“Fly Over Me intends to share modern rural American life in Valentine, NE, and the surrounding areas, through interactive documentary multimedia.”
Andrew Dickinson is a 22-year-old photographer from Kansas City, but lives most of the year in Lincoln, Neb., where he’s about to be a super senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s worked on projects in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Brazil and Ethiopia, has interned at the Cedar County News Service, ZUMA Press and the Omaha World-Herald and was the editor-in-chief of UNL’s independent student newspaper, the Daily Nebraskan.
Nick Teets is a 22-year-old student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Originally from Omaha, Nick got a start in journalism working with Andrew on videos from his international trips. This work led to Andrew urging Nick to apply for a brand new position at the campus newspaper, engagement editor. Through this position, Nick applied social media and multimedia skills to improve visibility of the newspaper and to engage readers in brand new ways. He is now putting those skills to work in Valentine, Neb., as a part of Fly Over Me.
Lauren Justice is from Cincinnati, Ohio, and graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in photojournalism and sociology. She has interned at The Flint Journal, the Fayetteville Observer, and the San Francisco Examiner. She has also worked as a freelancer and a photo assistant to commercial and editorial based photographers.
Jacob Zlomke just completed his Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He was raised in Broken Bow, Neb., a small town on the eastern edge of the Nebraska Sandhills. He’s written and worked for five different publications around Lincoln, Neb., but his interest in writing began through fiction. For Jacob, Fly Over Me is an opportunity to share part of the country and an important American culture that he took for granted while growing up in its midst.
Talk a little about the project you four are working on
Lauren: This project came from the desire to explore the boundaries of journalism and storytelling using a visual platform we create and a schedule we design. We wanted to immerse ourselves in a community. We wanted the driving force behind our immersion to be our own curiosity, our own desire to be there. We don’t have a name behind us, no backing organization to make impressions on the subjects we choose. We’re sponsored by individuals who believe in what we’re trying to do. The community welcomed us, and that has been a huge inspiration for us to keep looking for and keep telling this community’s stories. We have about a month left here and I don’t think any of us will be ready to leave. I hope we’ll be coming back to visit and to continue to document the people and events here.
What do you hope to accomplish with the final project?
Lauren: Hopefully the website and the documentary will act as a way to share a piece of this lifestyle with not only those who live here, but also with those who may never get a chance to see the Sandhills and may not even know what this part of the country has to offer. I think we’re all interested in doing something similar to this again and so learning from our mistakes here and being able to build on what we’ve started is definitely something we’ll be looking into in the future.
What motivated you to work on something like this instead of taking an internship for the summer?
Andrew: It was obviously a risk deciding to forgo an internship and pursue this project. I had a lot of people essentially tell me I was stupid for making the choice I did. One good friend I look up to a lot said, after I turned down an internship I’d have died to take any other time, “you better not fuck this up.” Call me young and inexperienced and “stupid,” but I see so much misunderstanding of the importance of good visual journalism and so many restrictions in the way newspapers are being run as a whole right now. Don’t get me wrong, so many of them are still doing it right. But before long, someone is going to have to come up with the solution for how to do good journalism despite the effects of mass consumption and the “everything for free” mentality that is so pervasive today. We wanted to take a stab at finding a way to do that, and while we never expected to find the ultimate solution, we needed to do this to teach ourselves how to break through to people in this day and age in a new way.
Lauren: I’ve always been drawn to longer form storytelling and larger projects. When Andrew approached me with the idea of this project, it was instantly something that I wanted to be a part of, but I still debated with myself. Should I be pursuing a full time position somewhere or take a big financial risk, living without income in a state I’d only ever driven through? My decision came down to the fact that I could never pass an opportunity like this up and I would have nothing but regrets if I had turned this down.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced so far this summer?
Jacob: I struggle to consider myself a journalist. Fly Over Me and the work I’m doing with it is, of course, journalism, but because for so long my relationship to writing has been through fiction, I just don’t see myself that way. I’ve written for various press outlets here and there, but before now it’s always been a means-to-an-end situation. And here I am realizing this is what I love to do. In that sense, my challenges in this project are internal. It’s a readjustment of how I view my relationship to the world. I’ve left the writing-desk and instead am out there interacting and learning about real people. It’s invigorating, but also requires me to come out of myself a little bit. I don’t resent that challenge, though. I think it’s one of the best opportunities for personal growth I’ve ever had. On another level, Andrew, Nick, and Lauren all do such amazing work, that I’m challenged every day to meet that quality in my own work. We talk a lot about the relationship between visual and textual reporting. In our case, those mediums work exceptionally well together, they build from each other. But I think it’s true many people would rather look at 10 photos than read 3,000 words–it’s just easier, more instant, I think. So even in that, there’s a challenge to do my absolute best because it has to be as enlightening and engaging as the work of some very talented photographers. Writing can do so much, especially when it works with more visual mediums, but it’s useless if it doesn’t cultivate ideas just as well as those visuals do.
What has been the most rewarding experience so far?
Nick: The most rewarding part about this project has been the tremendous support we’ve received from the community. Everyone seems to know that they have something special out here. The first night we got to Valentine, we drove by the marquee on the Peppermill, and to our surprise we saw “Welcome Fly Over Me Journalists” lit up on the sign. From that moment on we knew that we were going to be well received in the community. Everyone that talks to us seems to have a hard time expressing their gratitude for what we’re doing. It makes this project even more special to me. Everyone in this town has a story to tell, and it’s a challenge for us to listen to them all. I only wish that we could stay here and work on this project for a longer time, because each story is worth telling. The people of the Sandhills want their voices heard, and I couldn’t be more excited about us providing them the platform to do so.
Who do each of you look up to for inspiration?
Andrew: So many people. But if I have to talk about one in depth…my photo professor, Bruce Thorson, is a real hard ass. He questioned this project from the start, and I don’t think it was because he thought it was a bad idea, I think he was just making sure I was getting into it for the right reasons and in the right way. I look up to him because he leads students on projects like this twice a year, except he’s taking us to developing countries where there is great poverty. It’s an incredible amount of work on top of the classes he already teaches, and he doesn’t get nearly enough recognition for it. So I look up to him because he taught me that there’s nothing as important as the work you do for other people…there’s no vacation time, there’s no time off. He’s led me into some places where we’ve seen people in terrible situations. We saw people dying from drug withdrawal and malnutrition in Delhi, we saw Ethiopians stuck in Kyrgyzstan who are scared to go outside at night because of their skin color and he took me to get my finger sewn up at 6 a.m. after an unfortunate encounter with a crack user in Brazil. He showed me true darkness in the world, which in turn made me realize so deeply how important it is to try and spread the light. And to never forget how lucky we all are.
Jacob: Inspiration comes from so many places. I have a long list of writers whose work has deeply influenced how I view what one can do through words. I have friends whose passions encourage my own and college professors that have totally altered my approach to the world around me. Boiling it down to one person, though, my friend Carson Vaughan comes to mind. Carson and I have followed similar life paths. He’s a few years older than I am, but we went to the same rural high school and were interested in the same kind of things. When he went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he fought hard to get student funding for an independent satirical newspaper, like a hyper-localized version of the Onion. I was still in high school while that was going on, but I followed the progress pretty closely, and I remember all the obstacles he and others had to overcome to get to print. Eventually funding was approved, this was in 2007 or so, and the DailyER is still printed on campus through student funding, and has grown so much since then. Of course, he was the first editor-in-chief. I was the third. In a way, seeing someone ahead of me with such a similar background to mine decide to accomplish something and then actually accomplish it, that was huge for me. It was then that I started to realize that if I wanted to do something, but there wasn’t a way for me to do it yet, I could make that way. That’s a guiding principle behind Fly Over Me, I think. I also consider him one of the most talented writers I know, and still turn to him for advice on a lot of my work.
Lauren: A lot of inspiration I get comes from my peers, former professors, and even just the people that I meet along the way-the people who try to make a difference by improving whatever they care deeply about. Like a man named Moose who turned a vacant lot into a war memorial or a woman named Laurie who continues to impress me with her strength in overcoming and speaking out against the struggles in her past. A Vietnamese photographer I met in Nha Trang, Vietnam, who taught himself how to use a camera by listening and watching others work. There are more names and faces than I can count. There are also just so many talented people who I’ve worked with or met through school or workshops. They are doing amazing work and constantly push me to do better.
Nick: It’s the people I’m here working with that inspire me. Each of us chose to be out here this summer, setting their jobs, friends and relationships on the sideline. And the work that Andrew, Lauren and Jacob each produce is amazing and beautiful. I’m still taken aback each time I go to the website and see the hard work they’ve put in. Without each other’s commitment to the project, we would lose sight of the goal. We keep each other on track, and inspire each other to produce beautiful work. It’s through each other and the time we’ve put into it that I can start to understand just how important and special this project really is.
What kind of advice can you give students who want to work on a long term personal project?
Andrew: Don’t just think about them, do them. The hardest part, sometimes, is starting. It’s impossible to describe the feeling of joy you get when you work on something you truly care about for no reason other than your passion for an issue, for a person, for a memory, for a culture, for whatever it is that makes you feel like doing something. But it can also give you a feeling of being a little lost, because, in our case, we’re out here on our own. We don’t have a boss telling us what’s right or wrong, we have to make all kinds of decisions on our own that each have their own set of consequences. But if your heart is in it, you’ll be fine no matter what. All of your classes, all of your other work, all of your friends will be there, but windows open and close for personal projects like this. Jump and squeeze through them when you can so you don’t regret missing out.
Lauren: Take that risk you’re afraid of. And do it now. Do it when you’re the most passionate about it because that passion will show not only in your work but in the relationships you create with the people you meet. Don’t give up on it if you hit a few walls-look at what you’ve done and search for a new way to approach the project. If it’s something that is really important to you, you’ll find a way to make it work no matter how long it takes to get there. Being open and genuine is so important. This profession constantly challenges you and puts you into new situations and I’ve found that it changes a piece of you in the process. Let it change you. Let it affect you. We take pieces of everything we do and everyone we meet with us and that will improve what we do and who we are tomorrow, next year, and every day after.