Kentucky workshop for photojournalists shows power of storytelling

October 28, 2014

141029MtnWorkshop02 copySophomore Mackenzie Alexander is one of four girls enrolled in agricultural power and mechanics classes at Madison Southern High School. To keep the girls’ hair clear of flames during welding instruction, teacher Brent Muncy will often french-braid it for them. His skills impressed another student so much, she asked him to braid her hair for the homecoming parade. During the 39th annual Mountain Workshops last week in Berea, photojournalist Melissa Ripepi of Blacksburg, Va., did a photo story about Muncy. Photo by Melissa Ripepi. 


BEREA — Each October, I spend a week in a different Kentucky town with three dozen of the nation’s best photojournalists. We help 75 or so students discover and tell the stories of people who live there.

I got back from Berea on Sunday after five days of hard work and little sleep. The amazing results of those students’ work are gradually being posted on A 116-page book was produced on-site and will be published next year.

I keep volunteering for this nonprofit educational enterprise because it’s my annual reminder of the power of storytelling — and of why honest and intimate photojournalism still matters in a media-saturated world.

The Mountain Workshops began as a class field trip in 1976, when I was a freshman at Western Kentucky University. I didn’t get to go, because I was studying to be a writer, not a photographer. But several of my friends were among the small group of photojournalism students who accompanied two professors to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky to document the state’s last remaining one-room schoolhouses.

The next year, the project focused on a poor neighborhood in Bowling Green. Then it began traveling to a different small town each year. WKU started bringing in top professionals as photo coaches. The workshop was then opened to photo students from other universities, as well as professional news photographers who wanted to go beyond daily assignments and learn to tell deeper visual stories.

I joined the workshop faculty in 1995, when writing coaches were added. Workshop organizers realized that even the best photographs need well-crafted words to complete the story. Since then, workshops in picture editing, video storytelling and time-lapse photography have been added.

This year, there was a new workshop in data visualization — print and online techniques for turning complex sets of numbers into graphics that help people understand information.

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Mary and Neil Colmer own Weaver’s Bottom Craft Studio in Berea. A shared love of art and craft have been an important part of their long marriage. During the 39th annual Mountain Workshops last week, their story was told by photojournalist Marc Ewell, who lives in Hong Kong. Photo by Marc Ewell.

Coaching at the Mountain Workshops has allowed me to get to know many of the nation’s best photojournalists, people who work for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, MediaStorm, the Washington Post, Time magazine and National Geographic. The all-volunteer crew frequently includes Pulitzer Prize winners, some of whom have unglamorous behind-the-scenes support roles.

One of my most memorable fellow coaches was the late Charles Moore. He made those iconic Life magazine photos of Birmingham police arresting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and turning dogs and fire hoses on civil rights protesters in 1963.

The 39th annual Mountain Workshops in Berea was headquartered in the former Churchill Weavers factory, a light-filled 1920s complex that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Now called Churchill’s, it is being renovated into a beautiful event space. Thanks to the workshop’s corporate sponsors, the building was temporarily filled with computers and camera gear for everyone to use.

Workshop organizers had identified and contacted dozens of potential story subjects in Madison County, and participants literally drew them out of a hat. As they got to know their subjects over the next few days, more complex and interesting stories emerged, as they always do. By Saturday morning, the photographers had told those stories with candid images made as they tried to blend into the background of their subjects’ daily lives.

An award-winning photojournalist from New York City and I coached a team of six participants. They all found stories richer and more complex than what was on the slips of paper they drew from the hat.

An assignment about a beauty school turned into a story about the school’s only male student. The young man’s mother had recently been killed in an accident, prompting him to focus on achieving his dream of becoming a hair stylist.

A story about a couple with a craft shop turned into an intimate portrait of a long marriage nurtured by a shared love of the arts. Another participant profiled a high school farm mechanics teacher who is the kind of mentor his students will remember for the rest of their lives.

For nearly four decades, the Mountain Workshops have created an unparalleled documentation of small-town Kentucky life. But its impact has been much broader.

Each year, instructors who years earlier were participants talk about how the workshop changed their lives and careers, and how it continues to influence the way they photograph big stories around the world.

They talk about having become more thorough, accurate and compassionate storytellers, all because of an intense week they spent focused on “ordinary” Kentuckians who turned out to be anything but ordinary.

Berea should again be a leader, enact fairness law

June 22, 2011

The nation has begun commemorating a series of 50th anniversary milestones from the civil rights movement.

Looking back, it is hard to imagine an America where citizens could be denied a job, a home or service in a restaurant or hotel because of their race, sex, ethnicity, religion or disability. But that was acceptable until anti-discrimination laws were passed in the mid-1960s.

Those laws didn’t just happen. People were beaten, jailed and even killed while fighting for them — and it wasn’t just the people who suffered discrimination. Things didn’t change until enough other people found the courage to speak out.

I offer this history lesson because Kentucky’s civil rights law remains incomplete. In most of this state, citizens can still be denied a job, a rental home or service in public accommodations based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Berea is now debating whether to join Louisville, Lexington and Covington as the only places in Kentucky that prohibit such discrimination through so-called fairness ordinances.

Berea’s suggested ordinance would protect gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination in the workplace, housing and public accommodations. Still, there might be exceptions for employment at small, private businesses and faith-based organizations. The ordinance also might create a local human rights commission to investigate allegations of discrimination.

At a crowded public meeting in May, called by a three-member city council committee studying the issue, many citizens, including some Christian pastors, spoke against a fairness ordinance. “That was sufficient evidence to me that the possibility of discrimination exists,” said Jason Howard, an ordinance advocate.

But at a second public meeting last Thursday, speakers for an ordinance outnumbered opponents by three-to-one. The committee must eventually recommend that the council draft and vote on an ordinance, or not, or put the issue up for a public referendum.

Fairness laws have faced significant opposition across Kentucky. Henderson city commissioners adopted one in 1999, only to repeal it two years later amid voter backlash. Louisville’s ordinance failed several times before it passed in 1999.

Most opposition to fairness laws comes from Christians who consider homosexuality to be a sin. Other Christians disagree, or they believe laws shouldn’t be based on religious views.

Berea’s debate over a fairness ordinance has gained special attention because of the town’s progressive history. Berea College was founded in 1855 by the Rev. John G. Fee based on what he considered the Christian principles of fairness and equality. At the time, many other Christians quoted the Bible to justify slavery. The college was the first in the South to admit African-Americans and women. It is best known now for educating students of modest means who work in return for full scholarships.

A fairness ordinance is supported by two Berea churches Fee founded: First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Church of Christ, Union. Berea College hasn’t taken a stand on the issue, although it prohibits such discrimination on its campus and offers same-sex partner benefits to employees.

Christians have differing views on homosexuality. Many point to a few Bible verses that condemn it. But the Bible also prohibits divorce and says adulterers and non-virgin brides should be stoned to death.

Other Christians note that Jesus didn’t mention homosexuality in the Bible, but he did talk about loving your neighbor, treating people as you would want to be treated and being careful about judging others.

Homosexuality will always be subject to religious debate, because each Christian interprets the Bible to fit his or her own conscience and understanding. But that’s not really the point.

Freedom of religion — even freedom from religion — is a core American value. The same goes for equal protection under the law. Gay, lesbian and transgender people deserve the same legal rights and protections as everyone else. It won’t happen easily, though, so long as elected officials can get more votes by pandering to some people’s fears and prejudices.

The people of Berea have long set an example for the rest of Kentucky by treating society’s marginalized people with fairness and justice. The right thing to do in this case should be obvious. And it might even help other Kentuckians find the courage to speak out.

Neighborhoods should welcome, not fear trails

July 26, 2009

One of the biggest obstacles faced by communities trying to develop bicycle and pedestrian trails is the attitude of NIMBY: Not in my back yard.

Some people fear trails will bring crime into their neighborhoods, even though common sense would tell them that criminals prefer to travel in vehicles on their already plentiful roads.

Some homeowners worry that trails will hurt their property values, even though the experience nationwide is that trails actually raise property values. Why? Because, once built, trails become a popular neighborhood amenity.

A great example of NIMBY is playing out in the Madison County city of Berea. Since the 1970s, there have been plans for a trail linking the city to Indian Fort Mountain, site of some great hiking trails and an outdoor theater.

The Indian Fort Shared Use Trail would be about four miles long and restricted to pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles. It would be built on land owned by the city or Berea College, which is donating an easement. No private land would be used.

However, a 4,000-foot section of the proposed trail has become controversial because, although it would be on college-owned land, it would pass near some suburban homes.

Berea’s City Council was to vote on the trail last week, but there wasn’t a quorum. For more than an hour, though, citizens commented on the trail. Most lived in the suburban homes, and they opposed the trail.

There were many reasons: They wanted the money spent on other things. They didn’t want strangers near their homes. They didn’t want any development that might disturb wildlife on the college-owned land.

“They’ve had this uninterrupted view and, you might say, use of the college property, and now some other use might be made of it,” said Paul Stolte, a Berea resident who supports the trail.

In addition to helping people get from Berea to Indian Fort, the trail would help residents in that growing suburban area have a way to get into town that doesn’t require a motor vehicle.

“I think it’s going to be an important transportation network,” Stolte said.

Neighborhood trail opponents have proposed an alternative route that would take the trail on the other side of the college property — near other homes instead of theirs.

“That is not the solution; I’ve already started getting calls from those people saying ‘we don’t want it behind our back yard,'” said City Council member Violet Farmer.

“I don’t think (the trail) would be the problem people perceive it to be,” Farmer said, although she understands the concerns.

“I would like to see a network of bike and pedestrian shared paths in town and throughout town,” she said. “It’s a really good project. I don’t know if we can find a solution or not.”

It’s clear that the successful cities of the future will be those that provide residents with safe places to exercise as well as environmentally friendly alternatives to driving cars.

The Indian Fort Shared Use Trail will be back on the Berea City Council’s agenda on Tuesday. Will council members give in to the “not in my back yard” sentiment? Or will they vote for the greater good and the community’s future?

Berea is Kentucky’s first Transition Town

March 10, 2009

BEREA — What if the energy supplies, food systems and other foundations of our modern economy and lifestyle suddenly changed? How would your community cope?

It’s a notion more of us have been thinking about during the past year. We saw gasoline spike to $4 a gallon last summer, then watched our consumption-driven economy slide into a deep recession.

Berea is one of nearly 150 communities around the world participating in a project called Transition Town. It is a citizen-driven effort to develop local strategies for coping with inevitable change in energy supplies and economic conditions that are no longer sustainable or good for the planet.

The Transition Town movement was started in 2004 by Ron Hopkins, an environmental educator in Totnes, England. Most Transition Towns are in the United Kingdom and Ireland, although the movement has spread to every inhabited continent except Africa. In addition to Berea, 17 other U.S. communities have signed on, including Los Angeles, Denver and Boulder, Colo.

“The next 20 years are going to be completely unlike the last 20 years,” predicted Richard Olson, director of Sustainable and Environmental Studies at Berea College and a leader in Berea’s Transition Town effort. “But what they are largely depends on the actions we take.”

Here’s why things will be different: The world’s population of 6.7 billion will grow by nearly one-third over the next 40 years amid increasing worldwide demand for dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. Fisheries are diminishing, as are forests and fresh water supplies. Climate patterns are rapidly shifting.

Decades-old economic structures, lifestyles and food-supply systems based on an endless supply of cheap oil, natural gas and coal must change. “We’re going to be using less energy — and soon — so why don’t we plan for it?” Olson said.

These changes may seem like doom and gloom, but the solutions to them don’t have to be. In fact, Olson said, smart strategies could create stronger communities, more healthy lifestyles and happier people. “A future with less oil could be better,” he said.

Transition Town Berea, an outgrowth of an organization called Sustainable Berea, has citizens groups looking at ways the Madison County town can be less vulnerable to global changes. It’s a good model other Kentucky towns should consider.

For example, how could a community increase its ability to feed itself if high energy costs made it no longer practical to truck in produce from California, poultry from Georgia and grain from Iowa? How could more support for local farmers result in healthier, better-tasting food that is less vulnerable to contamination like we’ve seen in the recent peanut scare?

Citizen groups in Berea have come up with a variety of ideas, many of which hark back two or three generations to what our conservative ancestors would have considered simple, common-sense steps.

Among them: Teach interested residents to grow gardens, put up food, plant berry bushes and fruit trees. Promote the local farmers market, the use of local food in Berea restaurants and facilitate creation of local certified kitchens and food-processing businesses.

Provide home energy-use audits and low-interest weatherization loans to promote less energy use and save people money. Partner with local builders to promote “green” construction methods and consider future energy needs in zoning and land-use decisions.

Better connect the town with walking paths and bike trails, organize car pools and convert the municipally owned utility to a “smart grid” that could gradually integrate more decentralized sources of renewable energy. Support and promote locally owned businesses, and set up internship programs at them for local high school and college students.

To challenge the community, Transition Town Berea has adopted some ambitious goals around the slogan “50 by 25.” By 2025, the group would like Berea to use half as much electricity, and have half of it come from renewable sources. It also would like to see half of local food grown locally.

More than 60 people jammed into a room at Berea College last month to see Olson’s presentation on Transition Town strategies. It was heartening to Berea Mayor Steve Connelly among them. Too often, political leaders are so focused on the next election that they’re afraid to think long-term.

Connelly said the Transition Town group’s goals for Berea are ambitious, but worth striving for. “You can’t argue that there’s a lot of truth in what’s being said,” he noted afterward. “We have to change. It’s truly in our best interest.”

Change is inevitable. How will your community survive, and thrive?