During his first year at Virginia Tech, Tony Hardmon faced a problem. As he looked at his film footage, the now Academy Award–winning cinematographer was unhappy with the quality of his photography.

In quiet confidence he expressed his discontent to Edward Sewell, at the time an associate professor of communication. It was then Hardmon learned his most meaningful lesson as an undergraduate.

“Ed encouraged me to be patient and to just continue refining my skills,” says Hardmon, who earned his communication degree in 1986. “He assured me that the aggregated experiences of living life would reflect in my work, and that my work would develop as I matured. The phrase I always recall him saying is, ‘You’ll look back on all those wonderful, accumulated moments, and you’ll find they ripen as you get older.’”

As Hardmon dedicated himself to a career in cinematography, he amassed a wealth of experience and grew as an artist. He worked on films such as Barbara Kopple’s Miss Sharon Jones!; Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s The Boys of Baraka, Detropia, and Freakonomics; Liz Garbus’s The Execution of Wanda Jean and Girlhood; Stacy Peralta’s Crips and Bloods: Made in America; and Michael Moore’s Sicko.

Hardmon says he discovered a passion for documentaries because they not only inform audience members, but can also move and motivate them.

“I want to collaborate on projects that inspire viewers,” he says. “And I’m curious about people’s unique stories and how they overcome their adversities. I’m interested in discovering how particular situations happen as well as how they get resolved.”

Semper Fi: Always Faithful, a film he made in 2011, is a prime example of a documentary that fulfilled his cinematographic ideals. It features a career Marine who uncovered one of the largest water contaminations in U.S. history.

Activists and legislators used the film to raise awareness about the water crisis, which led to the passage of legislation that provides health care for the Marines affected by the contamination and their families. Attending the bill-signing ceremony at the Oval Office with President Barack Obama was the proudest moment of his career, Hardmon says.

Service to others is always a theme running through his film projects. He prefers to work on documentaries that address a social issue, whether economic inequality, underrepresented groups, an environmental story, travesties in the criminal justice system, or a little-known subculture. And he gravitates toward those he believes will have a positive impact on society. By offering a window onto the lives of others, he aims to cultivate empathy and compassion within viewers.

 Hardmon’s many other credits include the Academy Award–winning short film Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1; the documentary series Boomtown, which won the International Documentary Association Award; and I Am Evidence, which was honored with a 2019 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award.

“I like the challenge of telling these stories in a compelling way,” he says. “I try to prioritize my choices based on several factors: Does the project have the potential to educate or inspire an audience? Will it draw awareness or bring clarity to a troubling situation? And will it be something I’ll be proud to present to my daughter one day?”