One week and a camera
What story would you tell if you had a camera and one week in an unfamiliar place? That was the question a group of 11 students from Western Kentucky University faced as they spent spring break in Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties.
The students were part of a semester-long ﾓPicture Storiesﾔ class, led by WKU Photojournalist-in-Residence and former Roanoke Times photographer Josh Meltzer. Since 2003, the class participants have spent spring break putting together photo essays as part of the class's Appalachian Culture Project. According to the project website, the Appalachian Culture Project, ﾓis designed to promote the education of Western Kentucky University photojournalism students, while respectfully documenting the people and culture of the diverse Appalachian region.ﾔ
Before the students even ventured out, they received coaching on the pitfalls of visual stereotyping and the ways in which people with cameras have portrayed West Virginia and the people of Appalachia in an inaccurate and unflattering light.
ﾓYou have to start by acknowledging the existence of stereotypes in the region and the damage they have done,ﾔ said Meltzer. ﾓUnderstanding the stereotypes that are out there makes the students smarter journalists and makes them fairer to the community. You're trying to forget about the preconceptions you have, look at what you see, listen to your subjects and be as fair as possible to them in a compassionate way.ﾔ
Many of last week's resulting picture stories focused on the ties of family, school and community in the two counties. One student followed the Lady Spartans basketball team at Greenbrier East High School and their coach, Greenbrier Resort owner Jim Justice, on a recent game day. Others focused their lenses on the lives of people like Hillsboro mechanic and musician Doug Scott, Lobelia midwife Danette Condon, and the family of Pocahontas County Sheriff David Jonese.
ﾓI was really happy with the stories they found,ﾔ said Meltzer.
Sophomore Austin Anthony spent several days with three generations of the county's only Native American family.
While looking for a story idea, Anthony said he found it ﾓa little ironicﾔ that a county named for the daughter of a Native American chief has a Native American population of only 0.07 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Anthony said he first spent a day on the job with the sheriff. He then spent theﾠ day of a pep rally at Pocahontas County High School with son Lakota, in which the son participated as the PCHS Warrior mascot, wearing the very same Native American clothing and head-dress his grandfather Joseph wore in that same role a generation ago.
While the students in the Photo Stories class have regular, weekly story assignments, last week was very different than most, said Anthony.
ﾓI didn't have any other classes to keep up with,ﾔ he said. ﾓI could focus on this story about the Joneses and spend all my time with it.ﾔ
Meltzer noted that Anthony and his classmates typically have four or five other classes, sometimes a job, and their regular social life during the regular semester.
ﾓI only see them a couple times every week to look at all their stuff,ﾔ said Meltzer. ﾓWhen we meet in class, it's also the first time I see the story.ﾔ
But during the spring-break workshop, students are shooting for 40-plus hours and working with a photo coach twice a day, reviewing every photo they've taken.
ﾓThen they go back to the same story, the same house,ﾔ Meltzer added. ﾓIf they can't get the image today, they can go back and get it tomorrow.ﾔ
ﾓThey also get the benefit of being thrown into a new environment,ﾔ said Meltzer. ﾓIt's a little bit like a journalist working with an agency; you have just a few days to make it happen.ﾔ
In addition to working on their own stories, the WKU students also worked closely with the students and staff at High Rocks Educational Corporation, near Hillsboro. The nonprofit hosted the WKU students at its Dogwood Studio location near Lewisburg.
Students from High Rocks received an afternoon of mentorship in photography from the college students. The assignment for the afternoon: go to downtown Lewisburg and take a portrait of someone or take a photograph of people dealing with the day's rainy weather. The resulting photos are now featured on the ACP website.
Until this year, the week-long photography workshop took place in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Meltzer, who is in his second year of leading the workshop, said he thinks the move to the Greenbrier Valley will be good for the program. With a bigger population, Meltzer sees more opportunities for story ideas for his students to cultivate. The logistics of finding food and lodging for close to a dozen students, along with support staff and workshop coaches, were easier to manage in the Lewisburg area, he said. But Meltzer says he is also considering moving the program's home base to the High Rocks Lodge in Pocahontas County.
ﾓI would rather have it be more rural and less familiar to the students,ﾔ Meltzer said.
The move would also allow for High Rocks students to be involved with the workshop through the whole week to create their own stories, Meltzer added, and show his own students things they might not otherwise see.
Images from the WKU Appalachian Culture Project an be found online at http://acpworkshop.org/2011-2/stories/.