February 06, 2013

Students’ book about tornado wins national award

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A book by Southern Illinois University Carbondale photojournalism and journalism students chronicling the aftermath of a tornado that devastated part of the region nearly a year ago is earning national recognition.

The National Press Photographers Association is honoring the SIU student chapter with its Outstanding NPPA Student Chapter Award for “4:56 a.m. The Story of the Feb. 29, 2012 Tornado.”

In addition, the book is featured in an NPPA blog, which discusses with photojournalism students Danielle McGrew and Steve Matzker the way they approached the story and interacted with victims.

“This is a well-deserved honor for the students and faculty in our School of Journalism,” Chancellor Rita Cheng said.  “The students had a job to do, but they did it with sensitivity, restraint and compassion.  Their efforts documented the extent of this terrible tragedy while also conveying the resiliency of our friends and neighbors in Harrisburg and Ridgway.”

The 80-page book features 67 full-color photographs shot by 16 student photojournalists.  The storm killed eight people and injured more than 100; six people died when the tornado hit; two others later died as a result of injuries they sustained.  The book, which costs $10, garnered $15,000 for relief efforts in the two communities.

The book illustrates how students go into communities each year to tell their stories, said William H. Freivogel, School of Journalism director.

“The Harrisburg book was public service journalism at its best. The students reported the stories fast and in-depth.  They took care not to exploit the towns, but rather tell the proud story of rebuilding while raising money to help.”

Phillip W. Greer, a journalist-in-residence, and Mark J. Dolan, an assistant professor, said receiving the NPPA recognition means a great deal to the students, the program, and the University.  The NPPA visual student blog is available at blogs.nppa.org/visualstudent/2013/01/31/building-strong-work-and-a-stronger-community.

“For the students, it’s a reinforcement of everything we discuss with them, and teach in the classroom about the power of photojournalism and the impact it can have on the communities they work in,” Dolan said.

The experience also reinforces the importance of photographers connecting and communicating with their subjects.  In this instance, the student photojournalists were “very thoughtful and respectful,” said Dolan, noting recent discussions of how the media failed when approaching victims in the recent school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

SIU Carbondale beat out nationally recognized photojournalism programs that include Florida, Stanford, Ohio University and Western Kentucky University in earning the award.

Students gave an “absolute 100 percent commitment,” and this award “sets the benchmark higher,” Greer said.

The award also “shows how much the students in our program care about society,” Greer said, noting the students worked together to produce a book that raised relief funds.

William Recktenwald, a senior lecturer and journalist-in-residence in the School of Journalism, was driving into work from his home near Garden of the Gods in rural Karbers Ridge when he arrived in Harrisburg about 90 minutes after the tornado struck.  Students were on their way to town a short time later. The next morning, the Chicago Tribune used a photo by Matzker and a story written by two students on its front page and in the newspaper’s blog.

“I’m very proud of the dedication and skills of the students who worked tirelessly on this book,” Recktenwald aid.  “For decades and for generations to come the terror and hope that came from this tragedy will be remembered as those in Harrisburg and Ridgway who experienced the events that began at 4:56 a.m. that day.  They will share the photographs and story with their children, and their children’s children.”

The book is the sixth produced by the School of Journalism in the last five years.  Other books include “The Cairo Project,” “The Shawnee Project,” and three separate photojournalism workshops that resulted in books chronicling Murphysboro; Alto Pass and Cobden; and Carterville, Cambria and Crainville.  Students spent three days shooting photos for a fourth book that focuses on Chester in September.  Editing and design work is under way, and Dolan said the book will be published in May.

The tentative plan for the upcoming workshop in the fall is to feature Harrisburg, Dolan said.