When Cathi Boerder heard about the attacks on the morning of Sept. 11, she had two thoughts: “How could terrorists do this?” and “I’m going.”
As most Americans sat transfixed in front of the TV struggling to process the enormity of the destruction, Boerder and other photojournalism students from Western Kentucky University were packing their cars.
“We’re taught to document history at Western,” said senior Jonathan Miano.
Armed with only their cameras and the desire to record history, photojournalists from Bowling Green, Ky., headed for the war zone that was New York City.
Over the next few days, 20 WKU photojournalists and two faculty members made the 850-mile trek to document the sorrow and hope billowing from Manhattan.
Six months after documenting the biggest news event of their lives, five photographers returned to New York City under much different circumstances. The students were invited to present their work during the spring National College Media Convention in New York City on March 16, and WKU president Gary Ransdell was so proud he paid for the trip.
Photojournalism program coordinator James Kenney and four student representatives showed a powerful 14-minute multimedia package, which merged the gripping images and audio clips gathered by the WKU students during the days following the attacks.
After presenting “New York: A City Searching for Hope,” students Boerder, Miano, Steven King, and Jed Conklin described the feelings they dealt with, their personal and professional growth, and the reasons they rushed into a city that many were trying to escape.
“We are taught to tell stories,” Conklin said. “We came to do what we had to do. Our jobs were here that week. … I learned more in six days than I ever could in a classroom. It was a hands-on learning tool.”
The experience wasn’t just about taking pictures, Boerder said, but “knowing what it means to have to work when you are grieving and there is all this other stuff going on.”
Recounting his conflicting emotions, King recalled a somber encounter with a mother and daughter at Union Square.
The child asked, “What do we do now, mommy?” The mother replied, “We have to trust our other father now.”
King broke down in tears and put away his Canon.
Later that night he was taking pictures of an impromptu candlelight vigil. Also recording the scene were some of the world’s top photojournalists – such as The Washington Post’s Carol Guzy, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner.
“When I saw Carol Guzy, I was like, ‘Wow,’ and I went up and introduced myself,” he said. “There was a very wide range of emotions that day.”
So far, representatives of WKU’s 170-student photo program have told their personal stories and presented their work to more than 20 community and civic groups in Kentucky.
The group agreed, however, that showing the piece in New York was especially meaningful.
“The last time we were here it was to get a story at a very difficult time,” said Kenney, who went to New York to record sound and take photos with fellow faculty member David Cooper. “I feel like we’re on a mission, and we haven’t completed our task. Coming up here and shooting and getting the sound was only part of what we needed to do. We need to communicate it.”
Viewers didn’t know whether to clap or cry after the New York showing, but they were clearly moved and impressed.
Kenney said the successful storytelling resulted from teamwork.
“The work you see in the show is a reflection of the whole program and not just the people who went up,” he said. “It was interesting to see how different people reacted. Some immediately went to New York; others felt they needed to be in Bowling Green to document local reaction. Our program is big enough that we could do both, and do both well.”
Assistant professor Tim Broekema was one of those who stayed behind, but he contributed by producing the multimedia package.
“Everyone wanted to do something,” Broekema said. “Everyone wanted to help. I couldn’t leave Bowling Green, but I could stay in my office all night long for several nights to get this done.”
Ryan Clark was editor of WKU’s College Heights Herald student newspaper during the fall semester. He said the photojournalists’ hard work brought home the tragedy to the campus and greater Bowling Green community.
“I remember when they decided to go and we all said, ‘You’re crazy,’” Clark said. “We heard the city was on lockdown and that it wasn’t possible to get in. They went anyway. Their focus is that they want to document history. So they did. They did a really unbelievable thing. It just shows the dedication every journalist should feel whether you’re in college or not.”
Doug White is a free-lance writer and photojournalist living in St. Petersburg, Fla. He is instructor of “Focus On Mentoring,” a community based program aimed at introducing photojournalism to Tampa Bay-area youth.