Each spring, professor Rob Heller from UT’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media in the College of Communication and Information takes his advanced photojournalism students to LaFollette, Tennessee, to find and photograph stories in the Campbell County community of 7,000, about 45 miles north of Knoxville.
It’s a ritual that has been reaping rewards for Heller, his students, and the public for more than a quarter of a century. Spring 2020 will mark the 27th anniversary of Eyes on LaFollette.
The website was created by two UT employees, both graduate students who took Heller’s advanced photojournalism class last spring: Kellie Ward, who works in UT’s Office of Communications and Marketing, and Jules Morris, director of marketing and communications for the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences.
Eyes on LaFollette came about as part of the evolution of photojournalism group projects.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, “day in the life” events had photographers around the world shooting pictures on the same day to publish simultaneously. As the internet evolved, Heller had his students collaborate with photojournalism students at other universities to produce similar projects.
Then in 1993, Heller and his friend, Larry Smith, retired publisher-editor of the LaFollette Press, came up with the idea for Eyes on Lafollette. For Heller’s students, the project is an opportunity to experience the terror and exhilaration of producing quality work under deadline pressure; Smith’s paper reaps the benefits by showcasing the best photos.
At first, Eyes on LaFollette took place every other year.
“We didn’t want to wear out our welcome,” Heller said. But in 2003, Heller began taking the 12 to 20 students in his advanced photojournalism class to the small town each spring.
Over the course of the years, Eyes on LaFollette has witnessed “the entire reinvention of photography,” Heller said.
In the beginning, the students shot black-and-white film. They’d return to Knoxville and spend hours developing the film and making contact sheets. After several years, they switched to color. Thompson Photo Products in Knoxville would open over the weekend to help them develop the film. Now the students shoot digitally.
Each spring, work on Eyes on LaFollette begins weeks before the first photo is shot.
Heller takes his students on a day trip to the small town about a month before the shoot. Hosted by the LaFollette Press, the students hear from local officials such as the mayor and the head of the Chamber of Commerce. They get access to the newspaper website so they can peruse old stories, and they are encouraged to search the internet and make phone calls to ferret out leads and make appointments.
On the appointed weekend, Heller and his students head to LaFollette on a Friday morning. They spend the day shooting and then gather that evening to debrief. They shoot more on Saturday morning and head back to Knoxville in the afternoon.
During the following few days, students sift through all of the photos and choose the best 50 or so to be printed in the newspaper. They edit, write short stories and cutlines, and produce a special section for the LaFollette Press.
Heller estimates he’s had about 300 students participate in Eyes on LaFollette over the years.
Adam Brimer, now a video producer and coordinator in the UT Office of Instructional Technology’s support and training group, took Heller’s class as an undergraduate in the mid-2000s.
“One of the biggest things I learned was how to connect with a small community. We were charged with finding our own stories. Rob gave us pointers and suggestions, but it was on us to go out and make the connections,” he said. “I also learned that it takes being authentic, honest, and extremely patient to find gold.”
Even more than all he learned in Heller’s class, Brimer appreciates getting to know Heller himself.
“He’s been a great mentor and friend,” Brimer said. “He taught me what it meant to flesh out a story—to come home to your editors with enough photos to tell the story without even reading the copy. He’s also really good at telling you when something doesn’t go well.”
Morris, one of the students who helped build the website, said she first had Heller as a teacher 23 years ago as an undergraduate. Taking his advanced photojournalism class last spring and working on Eyes on LaFollette as a graduate student was a joy.
“I loved every second of it and wanted to keep it alive through building a website showcasing the years of effort,” she said. “Heller’s excitement around a good photo is contagious.”
For Heller, watching the website take shape and reminiscing about the many students he’s taught over the years have been both nostalgic and invigorating.
“I feel like this proud papa,” he said. “Every year I think, ‘I’m getting too old for this project.’ It’s taxing. Then I remember it’s old hat for me, but it’s new for my students.”