When 12 Photocommunications students at St. Edward’s University enrolled in a Spring 2011 documentary photography course, they never imagined what a rewarding experience the class would provide. Their work not only bolstered their skills and portfolios, but also captured national attention from the Smithsonian Institution and immortalized a small Texas community.
Professor Joe Vitone, who oversaw the semester-long project, selected the town of Lockhart as the central focus for the assignment — a welcoming community, 30 miles southeast of Austin, that he says “offers a diverse slice of Americana.” Armed with cameras, maps, GPS systems and a teamwork mindset, the students took to the road each week to explore and document everyday life in Lockhart’s lively and picturesque environment.
By having students work on the same project, “We get to see what they see from a multitude of perspectives,” says Vitone. As it happens, these students’ perspectives will be seen for generations to come. Their photos are now part of a permanent collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Archives Center, in Washington, D.C.
Learning Behind and Beyond the Lens
For the students, an important part of the documentary approach was researching and captioning their photos to give them historical context. Vitone explains that interviewing the people they photograph and writing about their images challenges students to interact with their subjects, and to ask: “Why am I making this picture, and what is significant about it?”
Photocommunications major Kelly Turner ’12 confirms the value of the course. “It pushed me not only to take photos, but also to communicate and work with people, and to write and think critically about my work,” she says.
Early in the assignment, Photocommunications major Janie Viehman ’12 admits that, “It was like jumping into cold water. I was extremely out of my comfort zone. But by the end of the project, I had gained so much confidence, practice and experience.”
Both Turner and Viehman agree that collaboration among their classmates helped fuel their collective success. As part of the project, they critiqued each other’s work throughout the semester, offering feedback and advice on their images, styles and captions.
“We even created a group on Facebook to share tips on scouting locations and contacts in Lockhart, and other useful information that fit in with our work,” says Turner.
A Rare Addition to the Smithsonian
Professor Vitone, whose photography has also been collected by the Smithsonian, reached out to Curator of Photography David Haberstich to consider acquiring the students’ final portfolios of 280 images. According to Haberstich, it was the first time he had ever been presented student work for acquisition to the Smithsonian.
Haberstich was impressed with the superior photographic quality of the work, both technically and aesthetically, as well as the variety of approaches and subjects. “It’s a very thorough documentation of a place and its people from multiple viewpoints,” he says. “A rare addition to our collection.”
The students couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome. “It’s a complete honor to be selected,” says Turner. “It reaffirms all of the hard work we dedicated ourselves to during the semester.”
“And it’s exciting to know that our work will preserve a piece of Texas cultural history,” says Viehman.
View the Photocommunications students’ photography acquired by the Smithsonian.
PHOTO CREDIT: The top two photos are taken by Janie Viehman ’12, and the bottom two photos are taken by Kelly Turner ’12. View all student photos and captions.