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Nebraska Goes Big

Story-telling through photos brings poverty close-up

By Kelly Bartling, University Communications

When Bruce Thorson leads a photo-documentary class to its newest assignment, he knows the students are embarking on a life-changing adventure.

With a camera as their primary story-telling tool - a Canon EOS -- a digital recorder, and a laptop computer with wireless Internet, the student photojournalists are practicing their craft. "They're experiencing a topic and connecting with a story close-up," says photojournalism professor Thorson, an award-winning former photo chief at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

"They're also going to a place where they're going to be with a large number of people who own just the clothes on their backs." - Bruce Thorson

In its fourth year and fourth project, the College of Journalism and Mass Communications' in-depth photojournalism class takes students to places where humans struggle with poverty. Recently returning from a three-week spring trip to western Nebraska where the student photojournalists documented the changing lives of migrant farmworkers, other trips have taken them across the globe: Kosovo, South Africa and Kazakhstan. They will travel to Kyrgyzstan this winter.

Supported by a $2 million endowment by legendary photographers Howard Buffett, Joel Sartore and Thomas Mangelsen, the student photodocumentary program focusing on poverty is the only one of its kind in the country, Thorson said.

"This is in-depth documentary photography. In order to (tell the story) we have to have time," he said. After spending the entire semester studying their topics and preparing for their travel, the students then live for as long as an three weeks alongside shepherds in the high-mountain meadows of Kazakhstan with families in war-torn Kosovo or in the sugar beet fields near Scottsbluff, Neb. The students learn quickly how important it is to establish trust with their subjects. "As an outsider, you don't just walk in," says Thorson.

"The students are trying to go beyond the workplaces and into people's lives... having dinner, brushing their teeth... experiencing their culture. This isn't a daily newspaper story. This is on-location, and documenting a way of life." - Bruce Thorson

Working in a camping trailer, the recent trip to western Nebraska for Thorson and six students produced a blog: http://unlphotojournalismmigrant.wordpress.com, audio slideshows, then an upcoming photo exhibition. The stories' common thread is the changing role of the migrant farm worker in sugar beet country after the recent emergence of Roundup-ready beets. How are migrant laborers finding work? How are their families affected?

Sartore, Buffett and Mangelsen believe in the power of photography as a story-telling device as much as they believe in the power of humankind to care for others struggling with poverty, Thorson said. With the endowment, students' travel and equipment are provided, giving them a chance to practice their skills and gain experience as journalists. They upload digital photos from the field, develop slideshows, and work as true "in-the-field" reporters. The experience is invaluable.

They're discovering that no matter how simple or seemingly dire a family's life may seem, happiness still abounds.

"I have students telling me that 'these people have nothing. Yet they are so happy.' It brings them to tears," Thorson said.

There is power in telling that story. Through a camera lens.

More student photojournalism

Working in a camping trailer, the recent trip to western Nebraska for Thorson and six students produced a blog featuring audio slideshows, then an upcoming photo exhibition. The stories' common thread is the changing role of the migrant farm worker in sugar beet country after the recent emergence of Roundup-ready beets. How are migrant laborers finding work? How are their families affected?