I'm closing out my last month here at The News Leader. Everything has happened both so slowly yet so quickly — it's hard to believe that things are moving at all. But within the next week, I will be back in Missouri with my lovely family to spend a few month finishing Army paperwork. I'll write a goodbye blog post here in the next couple days, but for now, I wanted to post a few pictures from the last month or so — my last few assignments for the newspaper.
Boy, it has been a lot time since I've updated the blog. Lots of things are changing in my life currently, and I have a lot exciting adventures coming up very soon — and some that could come sooner! But all that is for another time. In the meantime, I figured I'd catch up on recent dead tree work. Thanks for looking.
The Highland Maple Festival is one of the best events in this area of Virginia. If you like food, or beautiful scenery, or are a human being, it's the greatest. I decided to feast like crazy while I was there this year and indulged in maple-glazed chicken, buckwheat pancakes and, of course, the infamous warm, doughy maple donuts. One of my photographs was also featured on a project by Roger May called Looking at Appalachia. It's a wonderful project looking to create a more encompassing and accurate depiction of the Appalachian area, as most of the images from the area were taken 50 years ago during a "War on Poverty" campaign commissioned by LBJ. I think it's a wonderful project and can't way to see the other crowdsourced images that come out of it.
Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite celebrations in the Catholic Church. I've always really liked Lent — I think it's a great period of reflection and Ash Wednesday is the start of all that. "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."
I know a lot of us feel documentation-weary sometimes — that people today, with the accessibility of camera phones, document every mundane aspect of their lives. But as someone whose job it is to document everyday, I realized recently that I was doing a pretty poor job of documenting my personal life and the things I love. It’s really easy to take certain things for granted — the beautiful town we live in, the fun moments we have with our friends, even just curling up on the couch with our pets. And I think the wonderful thing about photography is that, even though it’s amazing that we’re able to remember things like that, the camera can — for the most part — capture just how we’re feeling about the things we love, because it can be present in the moments that we’re happy.
On Wednesday night, before the big bulk of the snowstorm blew through — just as the snow was quietly settling on the streets, muffling all the sounds around — I ventured out with my good friend Pat Jarrett to just photograph Staunton. Because even though I work for a paper whose job it is to document Staunton, sometimes it’s hard to get across how absolutely beautiful this place is for people who don’t live here. And guess what — everything looks pretty in the snow at night. And it made me really happy.
Well, while we're on the subject of controversial topics, why don't I jump into Virginia's Lee-Jackson Day. No longer Lee-Jackson-King Day for seemingly obvious reasons, this day celebrates the January birthdays of Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Here in Virginia, one of the biggest towns to celebrate the day is Lexington, where Stonewall Jackson is buried. People gather to celebrate his life around his grave, and then march in a parade while singing "Dixie," holding their Confederate flags on the way to the Washington and Lee campus for a service at Lee Chapel. The night is culminated in a traditional Civil War-era ball with traditional dress.
It’s usually a tradition for photographers to compile a collection of their best photographs from the past year. You look at your collection of work for an entire year and a lot of thoughts and memories dawn on you. Did you document it well enough? Did you do your job to the best of your abilities? I usually hate looking at my own work. Photographers are inundated with hundreds of photographs every day, from other photojournalists in their newsfeeds doing amazing work, to beautiful photos on their Instagram feeds, to the photos flowing in on the AP wire. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others and often it can be a process of self-loathing.
But looking at my work from 2013 just reminds me of how much I’ve grown this year: how much I’ve grown to love Staunton, how I’ve grown as an adult (hey, I’m 23 now), how I’ve progressed in my career as a photojournalist, and how I’ve learned so much about this area’s culture.
It hasn’t been so much a process of self-loathing, but a flood of memories as each photograph takes me back to the moment in which they were taken, and how I felt documenting that moment. And, hey, I guess that’s what great photos are supposed to do, right? Document moments.
So much has happened in 2013 for me, both professionally and personally. I was only living in Staunton for about two months when the year began, and now I have over a year under my belt. Not only do I now know how to navigate the county (OK, sort of), but I also feel like a part of this community. I’ve made close friends, I have bars I go to regularly (priorities, y'all), I know where the best food is, and, most importantly, I feel at home here.
I’ve done so much work for the News Leader — the career that is my answer to the question, “Why did you move here from Kansas City?” It makes coming here worth it. I’ve done multiple long-form stories, such as one on the culture of foxhunting, a project about the trials and tribulations of the Will family as they opened Mt. Crawford Creamery (now expanding!), a typical night at the classic Hull’s Drive-In in Lexington, and spent a few nights at local dirt tracks to delve into the safety of the sport.
Of course, I also spent half the year documenting the story of Norah Mastrandea, her family and her slow goodbye — a story that taught me more about bravery, strength, grief and the impact of one person’s story than any other story I’ve ever worked on. And I’m so glad that the Mastrandeas and I have kept in touch since, sharing memories of Norah throughout day-to-day conversations in our newly found friendship.
Between all those long-form stories, I’ve worked on daily assignments. I’ve been there during my readers' children’s graduations, their high school soccer matches, or beautiful days spent at the Frontier Culture Museum. I’ve spent countless hours at summer league baseball games, church services, snow days, festivals, farms, and even fires. I’ve watched people celebrate victory over another team, or seen families watch their home engulf in flames. Every day at my job is a look at a slice of someone else’s story — and I do my best to document it respectfully.
2013 was crazy — it was a difficult year. I learned a lot about myself, and a lot about what is most important in life. I learned these lessons from being away from my family and my long-term boyfriend for a year, but also from the stories I told.
Spending time with subjects in a journalism capacity really shows you what’s essential — what sticks out when you sit down to edit down photos later, when you see the expressions and reactions on people’s faces. It teaches you a lot about life, and even more about what to value at the end of a very long day. I love that my job and the people whose stories I tell can teach me about my own life, and help me reflect on it to make me a better person.