up in a military family
Charles Leftwich never spent too much time in one place before settling in North Carolina.
“I’m a second-generation Army brat,” he said. “My grandfather was in the military, and my dad was what they call a lifer. He spent 31 years in the military.”
Leftwich said he was supposed to be born in Georgia, but his grandmother said that no grandson of hers was going to be born that far south of the Mason-Dixon line.
So instead, he was born in West Virginia.
His family moved to Texas not too long after he was born; this is the origin of Leftwich’s lifelong dedication to the Dallas Cowboys.
After Texas was Puerto Rico, which was then followed by another move to Augusta, Georgia. Leftwich stayed in Georgia while his father fought in Vietnam. This exposed him to the racial tensions like he’d never seen before.
“The south in the ’60s was a terrible place,” Leftwich said. “People were insensitive and cruel, but then there was a kindness that kind of came from the clerical part of society. People had some adherence to decency, but then there was that cruelty that only the South can give you – where you hate someone because of a color.”
The move was just a complete flip from what he was used to living in Puerto Rico, which Leftwich referred to as an “island tropical paradise.”
“We were going to the beach every weekend,” Leftwich said. “I learned how to speak multiple languages; I spoke Spanish and English. It was just a wonderful life. Then you come to the South and have all that hate of the ’60s.”
The family then lived in New Jersey for a short time before moving to Athens, Greece. This eventually led to Leftwich returning to the U.S., Kentucky specifically, where he would graduate high school, then start college at West Virginia University.
Leftwich was first exposed to North Carolina when he took a trip to visit his father who retired in Winston-Salem. His dad spent a few years as an ROTC instructor at East Forsyth High School before working for R.J. Reynolds.
On his visit to North Carolina, Leftwich was encouraged to check out Wake Forest. He did and actually met the Dean, striking an instant relationship with him. That led to Leftwich transferring to Wake on an ROTC scholarship.
He’s called the Tar Heel State home ever since.
“This has been a very beautiful place to live, and in the last 40 years has grown tremendously.”
Finding his home
Serving in the military was always the goal for Leftwich. He achieved this by enlisting in the U.S. Army after graduating from Wake Forest, where he studied economics and sociology.
After serving, Leftwich returned to this state and married his college sweetheart, Ramona Jordan Leftwich. The two have three children together: a daughter Ryan Scott, that lives in Roanoke, Virginia.; a son Charles E. Leftwich, who lives in Washington D.C.; and a son Cameron Lorenzo, who attends Winston-Salem State University.
Charles has one grandson, Xavier Scott.
Upon his return to Winston-Salem, Leftwich took some of the elements that he had learned previously and developed them in corporate America for a few years.
After that, he was at a crossroads in life.
“You live your life and you always want to do one thing,” Leftwich said, referring to his military service. “After you do that one thing, you have to discover what you want to do next.”
Leftwich started an executive concierge service that provided security and transportation for corporate officers in the area. He’s scaled back in recent years, but still takes care of executives for local hospitals.
This was also the same time Leftwich decided to get back into photography.
“As an Army brat living in some of the most scenic places in the world, I sort of always had a camera,” Leftwich said. “When I lived in Athens, Greece, my God, I saw the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis every day on the way to school. When you walk on streets that people in mythology walked on, you want to capture those moments.”
Even when he lived in the U.S., Leftwich had a propensity to travel with a camera. He went on countless trips as he worked to become an Eagle Scout.
Then, he took pictures for the yearbook and local newspapers while at Wake Forest.
“It gave me that incentive to keep a camera around,” he said.
When he returned home from the military, Leftwich’s sister made a comment about him needing to pick up photography once again.
“She said, ‘You don’t shoot anymore. … That’s a shame. If I had your talent, I would never put down a camera. I have a camera, but I don’t have your talent.’
“Then my dad said that one thing I’ve always done very well was taking pictures,” Leftwich said. “I think if you start to listen to the people around you, which we don’t always do in life, it can be for your betterment if it’s someone close to you. When my sister and dad said that, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should get back into photography.’”
Leftwich has photographed the likes of professional athletes, U.S. presidents and just about anything else one could think of.
He uses his camera and press credentials to open all kinds of doors. This is his favorite part of the job.
“It just seems that the camera has created an opportunity that I haven’t been able to get anywhere else in my life,” Leftwich said. “You don’t get anywhere with a gun, and you don’t get anywhere with being cruel or mean. You get a long way by creating relationships with people that can be lifelong.”
A few years ago, Leftwich took pictures of the ACC Barnstorming Tour when it stopped at North Wilkes High School. A parent from Alleghany that purchased some of the pictures later invited Leftwich to photograph her son at the upcoming state golf championships.
“It was a wonderful day,” he recalled.
Leftwich met the entire family, including a younger daughter that also competed in high school sports. His budding relationship with the family resulted in him taking pictures of the daughter during her four years of high school.
It wasn’t just in athletics, either. Leftwich was invited to shoot both her junior and senior proms. He considered it a blessing to be part of this family’s life at so many key moments.
The blessing wasn’t over when this young woman graduated high school. This past year, she reached out to Leftwich to say she was getting married and wanted him to assist with the announcements.
“How many times do you get to go from Stokes County all the way up to Alleghany,” Leftwich said. “That’s when I decided, because of these relationships that I was having with all these different people, that I couldn’t stay in just one place. I was more determined to shoot every different sport and go everywhere.”
That is just one instance of how photography served as a medium to form a relationship for Leftwich.
At sporting events, he makes sure to shoot more than just the actual game because “you never know how much a picture could mean to someone.”
That could be of an elderly superfan that is an important figure for the community, or perhaps of a coach that that passed away too early. In both scenarios, Leftwich’s photos manage to freeze time and keep a memory alive.
When North Surry football won the school’s first conference championship in nearly two decades in 2017, Leftwich was at that game and took plenty of pictures of the Greyhounds. Earlier this year, a member of that 2017 championship team, Nic Rodriguez, passed away at the age of 19.
Leftwich was contacted by Greyhound fans looking for pictures of Rodriguez, to which Leftwich happily obliged.
“When I have a camera, I’m shooting, but I’m creating life,” Leftwich said. “But when you’re a soldier, you’re not creating life – you’re taking life. I prefer shooting the way I shoot now. I can create a memory, and I can create an opportunity.”
Leftwich loves his job, and the relationships he’s formed through his photography make the job that much more enjoyable.
“My car broke down once and a guy pulls up in a wrecker and he goes, ‘Ain’t you Leftwich?’ and I said, ‘Yes sir.’ Turns out he was with the towing company down on Patterson Avenue who happens to be a guy who lives in Stokes County, and I had photographed his daughter. I got picked up right away.”
Meeting people has been especially difficult this year with sports ending due to COVID-19 regulations. Since high schoolers missed the spring 2020 sports season, prom and graduation, so did he.
Leftwich spent years getting to know student-athletes and their families. He felt robbed that he didn’t get to accompany them through their final stretch of high school, but understands the necessity of what happened.
All he can do now is look to the future.
“I miss these people and I love them,” Leftwich said. “I can’t wait to get my life back. But even if I don’t because the world has changed, I’ll adapt, and we’ll figure out how we’re going to work this thing out.”