EDITOR'S NOTE: As of March 2021, we are transitioning to a fully-digital News Photographer magazine after 75 glorious years of having a print magazine. I will be posting stories that would have appeared in print. Look forward to the regular features such as "The Image Deconstructed" by Ross Taylor, "Career & Life Balance" by Autumn Payne, Matt Pearl's "Doing it all, doing it well," and stories like the one below about a special place called "Boyd's Station." Thanks for your support! - Sue Morrow, editor, News Photographer
America Reimagined: Boyd’s Station, American Reportage join to support emerging photojournalists amid pandemic
By Margaret Heltzel
May 2021- In the homey living room of an old, tin-roofed farmhouse, collected energy of excitement and camaraderie buzzes among a small group of emerging photojournalists. It’s midday in July 2019, and the curtains are drawn to keep the glare of the high sun from disrupting the images rolling across the television screen. Hours pass, pausing only when the oppressive midsummer Kentucky heat breaks at dusk. Then the group walks together to the white house on the hill for a better look at the pink- and orange-streaked sky. When the sun is good and set, the fireflies dance as we return to the quaint farmhouse for a shared meal and a few more hours of editing.
Most of us cram into the old church pew that sits against the wall by the kitchen table, while the lucky few take their individual seats with a little more elbow space. Someone usually ends up standing on a chair or leaning across the table to get a better look at the work being shown. No one ever minded the strange and daring lengths some took to see a screen. It was to help one another, after all.
That experience organized by Boyd’s Station 306.36 Visual Documentary & Writing Project seems fantastical, doesn’t it? Nearly two years ago, it feels like a faraway dream as we endured isolation amid social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic.
Boyd’s Station is a nonprofit founded out of a tragic arson in 2008 that burned a landmark barn and historic homes. Out of rebuilding, the project was born. Located in north-central Kentucky, it hosts “emerging artists and student journalists in a rural and serene environment.” The pandemic changed all of that, but Boyd’s Station adapted.
With the majority of internship programs canceled or postponed, freelance work slowing to a near stop and staff jobs few and far between, Boyd’s Station board members and friends of the program put their heads together and created an accessible program to support emerging photojournalists whose sapling careers were threatened.
“The most serious vacuum I see facing emerging photojournalists, and especially in the wake of this pandemic, is the loss of internships and hands-on fellowships which would allow them the natural process of learning on the job surrounded by seasoned pros,” says Molly Roberts, a former photo editor at National Geographic and The Smithsonian. “Boyd’s Station is filling that gap, albeit virtually, with very knowledgeable editors and photographers who have been in the workplace for many years.”
As a solution and in lieu of project 306.36, Boyd’s Station and American Reportage, a collective of photojournalists, joined to launch America Reimagined.
Stephen Crowley, a retired staff photographer for The New York Times Washington bureau, and Michael Keating, a retired staff photographer for The Cincinnati Enquirer and current executive director of the Clyde N. Day Foundation, pitched the idea to Jack Gruber. Gruber is the founder and executive director of Boyd’s Station and is also a staff photographer at USA Today.
The idea was to emphasize mentorship and visual documentation on a national scale while maintaining the mission of Boyd’s Station: “create a community of collaboration among diverse artists, journalists.”
Being tasked with organizing a national photo project was not all that daunting for Gruber.
“All of the pieces were there; it was just a matter of putting the call out to people,” Gruber said. Boyd’s Station is an archival project powered by PhotoShelter, a partner of the program. The pandemic-related cancellation of the 2020 documentary program allowed for the seamless transition to support America Reimagined. The only piece missing was a place to host the archive, which was quickly resolved by Pete Marovich, a founding member of American Reportage, and the members of the collective who offered their website as the home for the archival project.
Boyd's Station and American Reportage already had an established relationship. Marovich had been to Boyd's Station to collaborate with the students so giving a portal to the work seemed fairly easy.
"It's been fantastic seeing the work they have been producing, and it’s been inspiring to watch them improve over this time," Marovich said. “Mentoring and guiding emerging photographers is our way of giving back to the industry."
Seasoned photojournalists remember when photo edits were done over a light table where film negatives would be spread out as photographer and photo editor sat side by side evaluating a story. Now, platforms for photo archiving and sharing, such as PhotoShelter, allow photographers and editors to work remotely, but the critical social aspect of the editing experience is diminished. “We’re trying to create the light table experience because it used to be that everyone met around 4 p.m. in the darkroom to process film,” said Crowley. “Someone might have a germ of an idea that you tuck away to grow later.”
On a given Thursday of every month, editors, mentors and contributors gather via Zoom for a Light Table Chat inspired by those darkroom conversations of the past. Gruber offers opening remarks before inviting contributors to present work or tossing out ideas for group discussion. In the spirit of mentorship, nationally acclaimed editors offer critique and encouragement to those present.
“I wish as a young professional that I could have picked the brains of amazing people in the industry,” said Charles Borst, past director of photography and photo editor at major publications. “America reimagined has such a great diverse collection of people who have been in the industry for a while and are shepherds along the way for these folks.”
America Reimagined has built a virtual bridge from New York to Hawaii, connecting emerging photojournalists with big names in the industry and like-minded peers. Additionally, the collective makes it a mission to give voice to the contributors and their communities, emphasizing the importance of narratives from otherwise undocumented areas of the country.