Josh Birnbaum (b. 1985, USA) is a photographer and rocket scientist currently living on the southeastern edge of Ohio. He graduated from the University of Illinois with a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering (and a minor in Mathematics) and from Ohio University with an M.A. in Visual Communication.Â He has worked for the Oakland Tribune, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Omaha World-Herald, the Peoria Journal Star, and the Dallas Morning News. He is currently an instructor with the Athens Photographic Project, a non-profit fine arts program that teaches photography as a tool in mental health recovery. Josh likes fluid mechanics, unicorns, bluegrass music, and cheese.
To view application information for this internship, go here.Â The deadline is Dec. 1, 2010.
The male chorus at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Crockett, Texas, practices every week for services on Sunday. (Josh Birnbaum)
Birnbaum: “I was free. They gave me assignments daily but also encouraged me to find my own features and work on a project. Otherwise, I was a staffer. I had fellow staffers to confide in and editors of every kind to oversee and yell at me. There were weekly intern meetings, also. Some of these were excellent, some were a little superfluous for a photographer.”
Birnbaum: “I had multiple supervisors and mentors. I learned something different from them all. Jim Mahoney taught me the value of being dependable, Chris Wilkins taught me about Texas BBQ, Irwin Thompson taught me about being cool, Guy Reynolds taught me how to keep my cynicism out of captions, Gerry McCarthy taught me how to laugh at everything and everybody,Â Michael Hamtil taught me about better ways to deal with newspaper politics,Â and Sonya Hebert taught me how to take care of her dog, Nola.”
Buford Gee is a chaplain for the State Supported Living Center in Mexia, Texas. He has been singing gospel music all his life. “I do it for his honor and his glory and that takes all the stress off of me,” Gee said. “I’m no longer involved then, I’m just an instrument.” (Josh Birnbaum)
VS: What was your favorite assignment and why?
Birnbaum: “My favorite assignment is the one I created for myself: a project I worked on all summer about blues and gospel music in Deep East Texas. I went to juke joints, revivals, country churches, old bluesman’s homes, and just generally explored around the area. I met some of the most amazing individuals I have ever come across in my life, people for whom music was a part of their everyday lives, for whom it was a part of their upbringing and culture. They showed me unconditional kindness and generosity in welcoming me into their lives.”
VS: What was the most important thing you learned?
Birnbaum: “There are many things in this world that I do not and never will understand. But I do not need to fully understand to appreciate.”
VS: Whatâ€™s the best and worst part about this internship?
Birnbaum: “The best and worst parts were the same: the freedom. It was so nice to be free of supervision and constraints, but at the same time it put immense pressure on me to pursue my own work. I had no life this summer. Just work.”
Lona Ree English Strange, 93, is the last survivor of the five women who built the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Crockett, Texas, in 1942. She used to sing with her parents as they rode a wagon to church. (Josh Birnbaum)
VS: Describe the environment/dynamic of the photo department.
Birnbaum: “Best environment I’ve found at a newspaper. This was my fifth internship, so it was easy to compare to different newsrooms across the country. The staff had more camaraderie than a barrel of rabid monkeys. Everybody got along, had fun, and mocked one another to no end.”
VS: Did you set a goal for your internship?Â Â Did you achieve that goal?
Birnbaum: “I set out at the beginning of the summer to begin a project that I could continue for the rest of my life, a project that would enrich my life and the lives of those involved. That, I think I did.”
VS: What was the most difficult part of the internship?
Birnbaum: “Working assignment shift five days a week, 12 hours a day, then using my two off days to work on my project. Wash, rinse, repeat. Every week all summer. No life.”
VS: Describe your personal and professional growth during the internship.
Birnbaum: “I learned to work, be independent, and be more balanced. I also learned about how to find a good BBQ shack in every small Texas town I traveled through. Follow your nose to that smoky ‘cue.”
VS: What surprised you about the internship?
Birnbaum: “The amount of support from editors and staffers surprised me. I have been at many papers good and bad, but Dallas had the most supportive and passionate editors I’ve ever come across. That helped me tremendously. I probably would have quit in week one if it weren’t like it is.”
A lone, lit cross sits in a field in Crockett, Texas on the evening of July 16, 2010. (Josh Birnbaum)
VS: What helped you get the internship?
Birnbaum: “I have no idea how I got the internship. Mistake? Oversight? Pity?”
VS: What will you do next?
Birnbaum: “For the next year of my life, I will be serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Athens, Ohio, working as a photography instructor with the Athens Photographic Project, aÂ non-profit fine arts program that teaches photography as a tool in mental health recovery. Who knows what comes after that. Fulbright? Freelance? Medical School? Law School? Live with my parents? Find a shack in the woods and grow my beard out to my feet? All seem like viable options at this point.”
Birnbaum working on assignment for The Dallas Morning News (Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)