Workshop has documented small towns, trained photojournalists for four decades

October 26, 2015

Frankfort: A Kentucky Welcome from mountainworkshops.org on Vimeo.

 

FRANKFORT — When I was a freshman at Western Kentucky University in 1976, two professors took several photojournalism students I knew to the Eastern Kentucky mountains for a week to document the state’s last one-room schoolhouses.

The following fall, they turned their lenses on a scruffy neighborhood at the end of Bowling Green’s Main Street. That led to trips the next two years to Land Between the Lakes and a remote town in the Tennessee mountains.

I was impressed by the pictures my friends returned with, and how much they learned while making them. But that annual field trip grew into more than any of us could have imagined.

Each October, the Mountain Workshops convenes in a different small town in Kentucky or Tennessee to teach visual storytelling through an intense week of documenting the stories of average people in photos, video, sound and writing.

“We have one goal: to become better storytellers,” said James Kenney, the workshops director and head of WKU’s photojournalism program. “We want to change the way they see.”

The program celebrated its 40th anniversary last week in Frankfort. As always, it was a major production.

About 40 WKU staff members and students arrived at a vacant call center building on the edge of town last weekend and unloaded a truck filled with audio-visual equipment, tables and chairs.

With 89 new Apple iMac computers loaned by a sponsor and several miles of network cable, they created temporary multimedia labs for photographers, videographers, picture editors, graphic artists and writers.

On Monday, an all-volunteer corps of 56 faculty and staff members arrived from across the country. They included some of the nation’s best visual journalists from places such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Time magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle.

The workshop’s 73 participants arrived Tuesday to literally reach into a hat and pull out the name of a subject whose story they would spend the next four days figuring out and learning how to tell.

Most of the participants were WKU students, but others were from universities across the nation, including Harvard and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Others were working professionals, who came to learn new skills and rediscover their passion.

Over the next few days, they would spend hours making photographs, shooting and editing video, conducting interviews and writing.

In addition to workshops in documentary photography and video, there were smaller ones in photo editing, time-lapse photography and “data visualization” — translating numbers into understandable print and interactive online graphics.

By the time everyone leaves for home Sunday morning, they will have created a website (Mountainworkshops.org) with dozens of word, picture and video stories, a book of more than 100 pages and a framed gallery show.

Nobody will have gotten much sleep.

“The point of the workshop is not to make the best images you’ve ever made, but to prepare you to make the best images you’ll ever make,” said Rick Loomis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer at the Los Angeles Times.

Loomis began his career as a WKU student at the workshop and returns almost every year as a photo coach.

I joined the faculty in 1995 as a writing and story coach. I have helped with 16 workshops, and I have seen how it has changed participants’ lives and careers.

Leslye Davis is a good example. I met her in 2009 when she was a shy WKU sophomore from Greensburg in the photo editing class. She returned the next two years as a video and photo student.

Davis, 25, is now an outstanding videographer at The New York Times. She was back at the workshop last week as a confident, insightful video coach.

Davis said the workshop was pivotal in her career development. It taught her a range of skills by doing them on deadline in real-life situations.

“It teaches you that you can work longer and harder than you ever thought,” she said. “People keep coming back because they know how good it is for the future of the profession.”

 

Frankfort: Finding Time from mountainworkshops.org on Vimeo.

 

Western Kentucky University junior Katie Roberts photographed A Little Bit of Heaven Riding Stables in Frankfort last week. She was a participant in the 40th annual Mountain Workshops, a documentary photography workshop. Photo by Nina Greipel

Western Kentucky University junior Katie Roberts photographed A Little Bit of Heaven Riding Stables in Frankfort last week. She was a participant in the 40th annual Mountain Workshops, a documentary photography workshop. Photo by Nina Greipel

Richard Jones and his 1-year-old grandson, August, represent the fourth and sixth generations to live at Happy Jack's Pumpkin Farm east of Frankfort. Like August, Jones' sons grew up playing and working on the farm, which has transitioned away from tobacco to vegetables and livestock to keep it going strong. The Jones were a story subject during the 40th annual Mountain Workshops last week. Photo by Maura Friedman

Richard Jones and his 1-year-old grandson, August, represent the fourth and sixth generations to live at Happy Jack’s Pumpkin Farm east of Frankfort. Like August, Jones’ sons grew up playing and working on the farm, which has transitioned away from tobacco to vegetables and livestock to keep it going strong. The Jones were a story subject during the 40th annual Mountain Workshops last week. Photo by Maura Friedman

 

Polly Wilson, 7, lies in the family hammock with her favorite Americana breed chicken, also named Polly. The Wilsons have more than 70 chickens that produce eggs the family sells at the Frankfort Farmers Market three times a week. The family was a story subject last week during the 40th annual Mountain Workshops in Frankfort. Photo by Laura McClintock

Polly Wilson, 7, lies in the family hammock with her favorite Americana breed chicken, also named Polly. The Wilsons have more than 70 chickens that produce eggs the family sells at the Frankfort Farmers Market three times a week. The family was a story subject last week during the 40th annual Mountain Workshops in Frankfort. Photo by Laura McClintock

 


Back from the Mountain Workshops in Somerset

October 24, 2011

Workshop participants, faculty and staff pose after the 36th annual Mountain Workshops concluded Saturday in Somerset. Photo by Nina Greipel

I wasn’t in the paper Sunday or Monday because I was volunteering last week as a writing coach at the Mountain Workshops.

This was my 14th time since 1995 to help out with the annual documentary photojournalism workshops, which Western Kentucky University has sponsored for 36 years. As always, it was an amazing, exhausting experience.

Here’s how the workshops work: About 60 students from WKU and other universities from across the country, as well as working professionals who want to broaden their skills, assemble for a week each fall in a different small town in Kentucky or Tennessee. This year, it was in Somerset, Ky.

Workshop organizers from WKU’s photojournalism program bring together an amazing group of more than 100 professionals to be the participants’ coaches and support staff. The faculty and staff always includes some of the nation’s best visual journalists. This year’s coaches included several Pulitzer Prize winners and other top professionals who work, or have worked, at places such as Time, National Geographic, MediaStorm, NPR, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Over the course of five days, the coaches and support staff help students find stories in the community to tell through still images, video and words. It is an intense educational process that requires a lot of creativity, hard work and the ability to get by on little sleep. The results are always amazing.

To learn more about the workshops and see the amazing work this year’s participants put together in just a few days last week, click here.


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.