This year marks the 25th anniversary of Eyes on LaFollette. Helmed by Professor Robert Heller, what began as a brief excursion for photojournalism students in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media has since become a monumental documentary effort, with more than 100,000 photographs cataloging both change and tradition in the quiet East Tennessee town.
Eyes takes students more than an hour away from campus to LaFollette, allowing them to spend a weekend working as real photojournalists – chasing stories, interviewing locals, and using the photography skills they have learned in the semester leading up to their trip.
“The owner of the LaFollette Press newspaper was an adjunct faculty with us [in 1993],” said Heller. “His daughter was one of my students, and I got to know him pretty well. I was talking with him about the possibilities of doing some sort of documentary project – I had done other small projects, but I wanted to do a ‘day in the life,’ or a little more than a day.
“As I was talking to Larry Smith about this potential project, he said ‘well, you’re coming to LaFollette.’”
What began as special section in the LaFollette Press every other year soon became a yearly outing, and while students were documenting the changing lives of the town’s residents, the Eyes project was also beginning to change.
“When we started shooting in 93, it was black and white film,” said Heller. “We had more than a hundred rolls of film. Back in the early days, I would work with the students, and we would work through the night processing all the film. Even putting the newspaper together was paste-up, there were no digital layouts at that time.”
At first, students began shooting color film – Thompson Photo agreed to open on Saturday just to process it – before transitioning entirely to digital photography later on. “I encourage my students to find stories, not just photographs. Wandering around LaFollette is part of the process too – talking to people, finding out what’s going on. Some pictures were just happenstance; you just come across something, and you get a wonderful photograph.”
Over the years, those stories have caught the attention of other journalists, and students who spent their weekend in LaFollette sometimes end up returning to cover a new class’s work, as was the case when Nashville Public Television’s Will Pedigo and Matt Emigh covered the project for an episode of Tennessee Crossroads. And that influence extends farther – in 2015, Heller was approached by the New York Times to feature in both Lens, the Times’ online-only photography blog, and the International Edition, seen by readers around the world.
“For a lot of the students, this was their first time seeing their images in print. I love that experience, I’m just as excited as them when I see the issue come off the presses for the first time,” said Heller. “I think there’s still value in this print thing that we do.”