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.

Finding great small-town stories for 35 years

November 3, 2010

ELIZABETHTOWN — When people think of great photojournalism and compelling stories, they often think of big news, distant lands and exotic cultures.

But over the years that I have been volunteering as a writing and story coach at the Mountain Workshops, I have come to realize that some of the most compelling stories and photographs can be found right under a journalist’s nose.

The Mountain Workshops is an annual documentary photojournalism project run by Western Kentucky University. Each fall, participants spend a week documenting everyday life in a small town in Kentucky or Tennessee.

The workshop began when I was a WKU student. A few of my photographer friends and two of their professors went to the mountains to document the last one-room schoolhouses in Kentucky.

In the 35 years since then, the Mountain Workshops has grown into a major, nationally known training program in still and multimedia photo journalism and picture editing.

This year’s workshops came to Elizabethtown in late October. There were 70 “students” who had paid to brush up on their storytelling skills using photographs, video, words and audio. Some were students at WKU and other universities; others were working professionals at newspapers ranging in size from small weeklies to USA Today.

Their coaches and the support staff were an all- volunteer corps of photojournalists, writers and editors from across the country. This year’s faculty included Jahi Chikwendiu, a Lexington native who has photographed extensively in Africa and the Middle East for The Washington Post; Karen Kasmauski, who has photographed more than 25 stories for National Geographic magazine; and Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalists Rick Loomis of the Los Angeles Times and Mark Osler of the now- defunct Rocky Mountain News.

This was my 12th workshop during the past 18 years, and others have been coming even longer. Some regulars, including Loomis and me, are WKU grads. But others had no connection to Kentucky before they started coming to the workshop and fell in love with the experience. They include Mick Cochran, director of photography at USA Today, who teaches picture editing; and fellow writing coach Lynne Warren, a former National Geographic writer and editor.

Now that many of Kentucky’s small towns have been covered, the workshops have started going to larger towns. Besides, 150 people need a lot of motel rooms — not that anyone spends much time in them. With so much to do in a week, everyone works from early in the morning until early the next morning.

Three days before the workshops began, a volunteer technical crew turned a vacant industrial building into a state-of-the-art news-gathering and education center with dozens of borrowed computers and miles of Ethernet cable.

The workshop starts at noon Tuesday, when participants literally draw a story assignment out of a hat. The assignments are little more than leads, though, and participants spend the next four days getting to know their assigned subjects — figuring out what their stories are and how to tell them in pictures, words and sometimes audio and video.

By Saturday night, this around-the-clock learning experience has produced a Web site, about 70 picture and video stories, a framed gallery show and a book that will be published in a few months

The professional journeys that students make between the first and fifth days is amazing. And the faculty and staff always seem to learn as much as the students. The collective effort is a remarkable snapshot of a town.

I always come home from the workshops exhausted — and exhilarated. It is my annual reminder of the power of storytelling. And as digital technology advances, creative people find new and powerful ways to use it to tell stories.

“The Mountain Workshops reaffirms my belief in the value of age-old and priceless community journalism,” said Gordon “Mac” McKerral, a fellow writing coach and past national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“It’s not so much about the people the Mountain Workshop stories focus on — the barbers, the single father, the mother of an autistic child or the book mobile driver — but about how those people collectively tell a story about the world we live in,” McKerral said. “An inherently good world filled with people who do special things while not believing they are special at all.”

To see photo stories and videos from this and past Mountain Workshops, click here.