[box_green]David Kennedy crafted A River in Reverse, a story of Asian carp and the Great Lakes, as a final project to complete his graduate coursework. He defended in March 2012 and was subsequently conferred an M.A. in Journalism by the University of Missouri.[/box_green]
On 20 April 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, operating under the banner of British Petroleum (BP), exploded and subsequently sank into the Gulf of Mexico. It was the same morning that I defended the proposal for my professional project in environmental storytelling at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. This catastrophic event resulted in the worst spill in the history of the petroleum industry. Oil flowed continuously from the well on the ocean floor and into the Gulf of Mexico for three months. It was not until the end of the summer that BP found a successful solution to cap the well. The images that ran in the national media deeply disturbed me: the damage to the coastline, the destruction of wildlife habitat—Brown pelican rookeries were particularly salient. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration closed much of the gulf to commercial fishing; there were several stories about the people whose livelihood came from the water who were struggling to find a way to make a living with the fishing boats sitting docked in harbors. The photographs reminded me that my own project in environmental photojournalism about invasive Asian carp, the Great Lakes, and the barge operators and fishermen caught in the middle was significant, timely, and of value to the public.
My background in photography extends back to my tenth birthday when my father placed in my hands a single-lens reflex camera and a seemingly endless supply of film. Over the years I developed as a person and as a photographer and built a foundation of technical skills that I rely upon still: metering and exposure, composition, lens selection, and selective depth-of-field, among others. I graduated from C-41 color print film to E-6 chrome six years into my adventures in photography and validated that I could, in fact, use a light meter. I was an early adopter of new technology; making the transition to digital capture in 2003. My subject matter for my first fourteen years of photography was steeped in the natural world.
I cut my teeth on landscape and wildlife photography. As I was finishing college I realized that I would ultimately want a career in making images. A brief stint in the publishing industry only served to confirm for me that if I were to pursue the published image and word, I would want to be in the content creation or editing side of the business. I applied to graduate programs in fine art photography but was turned away for wanting to make photographs that had a “narrative.” It was as though a switch had been flipped and the realization struck me that I had been traversing the wrong path.
My purpose in matriculating to the University of Missouri School of Journalism was to learn and practice the fundamental skills to tell a compelling story through still and moving pictures. I grew as a photographer, a journalist, a student, and a person during my time in classes. They were challenging and rewarding, frustrating but energizing, heartbreaking at times, but ultimately redeeming. In many ways, my time in Columbia was an exercise in existentialism. While I came from a very well-developed technical background, and I had a solid understanding of composition, I did not have much in the way of practical experience with storytelling either in written or visual forms. Although my experience in photographing wildlife behavior translated somewhat to photographing people—watching and waiting for “decisive moments”—the learning curve was steep.
I am relatively introverted and so I was painfully shy in my initial approach to photojournalism. At the same time, I appreciated that journalism offered a wonderful “excuse” to get to know someone. I met many wonderful people in Columbia using the opening phrase, “I’m a photojournalism grad student. May I ask what you do?” The camera on my shoulder, a pen clipped to my shirt, and a notepad tucked in my pants pocket became the badges of legitimate interest in people and helped to break the ice rather than impede conversation. This realization was not an easy one, and I think that learning how to strike a conversation with virtually anyone is likely the greatest skill that I acquired at the School of Journalism. I have carried it with me in my academic, professional, and personal life.
Multiple technical skills enabled me to work on this project. Throughout my coursework I was exposed to a variety of ways to tell stories through still and moving images. I told stories through printed work with captions, photographs on a page layout with a written article, Soundslides presentations with audio and still photographs, and finally presentations using video editing programs for layering audio, still and moving images. Independent and group projects along the way helped me to hone many of these skills. The group projects provided students the ability to collaborate and tell a complex story through a variety of media and divide those components into manageable pieces. Those same projects gave me an appreciation for how difficult a task was before me when I selected this topic.
When deciding upon a topic for my professional project, my intention was to combine the storytelling skills I was developing with my background in nature photography and interest in an environmental issue. My goal was to find a subject that I was excited and interested about, and wanted something I would be well-motivated to pursue. I also wanted to stretch myself and to put myself in a variety of situations that would take me out of my comfort zone. I wanted to grow from this experience as a photojournalist and as a person.
I looked ahead to the career that I wanted as a visual storyteller who specializes in environmental subjects. I knew I would learn about planning, logistics, self-motivation, networking, and working with subjects who may be leery of outsiders in general or journalists in particular. These would be valuable skills to learn and practice irrespective of what path I was to follow, but particularly so for a career as a freelance photographer and photojournalist. Largely I thought I would learn how to work with people to help them help me with my project. I wanted to learn how best to present my project so people might become as excited to talk about it as I was to listen their opinions.
I chose to follow an issue that affects Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes as a whole, which is the part of the country I call home. The story of Asian carp, an invasive species of filter-feeding fish threatening to enter the Great Lakes with the potential to adversely affect sport fishing, is very much a story about Chicago. The city of Chicago’s eponymous river was reversed so that it would pump water out of Lake Michigan and into a man-made Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. This waterway artificially connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River so that the city’s effluent would flow downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. That waterway was made navigable, and to this day the shipping industry relies on it to push cargo from the St. Lawrence Seaway all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.
As such, there are commercial interests opposed to making any kind of changes that might impede barge traffic on the waterways even if they might be successful strategies for preventing Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes. Economically it becomes a question of what is considered more valuable: a seven billion dollar fishery or an interstate commerce network. From an environmental standpoint it is a question of whether it is appropriate to divert water out of the Great Lakes basin and to maintain an artificial vector for invasive species to cross from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and vice versa.
My familiarity and proximity to the issue is one of the things that made it so important to me, but at the same time I was aware that the debate surrounding invasive species was one that was fraught with misinformation and a general lack of understanding outside of the scientific community. Even then, there is internal debate among scientists about what effect they might have. These characteristics made for an ambitious undertaking but a worthy project all the same. I believed this project would serve as a stepping stone for my career while informing the body public about a large environmental issue that stems from a hydrologic connection created 112 years ago that has long since become accepted and forgotten as part of the status quo.