Several of those young photographers went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Many went on to successful careers in newspapers and magazines. The number of attendees who have gone on to lead photo departments is too long to print here.
Adams, who passed away from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2004, made a lot of great frames over his career shooting for The Associated Press and later for Time and Parade magazines, among others. The photo that will always be mentioned first is the one he took on a Saigon street in 1968 when the South Vietnamese national police chief raised his gun and executed a Viet Cong prisoner captured just moments earlier. That shocking image some say helped change the course of a war won Adams a Pulitzer Prize and cemented his reputation as one of the best in the business.
The idea behind Barnstorm was to create a mentorship experience for young photographers that Adams had wished he had when he was coming up. As he and Alyssa, his future wife, discussed the idea, they talked about the workshops Adams had been invited to speak at and how expensive they were.
“What about all these young photographers who can’t afford this?” Alyssa said. That’s when she suggested that the workshop be free. They would pick attendees by merit based on their portfolios and then cover their costs.
The friends Adams made over a 45-year career helped when it came time to draw up a list of speakers and coaches for that first Barnstorm. Those famous coaches and speakers? They’d be asked to donate their services as well.
“He just knew all these people,” Alyssa Adams said. “He knew people who knew people.”
Tim Rasmussen, now the photo editor at ESPN, had been working part-time at a local newspaper in Logan, Utah, to pay his way through college when he arrived at the farm for the first workshop in 1988.
Rasmussen, then a self-described naive kid from Utah, didn’t know what to expect. Truth be told, no one – students or faculty – really knew.
“Eddie’s goal was just to put these great photographers and editors that he had worked with over the years together with these young minds – and let them figure this out,” Rasmussen said.
In fact, before he arrived on the farm, the young Rasmussen didn’t even know who most of the who’s who of speakers and faculty were that first year.
The only reason he was even there was that his photo editor at the Logan Herald Journal had seen something in him, going so far as to put Rasmussen’s application together and submitting it for him.
Luckily for Rasmussen, his editor knew exactly what an opportunity it would be to spend a couple of days sequestered with such renowned photographers. It could affect not only Rasmussen’s career but how he saw his place in the world of photojournalism.
“It really did change my life,” Rasmussen said. “It just showed you another place – another world of what you could become.”
He figures he could easily have gone back to Utah and produced solid photos for the rest of his career, but four days on the farm had made him aspire to greater heights. Within a few months of returning to Utah, he packed up his car and headed east to freelance and find work wherever he could. He also decided he would do everything he could to get back to the farm.
The coaches the first year included Mary Ellen Mark, Douglas Kirkland, David Alan Harvey and Gregory Heisler. Read the list of luminaries who have paid a visit to the farm over the last three decades and you’ll find yourself saying, “Oh, wow” quite a bit: Eugene Richards, Gordon Parks, John White, Bill Epperidge and David Hume Kennerly, to name just a few.
Heisler, a former Time magazine photographer who now teaches at Syracuse University, met Eddie when they worked on Rick Smolan’s “A Day in the Life of America” project in 1986. Even though he was a team leader and an accomplished pro, he was a little starstruck by his colleagues at EAW I.
“I was still a pretty newbie photographer,” Heisler said. “It was a huge honor for me to be included.”
Heisler has been back to the workshop on and off over the years and says the annual event is a way for him to pay it forward, to “share my truths, my experiences and to make an extra effort to bring it down to earth.”
For attendees, Barnstorm is very affirming and even humbling as they find themselves surrounded by 99 other attendees just as talented.
The attendees are split into 10 teams, with a team leader, editor and producer. Each photographer is given an assignment and competes for awards handed out at the end of the weekend. Heisler worries the supercompetitive nature of the workshop can push some of the students out of the profession.
“I think for some people, honestly, the workshop ends up being the final blow,” Heisler said. “There are those photographers who come as real hotshots and, honestly, just bomb out – and you end up bombing out publicly in this group, and that’s kind of tough.”
Almost all who have attended the workshop mention how excited they are when they find out they’ve been accepted. They also talk about how grueling it is, with days starting early and critiques and discussions in the barn going on late into the night.
Andrea Cornejo, a graduating senior at the University of Florida, has heard the stories and says she has been mentally preparing herself for the four days on the farm and vows to sleep at least 12 hours the night before she leaves. She was in class when she got the email that she had been accepted into this year’s Barnstorm.
“I literally just stared at my phone for five or 10 minutes,” she said.
Cornejo had set her sights on the workshop more than a year ago when she decided not to enter as a junior because she didn’t think she was ready. Instead, she spent the time working on a project that won her a Multimedia Story of the Year award at the annual Hearst Journalism Awards.
Half of the attendees will be students like Cornejo, and the other half will be people with three years or less professional experience.