Documentary photo class

Documenting small towns – Dan Overturf, center, reviews work with students in his biennial Small Town Documentary class. An exhibit that showcases the work of eight students starts Nov. 27 in the Communications Building on campus. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

November 16, 2018

Students capture communities’ spirit through photographs

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — A photo exhibit months in the making introduced Southern Illinois University Carbondale photography students to local communities. Their work goes on display later this month.

Eight students in Dan Overturf’s biennial Small Town Documentary class have spent the fall semester chronicling communities in the region. The exhibit starts Nov. 27 and runs through Dec. 7, with photographs on display in the north wing of the Communications Building in the area of the cinema and photography department and School of Journalism.

An opening reception is from 4:30 to 6 p.m. on Nov. 27. The exhibit and reception are free and open to the public.

Compelling stories and powerful connections

In a recent class, students were recounting recent experiences while they documented various Halloween events, the 2018 general election and Veterans Day commemorations.

Alex Rodriguez, a senior in cinema and photography from Lakemoor, said Tamms has embraced him and that he has similar affections for the village. Other students in the class shared similar sentiments about people they have met and photographed.

“I noticed how kind and genuine all these people in this town are,” he said. “If you talk to them enough and you hear their stories and you tell your stories, you start to open up.” 

Rodriguez teared up when discussing stories behind some of his photos. While some may believe the village has fallen on hard times, particularly with the closure of the Tamms Correctional Center in 2013, Rodriguez senses future growth and the commitment of village President Tonya Reid.

“She’s looking to regrow her town,” he said. “I can just see the dedication and the love she has for the town and its people.” 

Documenting a community’s change over time

The class is in its 11th edition, and Overturf said the photographs and stories students tell are never the same, even if the community was previously featured. The changes a town can experience over time can be dramatic and that translates into photos.

That the class is held during the fall election cycles, and the student photographers are urged to document Election Day, which creates interesting scenarios, he said.

“The town is different; the students are different; the times are different,” he said. “Imagine what people were talking about politically in 1996 when I started the class versus now. It’s a whole different time.”

Students will blend geography, sociology, history, contemporary issues, education, art, individual curiosity and photographic skill in the class. The work can be a mix of portraits, everyday and unique events, and other notable features.

Required to know their communities

It is left to the students to know what is happening within their town. They also must keep journals and document their experiences as part of an overall course portfolio.  

The students’ work is available online for viewing. 

Students get plenty of time to present their work

Because there are eight students this year, Overturf split the Tuesday-Thursday class sessions so that one group of four students show their work on Tuesday, and the others on Thursday. That gives Overturf 20 to 30 minutes for each student to discuss their work from the previous week and what they’ve learned about their respective towns.

Prior to 2018, 84 communities and areas within Southern Illinois have been featured. Communities making the list for the first time this year are: Crab Orchard, Cypress, Fayetteville, Golconda and New Harmony, Indiana. 

Teaching assistants are former students 

Two teaching assistants, both of whom have previously taken the class, are assisting Overturf this fall. 

Darren Schroeder of Columbia took the class in 2010 and 2014, documenting Olive Branch and Thebes, respectively.  A two-degree SIU Carbondale graduate, Schroeder earned his bachelor’s degree in photography in 2011 and Master of Fine Arts degree in Mass Communication and Media Arts in 2015. Miranda Munguia, a senior in cinema and photography from Highland, took the class in 2016 and documented Thompsonville. 

Students participating in the project, by hometown, year in school, major, and their chosen communities, shown in bold, are:  


  • Albers: Adam Holbrook, senior, cinema and photography, Crab Orchard.
  • Elgin: Madison Toppel, junior, cinema and photography, Cypress.
  • Freeburg: Nick Wilkerson, junior, cinema and photography, Fayetteville.
  • Lakemoor: Alex Rodriguez, senior, cinema and photography, Tamms.
  • Lawrenceville: Stephanie Hill, senior, cinema and photography, Sesser.
  • Long Grove: Emma Paterakis, graduate student, Mass Communication and Media Arts, Golconda.
  • Troy: Mary Scott, senior, cinema and photography, Christopher


  • Evansville: Zachary Risher, graduate student, Mass Communication and Media Arts, New Harmony, Indiana.