The students of the Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Journalism gained great experience and served their community by documenting the devastation of a tornado that killed eight and tore apart the town of Harrisburg in February of 2012. Not only did they cover the aftermath as the news broke, they transmitted for daily media coverage and produced a book that raised $15,000* for rebuilding efforts.
Mark Dolan, assistant professor of photojournalism and new media at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and elected NPPA board member, cancelled the lab for his class the day of the storm so that students could go out and document the tornado.
“The storm broke early Wednesday morning (4:56 a.m. – the name of the book) – the local morning news shows (TV and Radio) were reporting on it as information started coming in. There wasn’t a lot of information at first, as it took a while until people fully realized how serious the damage was. By about 6 a.m. the local news shows began reporting live from the area and we began to see visuals of the damage.”
“Documenting Harrisburg was the most difficult situation I have experienced as a journalist,” said Danielle McGrew, a senior who will be graduating in May. Her close friend and roommate is from Harrisburg, which heightened the impact.
“I woke up February 29 to my mom’s frantic phone calls. “Is Laila’s family okay?” she was asking. My family and hers had become friends over the years of our friendship, and they lived in Harrisburg. I had no idea why their safety was in question until my mom explained the news of the tornado that had struck the town only hours ago. My reaction was completely subconscious. I have to go shoot this. I texted Laila’s mom to make sure they were safe (they were) and called Eric Ginnard, my photojournalist best friend. Before I really knew what I was doing, we were on our way. Halfway there, what we were about to photograph really hit me… suddenly, I dreaded entering Harrisburg, but I felt called by duty. “
Steve Matzker was a junior about ready to complete his bachelor’s in journalism with a photojournalism concentration at the time the tornado hit. He covered the aftermath for the Chicago Tribune and also acted as the photo editor for the book.
“When I realized the magnitude of the situation I honestly started to feel like I didn’t belong. It was their experience to own, and I was just an outsider. I was overwhelmed with the destruction and the Harrisburg residents and emergency responders digging through the debris. I began by using a long lens and forcing myself to just shoot. But this made me feel more like an outsider because of the distance I kept between people. I remembered what my professors Mark Dolan and Phil Greer emphasized; which is to get close and connect with people so you don’t feel like a vulture. Tell their stories. I followed their advice and was amazed how open people were after such an event. I think it was cathartic for them to describe the tornado in their own words.”
Dolan: “Some of the students had a difficult time documenting the destruction they were witnessing, and some made pictures but then had a difficult time approaching the people they photographed. Some students said they felt uncomfortable approaching the victims of the storm who were so clearly traumatized.
Some students showed us images of community members going through the rubble of their homes and businesses for which they didn’t get any name or information – some said that they felt “guilty” taking the photographs and were concerned the victims would view them as “voyeurs” who didn’t respect their privacy.
Professor Phil Greer and I explained to the students (during our editing sessions and in class) that if they weren’t talking to the victims and getting the information, then they were just voyeurs – we explained how these images, and the information behind those images, were important in terms that went far beyond their own individual photographic experiences.
The students returned to the community during the days that followed, and they continued to photograph. Bolstered by what we told them, many of them who did not get information the first day, sought out the people they had previously photographed and spoke with them.”
The students helped break national news the day of the storm as their pictures helped to illuminate the destruction.
Matzker: “Phil Greer put Lynnette Oostmeyer and I in contact with Todd Panagopoulos at the Chicago Tribune. I called him up late morning and within hours we were uploading our images to him from the Harrisburg Burger King. I don’t know how the images were played the day of, but the next morning I was told my image was on page one of the Chicago Tribune. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited.”
McGrew: “I was nervous that community members would not want us photographing them in their vulnerability, but they were just grateful that somebody cared. Eric (Ginnard, a fellow student) and I spent most of our time in working-class residential areas with people whose homes were past salvaging, and they were willing to let us into their lives. They would even offer us snacks or drinks, which the relief services were distributing, while everything they owned lay scattered across the ground. They would open up to me about the terrifying experience of surviving a tornado, sometimes trapped underneath their house’s debris or flung across the street, and I would hug them and sometimes take a few moments to help them clean. Perhaps I’m not really supposed to do that, but…”
Dolan: “After the second day of our students photographing in the community, we realized that, as a group, the students’ coverage of the tornado was strong, and it was Professor Greer who first brought up the idea of producing a book from their storm coverage.
The students continued to photograph though the weekend, documenting the many volunteers from around the region (including a large contingent of students, faculty and staff from the University) came in to help with the cleanup. They also covered funerals and memorial services for the eight Harrisburg residents who lost their lives as a result of the tornado.
By Monday morning the talk about the possibility of producing a book became much more serious. We brought it up to our department chair, Bill Freivogel, who loved the idea. Our News Writing Professor, Bill Recktenwald, lives in the Harrisburg area and he began talking about it to Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg, who was very enthusiastic.
Professor Recktenwald also approached four Harrisburg businesses about placing ads in the book, which helped offset some of the cost of the printing. He then approached SIU Chancellor Rita Cheng about fronting the remaining cost of the printing, which she immediately agreed to. “
Once the book was finalized, they arranged for an unveiling at the Harrisburg library. “The book was sold for $10 with all of the profits going to the community relief efforts – they sold half of the books the day of the reception at the library – they raised $15,000* for the community,” said Dolan.
Matzker: “The community was grateful for what we did with their images and stories. When we went back to Harrisburg for the book ceremony, I was blown away by the number of people who came up to me and expressed gratitude for what we had done. In the daily news cycle, even at a student run newspaper, it’s easy to play a story for a while and let it fade. But I’m proud of the fact we made something permanent for the residents of Southern Illinois to hold onto and remember that day by.”
Dolan added that their annual fall workshop is tentatively planned to document the town of Harrisburg as a follow-up to the tornado coverage, as requested by the mayor of the town.
Mark Dolan is an assistant professor of photojournalism and new media at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and NPPA board member.
Steve Matzker is a recent graduate from the Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Journalism. Raised in Barnhart, Missouri, he spent the decade (or so) after high school roaming around, searching for a way of life he could believe in; and then he found the craft of visual storytelling.
Danielle McGrew is a senior in photojournalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and her work has been published in the Southern Illinoisan, Carbondale Times, and the Daily Egyptian. Her most recent project, a book entitled Through My Lens: Family Farms in Southern Illinois, has been published by the SIU University Press.
***Initial publication of this post said that approximately $17,000 was raised by the students for rebuilding efforts. That was estimated by Dolan, but the updated number is $15,000 according to Bill Recktenwald of Southern Illinois University. Edited on 02/01/2013. ***