WKUPJ Alumni Look Back on 9-11 and their Journey to Cover History

“It made me question if I was holding the right tool, but a camera is the tool of my trade,” – Michael Bunch

Twenty years ago WKU Photojournalism students decided to journey to NYC and Washington DC to document the biggest historical event in their lives, the September 11 attack.  Recently WKU President Gary Ransdell looked back on that day and remembered hearing that students from the Photojournalism program had decided to drive to NYC to cover the tragedy. He explained his first reaction was concern for their safety but quickly understood  we are training them to be journalist and that is what journalist do.


Under different circumstances, a weeklong trip to New York City for three college students would have been a lot of fun. But 852 miles away, history was happening.

Within a couple of hours of hearing of the devastation on September 11, 2001, I was in a car along with two other photojournalism students from Western Kentucky University.

In Bowling Green, Kentucky, I’d left behind a week’s worth of classes, four very understanding professors and two very frightened parents on the other end of a telephone.

“Be careful,” my dad said.

How fortunate that my mom had not answered the phone. I don’t think I could’ve told her where I was going.
On the road, we listened to radio reports of what was happening. We didn’t know what we would find when we got there, or if we’d even get there.
We were scared.

We arrived in New York in the early morning hours of September 12. Lights from the worksite at Ground Zero illuminated the smoke still drifting over the city.

I spent four days in New York, photographing the pain, the devastation, but mostly the indomitable human spirit that was alive everywhere around the magnificent city.

The feeling there was much different than we had expected. People were shocked and dazed, but friendly and polite — nothing like the rude New Yorkers you hear about or see in the movies. They had wanted to talk about what happened to them and the country and what was still happening.

During our third night, after walking around for a couple of hours, trying hard not to be noticed, it began to rain. We eventually found shelter beneath an awning only a couple of blocks from ground zero. The three of us huddled together because it was very cold.

I remember just how miserable I was and then began thinking of the people who were still trapped inside the remains of the smoldering towers and how cold and wet and alone they must have felt. That was the moment that it really felt personal.

Going to New York to photograph the attacks isn’t something I’m proud of; it’s just something I did. I didn’t have to think about going. I had the opportunity to see something that I knew would forever change our country, and I went.


There was a lot of self-doubt covering such a large-scale event as a student, especially not knowing exactly how, if ever, the images would be used.

There was discussion before we even left about whether it was responsible to go and possibly add further strain to a chaotic situation, but a few other students and myself felt very strongly a need to document this tragic moment in history.

So, when one of us secured a place to stay in the city we drove all night and arrived on the morning of September 12.

I went into the situation thinking I was covering an event that had already happened, but the truth was that the story was still unfolding, with repercussions that would be felt for many years to come.

The gravity of the situation washed over me after seeing hundreds of faces on “missing” posters plastered across the city as many people had not yet officially been declared deceased.

Our first night we photographed people gathered at makeshift memorials in parks near Ground Zero, with some of us finally putting away our cameras to help each other deal with the overwhelming feeling of sorrow and tragedy.

The next day, when F-16 fighter jets screamed overhead at low altitude, the thought crossed my mind, will they attack again?


The morning of September 11, I woke up to an ABC Special Report as Peter Jennings reported that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center North Tower.

In class with journalism professor Mrs. Albers, we watched the World Trade Center South Tower get demolished by a highjacked plane.  I remembered the class was silent as everyone was in disbelief.

Two of my classmates and I made the decision an hour later to drive 12 hours to New York City to document the event.

As we stood close to Ground Zero, we witnessed chaos and bravery from the people of New York.  We documented the event as best as we could.  I remembered the drive home was depressing.  Throughout the night, I was terrified, and what-ifs kept repeating in my mind.

What if they target a small town such as Bowling Green or my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan?  What’s going to happen next?  The unknowns were uneased.

I remember September 11 as if it was yesterday.  My mental wellness was affected, and thousands of Americans suffered.

What we witnessed on TV and in person was a nightmare that became a reality that day.

May the heroes of New York City be remembered.


I was working on a photo story when I saw live news coverage of the 9/11 attack. Going up to New York was the talk among us. Some went right away. Others like myself waited a few days, and then decided to go.

For me, my hesitation came from not wanting to get in the way. I wasn’t a working journalist with an outlet (so I thought) so I didn’t feel I had a reason to be there. I changed my mind after a couple of days and four of us drove up. I decided that it was too big of an event to not go.

I was a nontraditional student in my early thirties. Another person I went up with was also older. The others were young college kids, and all of us handled ourselves wonderfully in such a raw situation.

The New Yorkers were extremely receptive and welcoming as well. I can’t recall anyone turning away from a camera. Everyone was on the same page when it came to documenting this horrific event.

Over the years, and more recently, I have found my thoughts drifting to the image I made on that trip of a woman looking at the Jasper Johns American flag painting in the Museum of Modern Art days after the attack. I wonder what she was thinking then, and now. I wonder what many of us are thinking about our country.

As for New York right after the attack, one typically doesn’t get to experience humanity on this level in a lifetime.

It is hard to believe that, until the other day, we’ve been at war ever since that day 20 years ago. In that time, I’ve again changed careers. I’ve seen my classmates go on to have families, their children never knowing us not at war.

Going up to New York and covering the tragedy of 9/11 was something we needed to do. I believe we are better for it.


I was young, and while very independent, I hadn’t been to a big city on my own since I was a kid with my parents.

I am glad Jenny Sevcik and MJ Mahon decided to tag along in my car. Along the drive we heard from others that they had either turned around, or decided to drive to Washington, D.C., instead. We kept heading towards New York and finally arrived late in the evening on 9/11 and checked into a hotel in New Jersey.

When we entered New York City on September 12, we made our way into Tribeca, where we could see a parade of vehicles delivering water and supplies to the nearby rescue crews.

We kept walking south. The sun was shining and there was a lot of noise from people hollering at the rescue vehicles, and just in general there was a lot of commotion. As we turned into a quieter side street, I saw a firefighter sitting on a stoop, his uniform dirty and his hands over his face, crying. I just remember that so vividly because I was wondering what we were about to experience.

When I was there with my family as a kid, I do remember one thing very vividly: it was a big and impersonal city. People would pass each other by, not speaking to each other, ignoring each other, keeping to themselves.

On September 12, 2001, it was a completely different feeling. Small groups had formed on the streets and in the parks. Strangers were randomly interacting with each other sharing stories and information. It felt more like a small village rather than a big city.

This was even more noticeable in areas where people had posted “missing” posters with pictures of their loved ones. Seeing those is what really made it real for me. So many posters and so many loved ones missing. It was gut wrenching.

I am glad I had the opportunity to experience one of the biggest news events in history with my camera and my classmates, though I wish I never would have had the reason to go.

I was 27 and not yet that experienced in photojournalism, but it was a valuable lesson. It was not only a lesson in how to approach people who were in anguish but also how to deal with my own anguish and emotions after returning from it all.


Twenty years after 9/11, l remember the human spirit much more than I remember the destruction and chaos.

I recall watching vehicles roll in from all over the country, sedans strapped with wheelbarrows and shovels, covered in makeshift signs stating they’d traveled to New York City to help in any way possible.

It made me question if I was holding the right tool, but a camera is the tool of my trade, so I focused on finding images that showed less the tears and rubble and more how remarkable people can be in the wake of immense tragedy.


I’m not sure what I expected as we drove toward New York on the Thursday after September 11, 2001. As we got closer, we could see across the Hudson River. I saw the smoke still rising from Ground Zero. The tragedy became real with such sadness.

Twenty years later, I certainly remember that sadness as we documented those few days. But I mostly remember the resiliency of New Yorkers. They pulled together for the common good. The country did the same. I hope for that feeling of unity now.


When I think back this is what I remember:

  • Listening
  • Shock at the size of the hole in the earth.
  • Watching hope turn to despair and grief.
  • Not being able to focus my camera through tears, but still shooting. 
  • Feeling the importance of documenting the events of September 11, 2001, knowing that the future would be changed.


As my colleague, David Cooper, and former student, Amy Smotherman Burgess, and I drove into New York City in the wee hours of the Friday morning after 9/11, with smoke still rising from where the twin towers once stood on the city skyline, I remember thinking to myself, “This is not how I wanted to see New York City for the first time.”

I grew up in Los Angeles, but my father, who died when I was 17, grew up in New York. Perhaps because of this the city had always held a special, almost mystical place in my mind and heart. I had always dreamed of traveling to New York City to walk the streets that my father walked as a child. But instead, I was walking these same streets photographing destruction, disbelief, pain, tears, and the faint hope that those missing were still alive.

By the end of the weekend, hope had faded. The reality of what happened had fully set in.

I came in sadness and left in sadness. I brought home photographs and audio, stories that I hoped would make some sense of it all, or at least make some difference. Beyond my prayers, this was all I had to offer.


It’s my first time in New York City.

The buildings tower over the chaotic streets. An acrid haze diffuses the September sun and the endless lines of flashing emergency lights. Every road and sidewalk leading to Ground Zero is locked down. Every park has huddled masses. Many people are crying, wrapped by the consoling arms of strangers. Candles, teddy bears, flowers, and keepsakes are set up in impromptu memorials throughout the city. It appears every lamppost is hauntingly decorated with the faces of the missing – the phone numbers of their loved ones boldly printed, pleading for someone to call with good news.

It is quieter than I expected, as if we were all at a wake and being loud would be disrespectful. And so, it is with quiet and careful steps that we move about the city doing what we are trained to do.

We photograph what we see today so it is not forgotten tomorrow.




Beyond Graduation: Demetrius Freeman


In a recent email interview, Demetrius Freeman, a 2014 WKUPJ graduate, shares personal experiences while at WKU and the life that followed as a staff photographer for the New York City mayoral office and eventually becoming his own boss. You can see his current work at www.demetriusfreeman.com and be sure to follow him on Instagram @demetrius.freeman.

Demetrius Freeman, a 2014 WKUPJ graduate, runs his own photography business based in New York City.

Demetrius Freeman, a 2014 WKUPJ graduate, runs his own photography business based in New York City.


Where were you born and what high school did you attend?

I was born in Atlanta, Georgia and I attended Lakeside High School.

Is there an interesting story that brought you to WKUPJ or photojournalism in general?

In 2004 when I was a Junior in High school, my best friend’s parents invited me to a family trip in Pensacola, Florida. During the trip my best friend’s dad, Randy, had a point and shoot (Canon Powershot) camera that I was curious about. I had never used a digital camera so he showed me how it worked. For the rest of the trip, I took pictures and kept filling up the memory card, returning it to him and going back out again. A year passed and he came across the photos I took and thought I had a unique eye for capturing emotions and people so, for my senior graduation gift, he gifted me a Canon AE-1, two lenses, a flash, and a camera bag. 

After high school, I attended Gwinnett Technical College in Lawrenceville, Georgia where I learned more about photography and digital imaging. The program was designed to introduce students to film photography, digital photography and all the different aspects of photo: architecture, product, portrait, and photojournalism.

The more I photographed, the more intrigued with storytelling I became and this led me to attending the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar. At the seminar I noticed a trend. The majority of the photographers who placed in the contest were from WKUPJ.

When did you start attending WKU and what year did you graduate?

I started WKU in 2010 and graduated in 2014.

Immediately after graduation I …

Immediately after graduation I took a vacation trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, Rome, Italy and Split, Croatia. I wanted to reset my batteries and prepare myself for my internship at the Tampa Bay Times. I then spent three months at The Tampa Bay Times before being hired as a full time photographer for The New York City Mayor’s Office under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Who do you currently work for?

I run my own freelance company with the majority of my work is with The New York Times, Pro Publica, and The Huffington Post.

What economic decisions or creative process lead you to running your own business?

After 2 years of covering the mayor’s office, I felt that I had accomplished what I set out to do and that I had learned a lot. I wanted to return to journalism. I missed the creativity involved in journalistic work as well as the sense of connecting with a variety of people. Because of the state of the industry, starting my own business was the only route for accomplishing this in New York City.


NYTOPEN: FLUSHING, NY. - August 26, 2019: Serena Williams serves to Maria Sharapova in the first round of the US Open at Arthur Ash Stadium in Flushing, New York. CREDIT: Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times

August 26, 2019: Serena Williams serves to Maria Sharapova in the first round of the US Open at Arthur Ash Stadium in Flushing, New York.   |   Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times

Since graduation, tell us about some of the more interesting places or events you may have visited/photographed as part of your work being a visual storyteller?

This is a tough one to answer because I feel that I have been able to experience a lot of interesting places and events. I have covered the U.S. Open Tennis tournament, the World Series, and have taken photos of political candidates, presidents, parades, protests, and lots of feature stories.

One assignment that stands out is during the coverage of the U.S. Open Tennis tournament in Flushing, Queens, New York. I was in the pit behind the player receiving a serve from Serena Williams. Williams then served a 120 mph ball, which bounced right into my 600mm lens and knocked it out of my hands. The noise was so loud the ball girl asked if I was okay. Luckily, I had moved my face in time and the camera was okay. 


NOVEMBER 22, 2019: Democratic candidate, Cory Booker, hold a “Conversation with Cory” event at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire.   |   Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times

I see that you have been on the campaign 2020 trail, what has that been like from a visual storytellers perspective?

The campaign trail gives you a unique and interesting way of seeing the election. You are in the front seat, which gives you a chance to see how the candidates navigate their crowds and watching the energy of the voters. It also presents lots of fun challenges. Most campaigns are designed to present you with what the candidate and their staff want you to see or capture, so your goal is to seek images that are out of the norm for the event. For example, Joe Biden typically strays from the plan by leaving the stage and approaching voters while Pete Buttigieg will stick to the stage and linger in the space. You have to learn the person and work to get past the limitations to make unique images. 

In hindsight, is there anything you learned while in a PJ class at Western that has resonated with you now?

The most important thing WKUPJ taught me was the power of storytelling in photojournalism. Every story, no matter how small, is an important one. A good example of this is a feature story I worked on about how deeply segregated New York City schools are. This story was not happening in an extreme environment or a faraway place, but rather a poorly/badly lit small classroom in Brooklyn. Regardless, I stuck to the storytelling element and was able to create a POYi award-winning image.

What has changed in your professional plans from the time you enrolled at WKU until know? Did you ever expect to be where you are today?

I don’t think much has changed, except that I have more of an understanding of the industry. “While I didn’t foresee specific locations I would work in or positions that I would occupy, I did set two key expectations for myself: to maintain the quality of my photography and to keep my work ethic high.”

Do you have any immediate future work plans that you can disclose? What awaits you in 2020?

I have a few work projects related to the 2020 campaign and presidential race coming up later this year. I will continue to work on the trail with the democratic candidates up until the election.  

If you could have any “dream” freelance assignment what would that be?

To be completely honest, I feel like I am currently working on my dream assignment, covering the 2020 election.

What is your favorite memory from WKUPJ?

My favorite memory from WKUPJ is finishing a photo assignment and going into the photo lab in the evening to find everyone at their computers or with their cameras. I always found it fascinating to see how different everyone was yet how we all bonded together over photojournalism. I miss that feeling of togetherness and everyone pushing each other to improve. 

WKU Alum J. Scott Applewhite Inducted into Hall of Distinguished Alumni

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning Photojournalist J. Scott Applewhite has lived a life being in the middle of the major news stories around the world. He was recently honored as the newest inductee in the Western Kentucky University’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni.

WKU Photojournalism is honored to call him our own, and Photojournalism is lucky to have such a kind person as an ambassador for our industry.

If you want to see more about J. Scott Applewhite you can follow a  mysterious instagram accounts that shows him behind the scenes. @scottyshots1

Video by: WKYU-PBS

Beyond Graduation: Abigail Dollins


In an October 12, 2019 email interview, Abigail Dollins, a 2019 WKUPJ graduate shares some of her experiences while attending WKU and also the path that lead her to her current job as a staff multimedia journalist for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, SD.

Abigail Dollins graduated in the spring of 2019 and three months later found herself working full-time for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, SD. This southerner will soon be learning about the warmth of Sorel boots and hand warmers.

Where were you born?

I was born and raised in Paducah, Ky.

What High School did you attend?

I graduated from Lone Oak High School in Paducah, Ky., in May 2013. I was the last graduating class, they then consolidated to make McCracken County High School.

Is there an interesting story that brought you to WKUPJ or photojournalism in general?

I have to credit my dad for this one. I started out as a nursing major because of two things: I wanted to help people and I wanted the ability to work anywhere. Long story short, becoming a nurse wasn’t for me.

I’ve always enjoyed photography and had spent most of my early years as a photographer wandering around Kentucky Lake and shooting what I saw. My dad did the research and pointed me to WKU, noting that it was one of the top schools for photojournalism. To be honest, when I started out as a freshman, I didn’t fully know what photojournalism was. I soon fell in love with it though and never turned back.

When did you start attending WKU and what year did you graduate?

I started at WKU in the fall of 2015. As a transfer student with already two years under my belt, I did not know I would be adding a few extra years of school. I graduated in the spring of 2019.

I’m sure that starting a four-year major after two years in college was a difficult choice to make. What impact did these two extra years of visual education make in defining your current career?

The two extra years of education did so much for me as a visual storyteller. Coming into the program, I was just learning the basics of what photojournalism was. I think everyone has a point in their college career that they would consider a “light bulb moment”— where everything just clicks. That moment for me happened in picture stories during my junior year. What I had learned in my previous years, about composition, light, audio, etc. came together in that class. I truly began to define who I am as a visual storyteller and took that opportunity to highlight issues that matter to me in my storytelling.

Immediately after graduation I …

I went stir crazy! I had graduated and been a finalist for several internships (even had an important email go to my junk mail) but had nothing lined up yet. I began applying to full-time positions.

Who do you currently work for?

I currently work for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, SD, part of the USA Today Network as a staff multimedia journalist.

What does “staff multimedia journalist” mean? Do you just take still photos for the print and online publications or are there other duties?

Part of my duties as a multimedia journalist include photographing daily and long-term assignments for print and online publication, putting together online galleries and producing videos. We try to be very intentional with our use of video and think about what assignments could benefit from that form of storytelling. Another fun duty that comes along with my job is sharing content to Instagram and Twitter real time. Sometimes these are photos from an assignment that day or a feature I found on my way home.

Dollins on assignment in Sioux Falls, SD.

Since graduation, tell us about some of the more interesting places or events you may have visited/photographed as part of your work being a visual storyteller?

Curiosity is one of the best traits you can have as a photojournalist. It is curiosity and wanting to know more about a person’s story that has led me to the more interesting places I’ve been as a storyteller. For example, I am currently working on a story about a person’s journey with cancer. I met them on a daily assignment for the Argus and struck up conversation. Being a fly on the wall in someone’s daily life, learning the details of their everyday, is one of the most interesting places I’ve been for visual storytelling.

Sioux Falls recently experienced a historic flood followed by three destructive tornadoes and you were in your first month of working there. What was that experience like? Was there any particular moment or image that will stick with you forever?

I was taking cover in my apartment during the storm when I got a call from my editor. A woman was trapped inside her house and couldn’t get out. I hopped in my car while it was still raining sideways and started to drive to the scene. It wasn’t until I was stopped by flash flooding and downed power lines that I realized what had actually happened. Three tornadoes had hit Sioux Falls.

I spent that night and early morning driving around to businesses and homes surveying the initial damage caused by three tornadoes. Around 4 a.m., I went home and got an hour of sleep and was told to report back by 6 a.m. The sun started to rise and we got a better idea of what actually happened. (I think I was running on pure adrenaline.)

Although, I witnessed a lot of destruction during the course of covering the tornadoes, one man’s experience stuck out the most to me. Matt Ditmanson had just woken up and was running with his dog Teddy to his basement when his roof was torn off. I took a photo of him standing in what was his living room and watched him salvage family photos and other personal belongings. That moment will stay with me forever.

Sioux Falls, SD resident Matt Ditmanson surveys the damage to his home after it was hit by a tornado. Photo by Abigail Dollins

In hindsight, is there anything you learned while in a PJ class at Western that has resonated with you now?

One thing I learned as a WKUPJ that has stuck with me is pretty simple—JUST GO SHOOT. Having a camera in your hands everyday will make you better, whether you realize it or not. Oh, and along those lines, always keep a camera on you. You never know what kind of situation you may roll up on.

What has changed in your professional plans from the time you enrolled at WKU until know? Did you ever expect to be where you are today?

I came into the PJ program knowing that if I spent my first years out of college working for a daily paper, it would be a huge benefit to my career in the long run. However, I never expected to be where I am as quickly as I got here. As a student, I always assumed that you needed 10 internships before you were ready for something full-time. I’ve learned that everyone’s path looks different.

Do you have any immediate future work plans that you can disclose? What awaits you in 2020?

Wow! 2020 is really that close, huh? In 2020 I plan to stay with the Argus Leader, assuming I survive the winter. (kidding) I feel that I’ve started to discover my voice as a visual storyteller and I’m enjoying exploring it through my photos. I’m excited to see how I continue to grow and have plenty to learn from this amazing newsroom.

If you could have any “dream” freelance assignment what would that be?

As a southerner who moved out of the south, I have to say there’s so many things I miss about it. I would love to work on a broader photo essay about the American South and document the region and people who drew me into visual storytelling in the first place.

What is your favorite memory from WKUPJ?

Some of my favorite memories were made creating in the studio with my roommate Kendall Warner. Since I was the studio manager, there were some nights we would go in there late at night and just try out new lighting techniques.

Another favorite memory that sticks out is my first all-nighter I pulled for a WKUPJ class. It was finals week of my Intermediate Photojournalism class and I somehow managed to pull together a picture story in a day (I would not recommend this). A few of my classmates and I decided to stay the night in the lab and kept ourselves awake by having mini dance parties.

Provide for us a link to your current online portfolio and/or social media accounts:


Instagram: @abigaildollins

Twitter: @abigaildollins

Beyond Graduation: Thomas Simonetti


In an August 26, 2019 email interview, Thomas Simonetti, a 2009 WKUPJ graduate, took a break from his busy schedule as the sport picture editor for The Washington Post and reminisced on his past and how WKUPJ set him up for his career in the photojournalism business.

Photo editor Thomas Simonetti in the headquarters of The Washington Post. (Photo by Marlena Sloss)


Where were you born?

Well, I was  born in Long Island, N.Y., where I lived until Age 7. That’s when my family moved to sunny Tampa, Fla.


What High School did you attend?

I went to Brandon High School in a suburb of Tampa. Go Eagles.


How did you end up at WKU?

It was my last semester at The University of South Florida. I was getting a degree in mass communications, was the Sports Editor of the college newspaper, and was working as a freelance reporter for the (then) St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) and MLB.com.

One of my final classes, an elective, was Intro to Photojournalism. I got hooked! With enthusiasm, I took a (terrible) collection of photos to a photojournalist on staff at the St. Pete Times named Daniel Wallace for a critique. His advice: consider more school. He suggested WKU, where he has gone, and the rest is history.


Immediately after graduation I …

I started a six-month internship at the Dubois County (Jasper) Herald. It’s a special place. The small newspaper has a decades-long tradition of running a Saturday weekly feature, ad-free, across the first several pages. The vibe in this small town is midwestern and polite and the people really appreciate the way the paper tells the community’s stories. Getting that internship should be a priority for every photojournalism student.

Later I was hired as a staff photographer at the Midland Daily News in Michigan – a small-but-talented photo staff of three.


Who do you currently work for?

I am a staff photo editor at The Washington Post. My first three years here I embedded with the financial and politics teams, working with a small team of photo editors. Now I am the lone Sports photo editor. Before The Post, I worked at the New York Times on the Metro desk for a short stint.

Thomas Simonetti, left, with the photo crew from The Washington Post at the 2017 White House News Photographers Association annual awards at The Ritz Carlton in Washington D.C. in 2017. WKUPJ 2014 graduate Jabin Botsford, back right, can also be seen here.

What is it like editing and working with other WKUPJ’ers?

There are three dedicated sports photographers at the Post, and two of them are WKU grads: Toni Sandys and Jonathan Newton. I’ve worked with WKU alumni in almost every job and internship I’ve done. When I worked on the politics desk, I interfaced daily with photographer Jabin Botsford. There are multiple WKU grads at the New York Times. Former Midland Daily News photo editor Nathan Morgan (2.0) hired me on the staff there. I worked with WKU grad Krista Schinagl while interning at the Jasper Herald. We are everywhere.


Since graduation, tell us about some of the more interesting places you may have visited as part of your work being a visual story teller?

For me, the most interesting places were always behind the scenes of regular people’s lives. For instance, while at Western, I spent countless hours documenting the lives of a single mother of three named Dawn and her young family. I was with them in the evenings when they ate dinner and mornings getting ready for school. Literally, hours and hours of time was spent with them. Recently the mother reached out to me on Facebook. She told me that she was glad I was doing well and wanted to inform me that she was now married and happy and that all the kids were growing up.

Doing what we do, you become a part of people’s lives, and it’s really special.


In hindsight, is there anything you learned while in a PJ class at Western that has resonated with you now?

Another story I worked on at WKU, a man had both his legs amputated and wasn’t sure how long he had left to live. The assignment was to do a semester-long story on someone who was imminently facing death. Heavy stuff. A year or so later, he passed away and his family reached out to me for photos they could display of him at his funeral. It was the least I could do.

The work we do is important in ways we don’t realize when we are thinking about exposure, cleaning up backgrounds and looking for light. That’s something I never forget.


What has changed in your professional plans from the time you enrolled at WKU until know? Did you ever expect to be where you are today?

You learn pretty quickly there is no “normal path” in photojournalism, at least anymore.

On the first day of my first class at WKU, we were asked to write down a goal on an index card. The class was taught by James Kenney. I wrote “Work for The St. Petersburg Times.” Though I would have loved to be on staff at my home town paper, I’d say I landed at a pretty nice spot.

It would be way too long of a story to explain the winding path often filled with self-doubt that led me to the New York Times and now The Washington Post. The bottom line is you have to strive to be your true self in job interviews and with relationships you cultivate in your career.

Oh, and you also have to be extremely lucky.


Do you have any immediate future work plans that you can disclose? What awaits you in 2019?

Next up for me, a season of NFL live-editing at Washington Redskins games this fall. And perhaps Washington Nationals baseball playoffs (if they can continue on pace the rest of this season).


If you could have any “dream” freelance assignment what would that be?

More than anything, I look forward to a lifetime of documenting my son Gabriel’s life. He’s 17 months old and keeps me on my toes.


What is your favorite memory from WKUPJ?

Every morning, when possible, I’d wake up and meet my best friend Daniel Johnson at the Starbucks on Campbell Ln. We alternated who bought the New York Times. We’d sit there and drink coffee and read it cover to cover.


What advice might you give for anyone considering to pursue a career in the journalism industry?

Something that’s been on my mind lately, and something I tell emerging photojournalists, is that if you want to work in news it’s important to not post online anything that could be perceived as a bias. The New York Times recently published a story detailing efforts to comb the social media accounts of working journalists in a campaign to discredit the media.

Oh, and when you get a job, put money into available retirement accounts early. I am a dad now, so I’m obligated to say that.


Beyond Graduation: Naomi Driessnack


In an April 5, 2019 email interview, Naomi Driessnack, a 2016 WKUPJ graduate sat down for a few moments and told us about her path from the classroom at WKUPJ to her current position at Apple. While Naomi cannot disclose exactly what she works on as a photo editor with Apple’s Media Content photo team, she finds the job extremely rewarding and fascinating. 

Where were you born?

I was born in State College, Pennsylvania.

What High School did you attend?

I went to Virgil I. Grissom High School in Huntsville, Alabama. My dad was in the military and we moved around a bunch growing up, but I claim Huntsville as my hometown.

Is there an interesting story that brought you to WKUPJ or photojournalism in general?

Hmm, actually it is a pretty good story. I had expressed to my dad that I was interested in photojournalism. I had just watched a documentary in high school called Born into Brothels and was completely blown away with the impact of photojournalism, the reach and the opportunities. My dad, being the researcher that he is, found WKU among the top schools with photojournalism programs, and he also found that they had a workshop for high schoolers during the summer. He immediately signed me up.

When it came time for me to go, I refused. I was nervous to be in a strange place, surrounded by people I didn’t know, focusing on a subject that I did not feel confident in. I distinctly remember crying in the car (I’m a drama queen). My dad told me that I did not have to go, but that I had to call the workshop coordinator and let them know I would not be attending. The idea of confronting an adult and telling them I didn’t want to go because I was nervous was so lame that I couldn’t do it.

I attended WKU’s high school workshop and I loved every second of it. I met amazing people, made lifelong friends, became acquainted with the school I would later choose to attend, hung out with the professors and learned how to use a freaking camera.

After attending the workshop, I knew that I needed to be at WKU and I really wanted to be a part of WKUPJ.

When did you start attending WKU and what year did you graduate?

I started attending WKU in the fall of 2011 and graduated in the spring of 2016. Just one victory lap. [smiley emoji]

Why did you require the “victory lap”?

I took an extra year, which allowed me to study abroad for a semester in Harlaxton (England) my sophomore year. I was also able to complete a winter term in Cuba and a Summer term in Germany. Having an extra year gave me the flexibility to take advantage of these programs. Another bonus of having a victory lap year meant that I had more chances to take internships before graduating. During my time at WKUPJ I interned with TIME, CNN.com and InStyle.com leading up to graduation. I also worked as a freelance photo editor for InStyle.com my senior year, working the morning shift 5 am to 8:30 am Monday through Friday. My extra year was extremely worthwhile, giving me work experience and a definite edge to separate me from other recent graduates.

Naomi Driessnack’s life as a photo editor finds her in exciting spaces and places, like here in 1 World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan in a conference room at GQ, an incredible view of the Hudson River over her shoulder. “No, I’m not cruising my Instagram account during a meeting,” Driessnack said. “This is a pretty accurate picture of what it’s like to be a photo editor – buried in my phone answering emails every chance I get.”

Immediately after graduation I …

The day before my graduation I flew to and from NYC for an interview and started at GQ as a photo assistant a week after. I mostly assisted the magazine’s director of photography (who is still my boss – now we are at a different company), but also was able to edit a small section of the magazine. I worked for GQ and GQ Style magazine for a year as a freelance photo assistant and then one year as a full-time assistant photo editor for GQ and GQ Style magazine as well as GQ.com.

Who do you currently work for?

Currently I work for Apple as a photo editor on the Apple Media Content Photo team based in Cupertino, California. Unfortunately, I can’t talk more about what I do at Apple. I know, it’s silly, but I can only mention the team that I am on.

Since graduation, tell us about some of the more interesting places you have visited as part of your work being a visual storyteller?

Maybe not so much as “places” that I have visited, but as a photo editor I am able to assign photographers to cover stories. A few of my favorite commissions have been commissioning Grant Cornett to photograph the two highest rated American restaurants, Devin Christopher to photograph the culture around “Donks,” in Miami, Grant Hindsley to photograph Steve Aoki’s workout routine while on tour and Wayne Lawrence to document New York City’s beachgoers.

In hindsight, is there anything you learned while in a PJ class at Western that still resonates with you now?

WKUPJ taught me to constantly be searching for the beautiful and unique parts of people. Everyone on this planet has a story if you listen well enough. The unique, wacky parts of people are what is fun to photograph, but the best part of storytelling is discovering the similarities that connect us all.

What has changed in your professional plans from the time you enrolled at WKU until now? Did you ever expect to be where you are today?

I always thought I would be working in journalism, specifically breaking news. Now, I work in tech (ha!), an industry I never thought photojournalism would take me. I definitely did not expect to be where I am today while I was in school.

Do you have any immediate future work plans that you can disclose? What awaits you in 2019?

I cannot disclose. [smiley face emoji]

If you could have any “dream” freelance assignment, what would that be?

I would like to curate a gallery show of photography that focuses on niche culture studies.

What is your favorite memory from WKUPJ?

An amazing benefit of being in WKUPJ meant that I had the opportunity to work as a staff employee for student publications, including our campus yearbook The Talisman. Working with a bunch of weird, talented, hardworking people who cared about creating meaningful and honest work that represented WKU accurately was a dream. I made my closest friends and my favorite memories brainstorming ideas to capture our campus in unique ways and helping students discover what set our school on a hill apart, both good and bad. I cannot stress enough how significant the experience was. I do not think our student publications would be as highly regarded without strong programs like WKUPJ equipping students with the technical skills needed.

A close second favorite memory would be pulling all-nighters and staying on campus over Thanksgiving break to work on a documentary I made alongside my short-form documentary class called Beyond Breath. Because we were documenting our subject’s Thanksgiving, we all missed the chance to celebrate on the actual calendar day. Instead, a day later after we were finished documenting, we all pitched in and cooked a HUGE Thanksgiving meal and ate together. WKUPJ was and continues to be my family. [smiley face emoji]

How can we see more of your work?

My website is mainly work I produced or shot for GQ before joining the team at Apple. You can find mostly pics of my dog here and some lame jokes I make here.


Beyond Graduation: Emilie Milcarek


In a March 25, 2019 email interview, Emilie Milcarek, a Flemington, NJ native and a 2018 graduate, provided us with her story about her time here at WKUPJ.


Is there an interesting story that brought you to WKUPJ or photojournalism in general?

Prior to attending WKU,  I was at Wesley College in Dover, DE working towards a degree in Exercise Science. I had become very sick with an autoimmune disease that kept taking me out of school for a semester at a time. I found myself in a position where I had to relearn to walk every time I got sick and I needed to find a way to push myself.  During this time I picked up a camera I had not used since I was a photography student in high school and I loved it. I then went back to school at Wesley, changed my major to Media, realized I needed a school that was more specialized and enrolled at the New York Film academy. While there discovered that I loved what I was learning, but not what I was doing. I was creating scripts and storylines when I was truly passionate about sharing stories that already existed in the world.  I started going to workshops and talking with professionals in the field who spoke highly of WKU and how it would be a great fit for me. They were right.

Immediately after graduation I …

… started working for NC2 Media in Franklin, Tenn. working for their Lonely Planet Digital Platform team, making text-led videos for social media.

Who do you currently work for?

I am still employed by Lonely Planet, but have expanded my responsibilities within the digital platform team. As the demand for all things visual got greater, we started creating videos for clients and partnering with other countries as well. I’ve since taken assignments on all levels of platform videos and assignments as a camera operator and assistant producer.

Since graduation, tell us about some of the more interesting places you may have visited as part of your work being a visual storyteller?

The most interesting place I’ve been so far has been Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. I traveled there in August for the Beluga whale migration and then again in November, as you see me above, for the polar bear migration onto the ice. Both trips felt like I had traveled to two different locations because of how drastic the seasons were. The stories behind this town, which is so tiny and remote, and their lives co-existing with these incredible animals was truly life changing. I want to go back because there are so many more stories to be told.

In hindsight, is there anything you learned while in a PJ class at WKU that has resonated with you now?

Keeping to deadlines and never having excuses are the reasons I keep being offered more opportunities. I’ve proven myself to be a very reliable employee in every aspect and that is something that was instilled in us as WKUPJ’s. Never miss a deadline, no excuses.

What has changed in your professional plans from the time you enrolled at WKU until now? Did you ever expect to be where you are today?

Honestly, I always saw myself as a photojournalist and particularly a sports photographer. As I completed my senior year I realized how much I cared about storytelling and connecting with people. Now, my job most of the time is editing. My favorite thing to edit has been videos called “Just Back From.” It’s an interview with the writers of Lonely Planet and making use of their mobile phone content. Being able to listen to them and figure out what they’re trying to communicate through their on camera interviews (as they’re not on camera personalities) is challenging and rewarding to me. I never thought I would love the process of editing, this came as a surprise to me. It goes to show that life plans can change.

Do you have any immediate future plans for work? What awaits you for 2019?

My plans for 2019? I plan on staying with this company as long as they’ll have me and keep advancing within the company. I also have decided that giving is as important as receiving and am seeking out non-profit clients that represent similar beliefs as mine and give back to their cause by donating my skills as an editor and visual story teller.

If you could have any “dream” freelance assignment what would that be?

My dream freelance assignment would be to produce, shoot, and edit a series of short docs.

What is your favorite memory from WKUPJ?

My first year as a participant at the Mountain Workshops in Franklin, Ky. I was the only time-lapse participant with Grant Kaye as my coach. Years later I still talk about that experience. It was the first time I pushed myself to tell a story in a medium that doesn’t usually do that. I pushed myself as hard as ever in every possible way. I remind myself of that feeling whenever I’ve hit a wall with my projects.

Where can we find you?


Instagram: @emm_milcarek

LinkedIn: Emilie Milcarek