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 MountainWorkshops.org. 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.
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.