Thursday, June 04, 2020

Photography students shift focus to capture pandemic moments

UIS Associate Professor of Communication Kathy Novak, Ph.D., was only a few weeks into  her COM 407 Photojournalism and Photo Documentary Class when Illinois began to shelter in place and UIS students returned home to begin remote learning.

The already-online class did not have to adjust for remote learning, but assignments had to be modified immediately.

“Their weekly photo assignments normally send them out into the public to photograph people, places and events,” Novak said. “I encourage them to meet people, introduce themselves and take photographs, these are all professional skills. Meeting and photographing people are central to what this course is about.”

But in the midst of a pandemic, when the world is essentially shut down, meeting people in public spaces would prove to be a challenge.

“A teacher’s goal is to impress and exercise the content of the course, and I was worried that wasn’t going to happen,” Novak said.

But it did.

Olivia Mitchell, a 2020 PAR graduate and student in the class, was worried whether she would be able to complete assignments on lighting, profiles and angles.

“I was scared to be outside and be around people,” Mitchell said. “But I let go of the fear and decided to take pictures of any opportunity I saw.”

One of those opportunities was her 30th birthday, when she snapped photographs of her niece and nephew playing outdoors.

Mitchell admits the pandemic closures forced her to re-think her dynamic angles assignment, as she had originally planned to take pictures from the top of the Wyndham Hotel.

“I still went downtown. It was so empty,” she said. “Since I couldn’t go inside, I laid down on the ground to take the photo looking up. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, I still accomplished everything I was supposed to do.”

Novak said when students turned in their final project photo essays, she was amazed at the stark moments that were captured; photos that tell the story of how the world stood still and how life was altered by COVID-19.

Some of those photos included a hospital laryngoscope prepped and ready to be used on patients, a pop-up COVID-19 testing site, social distancing while grocery shopping, volunteers delivering meals and the empty streets of downtown Chicago during rush hour.

“Even with the added restraint on their daily lives, students were able still to chronicle what it has meant to live during the COVID-19 outbreak, to create visual work of consequence,” Novak said.

A sampling of this important work can be found on the UIS Communication Department Facebook page. Mitchell’s work is also featured on the NPR Illinois website.

“I learned that I loved to take photographs,” Mitchell said. “People may read the story, but they will always look at the photos. A picture really is worth one-thousand words.”

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