VisCom students and faculty venture to the Mississippi Delta for The Lens Collective


School of Visual Communication student Sarah Holm, right, celebrates arriving in Cleveland, Mississippi along with Carolyn Rogers, Nick Oatley, Josh Birnbaum, and Alex Driehaus. Not pictured are graduate students Kelsey Brunner and Erin Clark (still in the plane).

A long time ago VisCom had an annual one-day documentary event called “Dawn to Dusk.” Students would spend a day photographing a particular topic, edit with faculty for a day, and then design a special section in the local paper.  Later, a web was added to the project. It was fun.

Years after that activity faded, former graduate student Cheryl Hatch incorporated the format into her “Journalism in the Public Interest” workshops at Allegheny College and invited students from other schools to participate. In her version, the projects included multimedia presentations to the public along with several pages in the school newspaper. VisCom became a participant and supporter of that conference, annually making the trek up to Meadville, Pennsylvania with a group of students, faculty member Josh Birnbaum, myself, and a boatload of computers. It was great.

Alysia Burton Steele (another VisCom alumni) was one of the speakers and mentors at the Allegheny conference a couple of years ago. She liked the experience so much that she brought the idea back to her dean, Charlie Mitchell, at the University of Mississippi. Mitchell was so impressed he went to work and found enough seed funding to have a similar workshop in Mississippi.

Alysia has elevated the concept to a sparkling new iteration.  Partnering with Will Jacks at Delta State University, the Delta Center for Culture and Learning, the National Press Photographers Association, and the Delta Blues Project she created “The Lens Collective” workshop and conference.

So, the lineage and evolution continues.

Earlier this month six VisCom students traveled with Josh and me to the Mississippi Delta. There they joined 22 other students from the University of Mississippi, Delta State, Jackson State, American University, University of West Virginia, Allegheny College, and Gilford College.

Joining the students were speakers Smiley Pool, Akili Ramseys, Cheryl Hatch, Jerry Holt, and Will Jacks. They teamed with mentors Leena Jayaswal, Mary Kay McFarland, John Baker, Ji Heo, Josh, myself, and organizer Alysia Steele to guide teams of students to produce a series of multimedia stories in the Delta region influenced by the Blues. It was fantastic!


“For me, the greatest part of the trip to Mississippi was how inspirational the delta area was. The delta is home to deep culture and amazing people — full of stories waiting to be told. It was a great opportunity to spend more time with Viscomers, meet other students and learn from talented professional journalists. The Mississippi workshop is a highlight of my time at Viscom.”

Kelsey Brunner, VisCom graduate student

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“I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I signed up for the The Lens Collective workshop. I didn’t have much experience with multimedia, and I was very concerned how this was going to work out with my lack of training in audio and video. The experience overall taught me a lot. It gave me confidence and encouragement in looking towards my future in multimedia. I was proud of the outcome of my project. Seeing it in the Grammy Museum, I was happy I could be a part of a story bigger than me: unraveling the stories of the Mississippi Delta. I will forever remember this experience in a good light as my first true endeavor in multimedia. This trip really opened my eyes to the culture – the food, the diversity of people, the music, the history, etc. — that really consumes the Delta. It has a lot of character and color to it than I used to give it credit for. It seems like a desired lifestyle, a place where people simply fit in better, instead of a place people just get stuck. All the negativity that surrounds the Delta is shallow I found out; there’s actually a lot more to appreciate when you stay for a while. On another note, some of the students from up North mentioned how everyone waves and is friendly. That I just expect from being raised in the South. That southern hospitality will always be a part of me, and I felt welcome in the Delta; I felt like I was home. Even when the culture is a lot different from Oxford, the southern roots are still from the same tree. So, my perception of the Delta isn’t as shallow anymore I think, as the trip made me have a deeper understanding into what makes the Delta the Delta. And it also made me proud to be from Mississippi when other people pointed out positive aspects that are almost innate to me. (I’ve never been up North.)”

Marlee Crawford, University of Mississippi

The resulting projects were shown at a public event in the Grammy Museum on Saturday night. Many of the story subjects attended with their families dressed in their Sunday best. Amid the glamour and glitter of the Grammy Museum, we sat together and watched the stories on a giant screen. Afterward, the students took to the stage and fielded questions from the audience including the story subjects. Most wanted to know what impression these students had of the Delta and what they would tell their friends and family when they went home. Most students said they wanted to come back.

My time with the Lens Collective Workshop in the Mississippi Delta was a glorious melting pot of unrestrained learning, satisfying exhaustion and an exploration of a culture in which I fell in love. The collaboration with other students and the opportunity to glean real-world knowledge from talented mentors was a rare opportunity that I hope to have again (and again, fingers crossed).

Erin Clark, VisCom graduate student


Story subjects and their families join students and mentors on the stage of the Grammy Museum for a group photo.

As a group, VisCom’s involvement also helped us further Ohio University’s central purpose of the intellectual and personal development of its students (and faculty), as well as live up to the motto inscribe on the university gateway, “So depart that daily thou mayest better serve thy fellowmen thy country and thy God.” Our participation did just that — at least in a small way.

For Josh and myself, the chance to spend time around the speakers including Smiley Pool and Jerry Holt was inspirational and informative. Additionally, to interact with faculty from other programs in a deadline-based production activity brought back memories and skills from our professional days. Getting to go out into the field, meeting people, and coaching students as they worked on stories was deeply rewarding. Settin’ at a picnic table in downtown Shaw, Mississippi (population just under 2,000) waving at people as they go by, while the students from Allegheny College interviewed a barber shop owner, was magical.


A mural depicting the town is painted on an old interior wall of a demolished business in Shaw, Mississippi. There appeared to be only three businesses still operating among the 15 storefronts along the main street facing Silver Bayou. Copyright © Stan Alost 2017

Finally, I believe that our participation brought some value to the subjects of our stories and by extension, the communities. By showing a genuine interest in documenting and sharing the stories of people in the Delta, we help affirm their value as individuals and as cultures. Watching some of the subjects, dressed for church, attend the public showing on Saturday night with their extended families was proof.

It also made me very proud of our students, program, and Ohio University for helping us participate.

Here is a slideshow of “behind the scenes” images from the weekend produced by University of Mississippi faculty member Ji Heo.

You can find the entire collection of stories on this web site created by Alysia and Ji

I also want to give credit and kudos to University of Mississippi student Marlee Crawford (quoted above). Because of some travel issues effecting the students from Allegheny College, Marlee worked without a team to produce this story about local artist Chesley Permian. I worked with Marlee as she stepped outside of her comfort zone to produce an audio/still image story. I think she did a fabulous job. Here it is.



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