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Eyes on LaFollette: A Story of Images

By Nichole Stevens

LaFollette Tennessee, a town of less than 7,500, receives a slight boost in head count every April as University of Tennessee photojournalism students spend a day and half documenting everyday life in small-town America.

“They’re holding up a mirror to the people of that town,” said UT Professor Robert Heller.

Heller has directed the Eyes on LaFollette project for over 21 years. From October 3 through November 30, 2014, the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville has been featuring 202 of the thousands of photos taken by more than 100 UT students over the years. Heller then plans to donate the collection from the museum to the town of LaFollette for a permanent home.

Photo by Molly Morgan.

Residents of LaFollette dine out at a local eatery. Photo by Molly Morgan.

“It is this joint effort and further connection to the community that you’re in,” Heller said. “Every year it’s like going home for me.”

Eyes on LaFollette is more than students taking pictures. An important part of the students’ work is engaging in conversations with the people there. Heller said this sometimes means riding with the local cabbie, or having a meal with patrons of a local diner. Spending time with members of the local community is how the students are able to capture who they are. It is also how students are able to produce the high quality work that also will be featured in the LaFollette Press.

“You have to really teach your students story telling,” said Heller. “It’s this great benefit to both the students and the community. For the students, it gets them out of their comfort zone, and they have to talk to real people.”

LaFollette Press has supported the project since its humble beginnings in 1993.  The paper allows Heller and his students to have full control over their section. Students learn how to edit and caption content for publication, and receive hands-on experience with design layout. Heller said Eyes on LaFollette allows his students to produce high-quality, local journalism.

The project draws attention to the importance of documenting every day life. Heller said other towns have asked if the photojournalism project would be willing to relocate.

“Of course, I hope these images transcend just LaFollette [but] there’s something about documenting the same place every year,” Heller said.

He said the community welcomes the students and thank them for their work. In one instance, Heller said a LaFollette resident commented on a photo from the project’s Facebook page, saying how she thought it was the best picture she’d seen of her father, now deceased.

Over time, a planned book for Eyes on LaFollette will showcase more photos and stories. In April, Heller’s students will return to LaFollette and continue documenting people in raw, unabridged form.

“So much of journalism can be the story telling of every day existence,” Heller said.

To view more images from the Eyes on LaFollette exhibit, visit the UT Community Engagement Facebook page.

Eyes on LaFollette was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.