Art in a Moment

Social Documentary Students find art in everyday life.

By Daniel Patterson

Publish Date: September 4, 2013

Dawn Madura was in over her head. Being dropped alone into one of San Francisco’s busiest neighborhoods was simultaneously tremendous and terrifying for the then-fledgling student photographer.

“I’d never been anywhere like Chinatown,” she recalls. “I’ll never forget the hustle and bustle of it. It felt like you were in a foreign country. Very few people spoke English, and I remember it being overwhelming because of the sights and the smells. I remember lots of people on the sidewalk and lots of noise. Every few feet I would find something else I had to photograph.”

When Madura left for San Francisco in the fall of 2009 as an MSU Denver junior on a four-day Social Documentary journalism course, she hoped she would improve her skills. By the time she returned home, her passion for photography was confirmed and her career path set.

Within months of returning to Denver, Madura pitched her documentary, titled “8 X 10,” to the San Francisco Chronicle. The piece about squalid conditions in Chinatown’s poorest neighborhoods — which featured her photos, text and narration — was published in December 2009, and Madura parlayed that success into a staff photographer job with the Fort Collins Coloradoan, a position she’s held for four years.

“I gravitate toward heavy topics,” explains Madura, who plans to finish the last nine credits toward her degree this fall after taking time off to have a child. “Because I care very deeply about people, I like to explore the darker aspects of life.”

THE ART AND CRAFT OF PHOTOJOURNALISM

Social Documentary, a course offered through MSU Denver’s journalism program, takes student reporters and photographers to cities as diverse as San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, and turns them loose to write and shoot the stories they find.

“As a photojournalist working for a newspaper, you’re handed an assignment. A reporter tells you where to go, what to shoot,” Madura says. “In Social Documentary you’re the reporter, you’re the editor. You have the idea and you execute it by yourself.”

This begs the question: Is photojournalism art or merely a technical craft that entails being in the right place at the right time?

“It is absolutely both,” says Madura. “A lot of it is the logistical aspect of getting to a place on time, having all the equipment I might need and getting information correct. The other side is the artistic side where I get to have fun with it and use my creativity. At MSU Denver they stress the creativity part 100 percent. It takes taking thousands and thousands of photos to make the technology effortless, so all you have to think about is your relationship with your subject.”

ILLUMINATION OF THE HUMAN CONDITION

The birth of “SocDoc,” as many of journalism Associate Professor Kenn Bisio’s students call it, took place in an art gallery on the campus of Vermont College at Norwich University in Montpelier, Vt., where Bisio attended graduate school in the mid-’90s.

“My goal was to go out and ‘commit’ art that had a social/cultural context and connection,” Bisio recounts. “I showed five of my best pieces in an art gallery. I was one of only a few photographers in the Master of Fine Arts in Visual Communication program.

“On my first night in the gallery, Miwon Kwon, Ph.D., points to my photos and says, in front of 22 people, ‘We all know this is photojournalism. We all know there is no art in photojournalism. ... Where are you in the art?’ My wise response was to point to the corner of a photo, and I said, ‘See, I signed it right here.’”

What Kwon missed, Bisio contends, is that the fine art of photography resides in the “captured critical moment” that is “there and gone in a millisecond.”

Through social documentary, Bisio relates his passion about the search for art to “share with the masses and illuminate the human condition.” In the tradition of the late Hungarian-born photographer Cornell Capa and his “Concerned Photographer” movement, as well as the photo essays that were ubiquitous in publications such as Life in the ’50s, Bisio exposes Social Documentary students to what he calls the “symbiotic relationship between photos and words.”

Bisio and Marilyn Starrett, an assistant professor of journalism at MSU Denver, strive to take Social Documentary students far outside of their comfort zones. The trips are typically four days long, from Thursday to Sunday. There is no structure to the class other than the expectation that students, working in tandem, will produce a story and accompanying set of five photos each of the four days. When a pair of aspiring journalists leave the hotel on Thursday morning, their only assets other than cameras and notepads are resourcefulness and what current journalism student Chris Utterback calls their “shoe-leather” skills.

“If you’re an introvert, you’re just not going to get the story. You figure that out the first day,” says Cody Lemon (B.A. journalism ’13), who has just entered the job market.

Upon returning, students scramble to file their stories and assemble their photo packages. After presenting the finished product to their peers, a critique with Starrett and Bisio awaits. The feedback is not about feel-good moments; it’s about molding journalists who capture critical moments. It’s about finding the art in the moments they have captured.

“You are stripped to your most bare,” says Barbara Ford (B.A. IDP ’08), who went on several Social Documentary trips. “You pack light — a couple days’ worth of clothes, your camera, and your reporter’s notebook. You do some research about the area and lay some groundwork before you go.”

A student who received high praise on Saturday night for a dazzling story or photo package might receive a public flogging for shoddy work the next day. As Ford says, the critiques are “brutal, but they have to be. One night when I was out shooting I wasn’t getting it — I just wasn’t capturing the light.” The next day, Bisio complimented Ford’s photo package.

“A case study in a textbook is one thing,” Ford says, “but this puts your skills to the test.

“You try the job on, and if it fits, it lights a fire underneath you that never goes away.”

Learn more about how social documentary photography is changing and MSU Denver’s continued contribution to the craft.