Larry Louie has a distinct way of seeing life. The Hong Kong native is an optometrist and a photographer, balancing his time between eyeglasses and camera lenses. Either way, he’s interested in things that exist outside our regular field of vision.

Louie’s latest series, Vanishing Cultures: Tibet, documents the people he met on a trip to the Roof of the World. He does it in breathtaking black and white, capturing every crag on a grandmother’s face, every broken tile in a ramshackle village, every crack in the wall of a monk’s study. He shows an old, crumbling yet defiantly traditional world, barely separating itself from the onslaught of culture-crushing civilization.

Louie’s photojournalistic style caught the attention of judges at the 2010 Visual Culture Awards, an event co-sponsored by the Charleston Center for Photography. The first VCA was held there in 2008. According to founder Mikayla Mackaness, there were participants from more than 35 countries, the jury came from at least seven nations, and the event was translated into several different languages. This year there are over 40 nations involved.

Mackaness says the Center for Photography was chosen as a 2008 exhibition space because the nonprofit was hurting financially at the time. “They wanted more people to come in,” she explains, “and we wanted to partner with them.” The VCA definitely brought more photo fans to the center. The place was packed on opening night, with people turned away at the door.

“Ten of the winners also got Photographer of the Year in the International Photography, College and World Press Awards,” says Mackaness. With such a high caliber of entrants, the second VCA has produced some even worthier work.

The 2010 Bronze Award goes to Aaron Vincent Elkaim from Canada. Elkaim is a Toronto-based freelancer whose subtle color images concentrate on the history and environment of Moroccan Jews. Evi Lemberger from Germany is the Silver recipient. Her photographs were taken in the Ukraine, where she shot the walls, furniture, and prized possessions of residents, suggesting the pride they have in what little they do own.

The Gold goes to Louie, who lives in Canada. He only started entering such competitions in 2005, when he took second place in the National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest. The next year he got first place. “We’re using the competitions to make a difference and for fundraising,” says Louie, who is a staunch supporter of SEVA, an organization that works to bring eye care to underdeveloped countries. “VCA fit our bill.”

Tibet provided the perfect avenue for Louie to explore another topic dear to his heart — the disappearance of indigenous cultures through industrialization and urbanization. To him, ancient human cultures are the ultimate endangered species. His work brings their significance, diverse rituals, and ornate art to life.

To capture his winning stills, Louie has to apply patience and selectivity. He shoots much more than he shows. “It’s trial and error,” he says. “I’ve been taking photographs for 20 years, more seriously for the past five or six. Practice allowed me to get these images.”

Although he shoots the raw files in color, Louie thinks in monochrome. “I look at the lighting, shape, form, and values to make my subjects look good in black and white,” he says, his voice charged with enthusiasm. He uses natural light and finds flash “a bit harsh.” He adds, “When I was in Africa it was very dark in the shade, so I sometimes used reflectors to bring light into a space and add sparkle to the corneas.”

Spoken like a true optometrist-photographer.