Eyes on LaFollette PhotoJournalism Project Celebrates 30 Years
Click here to see a video about the Eyes on LaFollette Project
The inspiration came from the “Day in the Life” books that were popular at the time. Robert Heller, School of Journalism and Electronic Media professor, wanted to find a project for his advanced photojournalism class at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
As he flipped through the pages featuring some of the top photographers in the world all shooting photos on the same day, Heller thought his students could produce something similar closer to home.
His class took photos at different hours of the day on the Knoxville campus, and “24 Hours in the Life of UT” was showcased in a faculty newsletter.
Heller liked the way it turned out and wanted to take it a step further. He mentioned the idea to Larry Smith, an adjunct professor at JEM, who was also the owner and publisher of the LaFollette Press. Smith’s daughter happened to be in Heller’s class that year.
“He said right away, ‘You are coming to LaFollette.’ And I thought, ‘That is very nice of him,’” Heller said. “And that is really how it all got started.”
The result has been a relationship between a university and a small town that started in 1993 and has organically evolved into a historical documentary of LaFollette through the lenses of UT’s students.
The Eyes on LaFollette project is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. For the last three decades, Heller’s class has made the 45-minute drive to LaFollette every spring to provide a portrait of small town America. The photos run in a section of the LaFollette Press each year.
Nearly 400 students have taken part in the project over the years, shooting thousands of photos. The classes have ranged in size from five students to as many as 20. They produce newspaper sections spanning eight pages to 20 pages.
“LaFollette is an old coal town. There is wealth there and there is poverty there,” said Heller,who has been at JEM since 1986. “I tell my students we are not there to do a PR job on the city and how wonderful it is. We are not there to look for the most difficult things in the city. We are just there to tell stories about what life is like in this small town.”
Erin Hatfield took part in the project as a junior in Heller’s class in 2008. She took photos of students at Christian Academy of LaFollette, which has since closed down.
“It was the first out-in-the-real-world assignment for most of us,” said Hatifeld, who graduated with a degree in journalism and a minor in photography. “We had to immerse ourselves in the community and find good photos and find good stories. It was a pretty cool experience.”
Heller’s class makes the trip to LaFollette a month before they take the photos to have a research session and plan what they are going to shoot. They go to the LaFollette Press office to meet with people from around the town, including the mayor, Chamber of Commerce members, and others.
On the weekend of the project, the students leave campus at 7:30 a.m. on Friday and stay in LaFollette through Saturday morning. The town has opened its arms for Heller’s students, providing free housing and food. Charley’s Pizza has been an ardent supporter for the entire three decades, even after it changed ownership.
“On Friday morning when I get there, I walk in and say, ‘Remember me and the Eyes on LaFollette project? We are back.’ And they always say, ‘Whatever you want, you can have,’” Heller said. “If I had to add up how many pizzas they’ve given us, it’s in the hundreds.”
Erick Gomez-Villeda took part in this year’s project. He managed to track down two people who had appeared in the newspaper section 30 years ago and 20 years ago. Then, he had lunch at a local diner and the owner was a relative of someone previously featured.
“He passed away and there was a little shrine to him and there were these old photos that were in the paper,” Gomez-Villeda said. “Everyone talks so fondly about this project and how much it has meant to them. It was cool to get that experience of how much the town embraces the students and welcomes you.”
Finding a bigger audience
The project has gained national and international attention over the years. To celebrate the 20th anniversary, the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville displayed the photos in an exhibit featuring small towns in Tennessee. Heller made 4×8 panels of photos from the project, and banners of the students’ work hung along Nashville streets.
“It was the coolest thing,” Heller said. “Then they had a grand opening and we had something like 30 students come from all over to be there. It was just remarkable. I could not stop smiling.”
The New York Times used to have a blog called Lens Blog, and Heller thought the project may merit a mention. He contacted the Times several times over many months before someone finally responded saying they were interested. The blog post of LaFollette reached at least 400,000 people, and the international Herald Tribune also featured the photos for a worldwide audience.
Crossroads TV, which airs on PBS in Tennessee, did a six-minute feature on the project. Two of Heller’s former students who worked at the station pitched the idea
The 40 panels that were featured in the museum were given to LaFollette and can be found around town in various places.
After each class leaves LaFollette on Saturday and returns to campus, the students get together again on Sunday to edit the photos and select which ones will appear in the section of the newspaper. Heller meets with every student to go over what they shot and help them with the design process.
Although the basic storytelling elements have remained the same, the technology involved has changed drastically. Before digital cameras emerged, Heller used to give students six rolls of film and they would spend hours developing the photos in a dark room.
“It’s so much different now than what we had been doing since we had to print things and dry them. It was not easy,” Heller said. “But by late Sunday night, we had around 100 prints on the carpet and would go over them to get it down to meet our deadline.”
Keeping the history alive
Heller is hoping to do something special this summer to celebrate the 30-year mark of the project. He wants to hold a slideshow in LaFollette and invite all the residents to come. There’s a good chance they may have been featured in the photos or spot friends and relatives dating back generations.
Heller is proud of how much the project has benefited LaFollette, his students, and the university.
“The one thing I brag about is, this has not been done at any other school,” Heller said. “There are great photojournalism programs that do this kind of thing, but it tends to be in different places every year. This is special.”
Heller makes the class take a group photo at the start of every project and has kept audio from an informal class session they hold on the night they spend together in LaFollette.
During the Covid shutdown, two of his students created a website for the project to showcase all the photos and history. Heller frequently hears from former students who still fondly remember the project and the bonding experience it provided.
“They always tell me how this was one of their best experiences of their whole years in college,” Heller said.
Heller is considering publishing a book about the Eyes on LaFollette. In a way, it would bring the project full circle. Someone could eventually flip through pages and be equally inspired to try something similar.
“People have told me so many times how meaningful this is for that town because they have seen better times,” Heller said. “But they are basically celebrated once a year in this section of the paper and they just love it. It’s wonderful for me to hear it. It’s just so uplifting.”
Written by Rhiannon Potkey