Photojournalism students present stories on COVID, small towns, new business and more

Story by: Izzie Pasciolla, Maddie Lajewski and Isabella Trujillo. Photos by: Maddie Lajewski and Isabella Trujillo

Entering the auditorium in Moore Hall on Tuesday night, attendees saw walls lined with large, clear photos. Students stood at the front of the room and began to mingle with audience members as they sat down. The room was full of excited chatter discussing classwork, Halloween and the upcoming presentation. 

Tuesday night was the final showing of the Danny Wilcox-Frazier workshop held for photojournalism students at CMU, in partnership with CMU professor Kent Miller. 

Wilcox-Frazier comes to CMU every other year to lead a photography workshop with a group of photojournalism majors. This semester was the first time they’ve had the workshop since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wilcox-Frazier’s ideas for this year were centered around the impact of COVID-19 and how it affected the learning experience of these students. Many students had barely handled a camera in a class due to the restrictiveness of the pandemic. 

“We’re kind of in awe that students could go out and work at all,” Wilcox-Frazier said. 

Getting students out and interacting closely with subjects was something many students commented on as being difficult and different. 

“None of us knew what 1918 was like,” Wilcox-Frazier said. “But now we know what 2020 was like.”

The student’s stories focused on a variety of topics and places such as new businesses, mental health, small towns and animal rescue. Many of the stories had a focus on COVID in some capacity, such as the loss of loved ones, and how the pandemic has affected different fields and groups of people. 

Alex Akins was inspired by her own personal experience with losing her mother to COVID complications. Akins began with a poem describing the emotions and thoughts that went with the experience before showing her slideshow of others on campus who lost loved ones during the pandemic. 

“I decided to take my own perspective on what that means to me, the new normal for people who have lost loved ones to COVID,” she said. 

One of the subjects in her slideshow, Jasmine Smith, said it was hard to talk about but, “it helps to get it out.”

Smith was surprised by the coincidences in dates: Akins mother passed away two days before the one-year anniversary of Smith’s father’s death. These similarities made her more comfortable with the story.

“I wanted to do something like this but I didn’t know how to,” Smith said. “Alex, I am so proud of you.”

Aurora Rae created her photo story about Julianne Santos, a 23-year-old who works at All Things Divine, and her boyfriend Owen. 

“It’s about her finding a better mental space in her life because she recently quit her job that she wasn’t very happy at, to start a new lifestyle with a new job that pays less, but provides her a happier space emotionally and physically,” Rae said. 

The photo story showed Santos doing yoga and walking around town, but its main focus was on her relationship with Owen, and how it grew and strengthened during the lockdown. 

Photos showed the two grocery shopping together, hanging out on their couch and sharing a hug. 

Santos said she was hesitant to do the project at first and wanted to “push it off onto someone else.” However, she did feel comfortable with Rae and decided to go ahead with it. 

“It’s not something I do everyday,” Santos said. “I was getting to trust people again.”

Other stories focused on small town life, such as Drew Travis who photographed the town of Delwin, just east of Rosebush. 

“It has a population of 10,” Travis said. “It has no grocery stores, no post office, no church.” 

Travis came upon this story in an interesting and last-minute way. 

“My original subject backed out on me a couple nights before the project, I hadn’t shot with her yet,” he said. “So then I had to just find something. So I hopped in my car at 6:00 a.m. and drove around, and at 7:00 a.m. I found it. I knew after the first door I knocked on that that was the story.”

Students had one week to create these photo stories, with critique sessions every night. While the project seemed “overwhelming” and “scary” to many of the students, by the end of the week they found it a beneficial experience. 

“There’s a lot to learn from this,” Travis said. “It’s not everyday you get to meet with a renowned photographer like Danny. He’s got a lot of insights, but I think the biggest one is just trusting yourself in the process. Just trust yourself in the process creatively and believe in what you do.” 

Akins has been able to use her own creativity within this project that she hasn’t been able to before. “It’s come down to what I want and what I want my true vision to turn out based on what that term means to me, the new normal, for people who’ve lost loved ones to COVID, what does that look like.

“I just hope through my presentation and my photo story that I can help ones who’ve lost a member to COVID, help them grieve if they haven’t been grieving, because grieving is a very long process, there’s no time limit on it.”

Rae felt that the workshop prepared her for a photojournalism career in a way other experiences, such as classes, could not.

“Having daily critiques and daily shoots allowed me to really analyze what I had and figure out what I needed,” she said. “It wasn’t a set plan from the beginning at all, I had no idea what it would be, which was kind of beautiful. I like the unknown. It was very organic and natural. Getting everyone’s feedback was really cool, to hear what Danny had to say and all of my peers. I think it’s so cool how everyone interprets everything differently; two people looking at the same picture can have an entirely different message.”

Wilcox-Frazier and Miller were proud of the projects and what the students were able to come up with in the short amount of time. 

“I think there’s so many stories no matter where you’re at in the world — small towns, metros, there’s stories everywhere,” Wilcox-Frazier said. “When you have a program that emphasizes that, I can come in and be this lightning bolt that you have for eight days, and just help students see that they can go beyond what they thought were their limits.”

Miller was especially happy with the emotions in the pieces and the way each student got involved with their subjects’ personal lives. 

“This is the most meaningful type of photography,” he said. “This is because you can connect with the people while you’re photographing them. And then everybody can connect with those people by looking at the photograph, and they can feel something from the picture. It’s magical.”

Overall the students, teachers and audience members at the showing were proud of the work. The students were grateful for the experience and learned a lot from it. 

“All in all the workshop has helped me to grow so much as a storyteller and figuring out how to ask for permission to be in people’s lives like that,” Rae said. “I’ve grown in ways I never thought I would, so I’m glad I participated. I definitely recommend it if people are looking to expand their horizons in documentary photography.”