For award-winning amateur photographer J.J. Bellemare, one thing just led to another.
Long one to take photos of happy dogs with his iPhone 12 for a Facebook page, the ebullient Bryan County Schools bus driver happened across a photo contest in School Bus Fleet Magazine and decided he’d enter.
“At first I wanted to do it next year, because I didn’t think I had enough material this year to be a serious contender,” Bellemare said. “But then I looked at what I had, and I sent them three photos.”
That was in June. In July, Bellemare heard back. One of his photos won the magazine’s 2021 photo of the year, beating out submissions from 65 entrants.
“They sent me a certificate and a $100 prize,” Bellemare said. “Not only is it the first photo contest I ever won, it’s also the first one I ever participated in.”
His winning entry, a photo of a rainbow captured in a school bus door during a washing, “stood out to our team because the photo captured so many different elements – from the rainbow to the water splashes to the bright yellow hue of the bus. Also, his photo description was very fitting: He told SBF that the rainbow embodies the climate of hospitality, serenity, and safety that prevails on his routes,” said the magazine’s assistant editor, Sadiah Thompson,
in an email. Winning, as one might guess, made Bellemare’s day. “I don’t want to brag, but I felt very honored,” he said, adding he believes the quality of the competition from driver/photographers such as Russell Adams is high. “There’s pretty good content in the magazine. Consistently, every year, the photos are stunning.”
A Canadian who grew up in the small town of Shawinigan, Bellemare’s excellent English comes with a French Canadian accent. He has lived in the Savannah area since 2005 and began driving a bus for Bryan County Schools in 2014, and also helps train new drivers in their quests to get CDLs.
Before that, the former Canadian Army artillery officer worked as a school teacher, correctional officer and tour guide driving carriages in New Orleans.
“I even tried commercial truck driving, but that was not a good match,” Bellemare said. “Then I tried school buses, and it turns out I love it.”
The same goes for photography.
Bellemare, who names Richmond Hill Middle School art teacher Tammy Luke, also a school bus driver, as an inspiration, holds a twice-yearly photography contest for the students he carries to and from school.
His advice to aspiring photographers is “be yourself.”
“Don’t try to be other people,” Bellemare said. “That’s the advice I would give them for anything else, any school bus driver. Find your own style and don’t be afraid to be yourself. People need to see you are authentic.”
For Bellemare, who regularly posts photos on a Facebook page dedicated to his neighborhood park in Savannah, Mohawk Lake Park, the exposure in SBF Magazine is a big leap forward in exposure.
The magazine has a circulation of more than 25,280 and an “audience reach,” of more than 311,000 – including more than 106,000 web visitors a month, on average.
As for Bellemare’s win, it came in the 17th edition of School Bus Fleet Magazine’s contest, according to Thompson, who said the magazine has held the competition each year since 2005 and “every year we’re blown away by the quality of photos we receive and the unique depictions of pupil transportation. We’re always excited to see the creativity of our nation’s school transportation personnel; they truly show they are more than just school bus drivers.”
More of Bellemare's photography is show below: