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WKU Mountain Workshops: 40 years of visual journalism

Forty years ago, two young teachers at a fledgling photojournalism program in the Midwest dreamed up a class project that would one day become one of the premier visual journalism workshops in America.

Their modest proposal was to document with photographs the few remaining one-room schoolhouses in Kentucky and Tennessee, and they decided to take along any students who were willing to go. Sleeping bags optional, but recommended. Maybe a dozen students showed up.

“In those early days we stayed at the cheapest places we could find,” said Mike Morse, a graduate student at the time who hatched the idea with professor and program founder David Sutherland. “Sometimes students would find a room, sometimes they would camp. The whole time, you just felt like you were doing something really worthwhile.”

The Mountain Workshops of WKU will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year with a dinner Oct. 20 at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort. WKU President Gary Ransdell will be there to say a few words, and WKU Provost and historian David Lee will be the keynote speaker, expected to reflect on the importance of photography in recording modern history.

“This 40-year phenomenon has been remarkable,” Dr. Ransdell said, “and an important part of our institutional heritage.”

That heritage includes a tradition of excellence that is unmatched. For 22 of the last 26 years, WKU has won the national Hearst Intercollegiate Photojournalism Competition – often referred to as the Pulitzer Prizes of college journalism. Fittingly the Commonwealth of Kentucky was inspired years ago to name WKU’s School of Journalism and Broadcasting as an educational Program of Distinction and to provide seed money to help it grow.

Those early years of camping with cameras evolved into a documentary mission, with dozens of media professionals going from county to county teaching participants the essential skills of visual storytelling while documenting life in rural Kentucky. Everyone was a volunteer, which was important because the workshops have always been nonprofit, and have tried to minimize fees charged to participating students.

“You do a lot more for love than you do for money,” said Morse, who was director of the Mountain Workshops until 2005.

“When Pulitzer Prize winners, national Emmy winners and some of the most decorated photojournalists in our field volunteer to spend a week with us working 20-hour days to share their wisdom one-on-one with their students – and really, I think, to rejuvenate themselves – you know that we have put together a workshop for visual communication that all other workshops strive to be,” said Tim Broekema, a WKU photojournalism professor.

Many of those decorated journalists are veterans of this tradition, and survivors of the grueling Mountain Workshops.

At the end of the week, an exhausted crew of teachers and participants will have created a beautiful black-and white book, a seemingly vast website of photos, stories and multimedia presentations, and a museum-quality exhibit of photographs, all dedicated to the people of Frankfort and Franklin County. This year’s workshop will be held Oct. 20-24.

Frankfort Mayor William Mays will be at the Oct. 20 dinner to welcome a large gathering of faculty, sponsors and support staff, including WKU students – affectionately known as “labbies” – who volunteer to build and maintain the workshop equipment. This year’s class of 71 participants, who come from across the country and include WKU students, are also invited. These days, of course, film is a thing of the past and the world of photojournalism is digital. The workshops have expanded from photojournalism and picture editing to include video, time-lapse, data visualization and a K-12 teachers educational program through Dataseam, a sponsor of the Mountain Workshops.

It may be somehow fitting that Mountain Workshops will celebrate its 40th anniversary in Franklin County, where hills and hollows and cows and sheep share their space with the politicians who populate the majestic Capitol. It is, after all, the mission of the Mountain Workshops to tell the stories of real people who work hard, struggle, fail and succeed, and who form the core of this community.

“The Mountain has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a photojournalism class project,” said James Kenney, current Mountain Workshops director and a WKU professor, “but its goal of providing a unique experience in journalism education remains the same. With the help of our friends in the profession and our sponsors, we have been able to change a lot of lives over the past 40 years.”

For David Sutherland, who founded the photojournalism program before moving on to become a professor at Syracuse University, the key element was a “bonding experience,” in which veteran photographers could help youngsters grow into mature journalists. In a sense, it is payback for what others taught them.

“Most photo professionals know what it’s like for young photographers, and most of us got a whole lot of help,” Sutherland said. “That help is so extremely important to a photographer’s formative years. We see what was done for us as young photographers, and we want to do it for others.”

Contact: David Adams-Smith, (270) 781-0807

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