Professor’s Two-Decade Student Photo Project Featured at State Museum

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Photo by Andy Ashby

For more than two decades UT Professor Rob Heller has been taking his advanced photojournalism students to LaFollette to photograph life in the small East Tennessee town.

An exhibition of the photos—Eyes on LaFollette: UT Student Photojournalism Project Marks 20 Years—will be on display at the Tennessee State Museum, 505 Deaderick Street in Nashville, from October 3 to November 30. It is free and open to the public.

The exhibit, organized by Heller in partnership with the museum, contains 202 photographs taken by 102 photographers

“From 1993 to now, my advanced photojournalism students and I have traveled the interstate north from Knoxville about an hour and spent a day and a half documenting life in the small town of LaFollette,” Heller said.

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Photo by Boris Cibej

The LaFollette Press publishes a special edition of these photographs titled “Eyes on LaFollette.” Edited down from tens of thousands of photos, both film and digital, the exhibit serves as a visual history of this community during that time period.

“There are no big stories, no important events—just life as it is lived every day,” Heller said.

Preparation for the project begins earlier each spring semester with Heller and his students taking a “research” trip to LaFollette to speak with the local newspaper.

“That discussion leads to story ideas, people to contact, and a quick drive around town before returning home,” he said. “Several weeks later, sometime during early April, students head out and spend two days searching for great photos.”

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Photo by Jason Gregory

Heller and his students then choose the strongest images from the several thousand photos taken for use in the newspaper. They work on editing, layout and design, and write captions and short stories. Then, after one last review, pages are finalized and e-mailed to the newspaper, and students wait for the printed special sections to appear in class the next week.

“Twenty years plus, 250 students, seventeen editions and tens of thousands of photos add up to quite an achievement. We’ll keep doing it as long as the people of LaFollette will have us,” Heller went on to say.

In 2013, student Sarah Waldrip shared her sentiments about the project: “Around every street corner and down every country road, we discovered it’s not just the obvious charm that makes the people of LaFollette such great photo subjects. Rather, it’s the subtle stories of life and labor told in the wrinkles of their hands, the quiet memories of love and loss twinkling in their eyes, and the modesty of authentic Tennessee life that surfaces in their manners and appearance. Through the lenses of our cameras, we attempted to capture a glimpse of this endearing character while also taking our final steps toward professional careers. It is our hope that these resulting pictures do justice to the lives and stories of LaFollette.”

The Tennessee State Museum was created in 1937 by the Tennessee General Assembly to care for World War I artifacts and other collections from the state and other groups. Initially located in the lower level of the War Memorial Building, the museum moved into the new James K. Polk Cultural Center in 1981. The museum occupies three floors and has more than 60,000 square feet devoted to exhibits. For more information, visit the museum’s website.

Also, Eyes on LaFollette will be featured in an upcoming segment on Tennessee Crossroads, the Tennessee travel show produced by Nashville Public Television.  Producers and videographers Matt Emigh and Will Pedigo followed the group of UT photojournalism students on their annual trip to document life in LaFollette. The segment will air on PBS member stations statewide. It is scheduled to air on Nashville Public Television at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 25, and 10:00 a.m. on September 28, and on East Tennessee PBS at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 4. It also will be available on the Tennessee Crossroads website by searching for “Eyes on LaFollette.”

C O N T A C T:

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)