Carolyn Van Houten is a junior at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and is currently interning at the Raleigh News & Observer. She is the UNC NPPA chapter president and will be interning for the Chicago Tribune this coming summer. Carolyn’s work has been recognized by Hearst, North Carolina Press Photographers Association, College Photographer of the Year, South by Southwest, and the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar.
Congratulations on winning Hearst Picture Story, can you talk a little about the story you worked on?
The House Autism Built began as an assignment for a documentary class, but quickly grew into a personal project that I plan on continuing. Some stories just feel natural from the start. This was one. From the first day, the O’Loughlin’s welcomed me into their home and helped me to learn about living with autism. However, I made a connection with them that transformed it into a personal project and made me fascinated in the topic.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while working on this story?
For me, the best part of visual storytelling is the connections you make with your subjects. Oftentimes with autism, that is extremely difficult. Marcus O’Loughlin, the subject of the story, is so severe that he has never had a conversation with his mother. In the eight months that I have been with his family, he has rarely made eye contact or recognized that I am there. On the one hand, it makes photographing him a surreal experience, but on the other, it breaks my heart.
One day in December, I was sitting in their living room waiting to go with Erin to take the three kids to school. As I was waiting, Marcus walked right up to me, put his hand on my knee, looked me in the eye, and mumbled something that resembled my name. I nearly broke down. I was so touched. That’s the wonderful thing about the O’Loughlin’s, amidst the chaos of their everyday lives always emerges something more beautiful and transcendent than I can ever imagine.
What do you want to do after college?
Ideally, I would like to take another internship or two and then freelance. I have been doing some commercial and editorial freelancing outside of my wedding work and have really loved it. Running a business is challenging, but that challenge also makes it very rewarding. However, if a job that encouraged documentary storytelling were to come my way, I would take it in a heartbeat.
What or who inspires you the most?
My subjects inspire me above all else. The fights they fight andthe journeys they take—all while somehow finding it in their hearts to allow me to join them. We as photojournalists have the honor of learning from these people and their experiences. The opportunities I have been given by the people whose stories I have told have pushed me to try to photograph in a way worthy of their story.
Are you currently working on any projects?
I am currently working on a series of documentary projects addressing the issues surrounding long-term care for those with autism. I have done three documentaries of various forms, a lot of research and a few written pieces on the subject, which I am ultimately hoping to pull together in some sort of interactive multimedia presentation.
What do you hope to accomplish while interning for the Chicago Tribune this summer?
I want to shoot absolutely everything I can get my hands on and absorb as much as I can from the fantastic photographers and editors there. In any off time I have, I will be shooting a story. I have made a few initial contacts about that, but the best stories are found organically, so I cannot wait to see what I find when I get there.
What advice do you have for students just starting out in photojournalism?
Immerse yourself. Immerse yourself in photographs, in stories, in subjects. Most stories on the surface have already been done, but do not let that be discouraging. Make the story less about the poverty, the cancer, the autism and more about the people. Then you’ll have something truly genuine.
Fall in love with what you do. Remember to shoot for yourself. Find mentors to support, guide, and inspire you. Learn how to run a business. Get rejected and figure out why. Take advantage of every opportunity you have in front of you. Befriend editors not because you want them to hire you, but because you are actually interested in their perspective. Most importantly, foster your photojournalism community.
To suggest a student or recent graduate for the Emerging Talent series, email Dorothy at doro...@gmail.com