Thursday, September 27, 2001

W. Ky. students document scene

Work helps them learn perspective

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — Watching with the rest of America as the World Trade Center crumbled, student photojournalists quickly sized up the enormity of the event and decided to chronicle a city in grief.

        What the two dozen or so students from Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green saw through their cameras while wandering the streets of New York taught them lessons for life.

        “As a person, I learned a lot about the human spirit, and how strong especially the New Yorkers were in the tragedy,” said Jonathan Miano, 23, a senior from Covington.

        Mr. Miano piled into a vehicle along with five others just hours after two hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

        Other groups soon followed, as the students put their campus lives on hold for several days to witness the grief, courage and resilience of people in the days after the terrorist attack.

        “I knew this was history unfolding, and I knew it probably would be the biggest story in my lifetime,” said Michael Bunch, 24, a senior from Glasgow. “I just felt an urgency to document it.”

        Lacking media credentials, however, the students couldn't get close enough to photograph rescue efforts. Some came within a couple of blocks of the Trade Center and watched rescue workers marching toward the smoldering ruins. The students spent most of their time fanning out across New York to capture the emotions of a grief-stricken city.

        They saw candlelight vigils, firefighters mourning lost comrades and people wandering the city while holding pictures of missing loved ones.

        Jed Conklin, 24, a senior from Owensboro, saw a range of emotions.

        “If eyes are the windows to the soul, there were a lot of souls that were hurting,” he said. “There were a lot of eyes filled with mourning, filled with hate, filled with disgust, filled with peace. There were so many different faces, and faces that told so many different stories.”

        Mr. Conklin saw hundreds of pictures plastered on walls, statues, phone booths. The photos showed victims in happy times — at weddings or at home.

        An eerie silence pervaded Union Square, a city park where people gathered in the rain, he said. At a Brooklyn fire station that lost four firefighters, members of a nearby church sang for the mourners.

        Mr. Conklin said the tragedy turned New York into “one family joined together by the impossible.”

        “I never experienced the amount of pain from other people's perspective that I did in New York,” he said. “It was a huge learning experience for me, as a journalist and a person. I'm definitely going to carry it with me for the rest of my life.”

        Before leaving Bowling Green, many of the students consulted with James Kenney, director of Western's award-winning photojournalism program. Mr. Kenney helped put out a special edition of the campus newspaper the day after the tragedy, then followed his students' lead and went to New York.

        “I felt I needed to do more,” Mr. Kenney said. “I can't operate a backhoe or move rubble, but I can use a camera to try to communicate what it was like up there.”

        The tragedy turned into a workshop, teaching the student photographers lessons they'll carry into their careers, Mr. Kenney said.

        The students learned how to deal with law enforcement authorities in tense situations, how to make quick decisions while covering a story, and how to approach and treat people coping with tragedy, he said.

        “I can talk about that in class, but I couldn't teach it any better than the real thing,” Mr. Kenney said.

        Western's photojournalism program has won the Hearst Intercollegiate Journalism Awards competition in 11 of the past 12 years. The campus newspaper, the College Heights Herald, has won national Pacemaker Awards for non-daily college newspapers for three straight years.

        Mr. Bunch said he felt a constant tug between snapping photos and becoming a participant in assisting victims. Mr. Conklin said he found himself bowing his head and saying a prayer at vigils.

        Mr. Bunch said the experience gave him more empathy for people he photographs. At times, he found himself making eye contact with a mourner — to show he cared — before snapping a photo, he said.

        The experience reinforced a lesson he'd been taught back home.

        “One of the things we've tried to emphasize in our program is that our subjects are humans,” Mr. Kenney said. “Whether it's a happy or sad story, we need to treat them with respect and dignity.”

        Mr. Kenney said he was impressed with the quality of the students' photos. The participants have talked about compiling their works to show people in Bowling Green what they experienced.


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