Nebraska Students Seek Recession, Find Humanity

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In early June, a journalism professor and three students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln packed photographic equipment, food, and supplies into a Chevy Suburban and 23-foot Jay Feather travel trailer, setting off on a two-month journey to document the recession's effect on their state. Traversing small towns of rural Nebraska, these students absorbed the kind of transformative lessons about community, hospitality, and humanity that could never be taught in a classroom.

Every summer Bruce Thorson, a professional photojournalist and educator, offers his students an opportunity for intensive hands-on practice of their craft through experiential learning trips. Thorson typically chooses foreign destinations that can push young aspiring photographers out of their comfort zones, shooting compelling subjects against exotic backdrops--like Kosovo and South Africa in recent years. But as a pall of recession settled over the country, a more important story seemed closer to home. Inspired by the Depression-era work of photographers like Roy Stryker and Dorothea Lange, Thorson and three students--Patrick Breen, Clay Lomneth, and Kyle Bruggeman--wanted to document the Great Recession's impact on Nebraska.

Before they left, the students recognized Nebraska was not facing the same level of hardship infecting other areas of the country--at 5% unemployment it ranks as the nation's second strongest job market--but they didn't expect everyone to be doing quite as well as they discovered along their recession roadtrip. "People would say, 'What recession?," Kyle recalls. Some industry had suffered a downturn, and they did meet a few people who had been laid off from manufacturing jobs, but they were more the exceptions. "A lot of towns are relatively self-sufficient, so they're not feeling the recession as much as other places," Kyle concludes.

Also, as I wrote about in West Virginia, the areas that never experienced much modern economic or real estate development have had a lot less to lose. Clay remembers a man in Gordon telling him: "The town of Gordon, Nebraska has been in a recession for 25 years." Overall, Clay was still "a little surprised at how everyone agreed that the recession is not affecting them. Small town Nebraska is doing okay."

But that realization did not convince them to turn around and go home. In fact, persisting in the project led to profound revelations, including about the nature of news gathering and the journalism profession. For his encouragement and guidance along the way, each one separately expressed gratitude and immense respect for the professor they call simply Bruce.

For Patrick: "The trip made me aware that if I'm going to follow through with this as a career, I need to look not just for what's wrong with a situation." The Nebraskans he met showed him that everyday heroes can be just as interesting--and deserve just as much attention--as episodes of human suffering.

Clay used to think he wanted to be a news photographer, but the long hours he spent talking with total strangers made him recognize an inherent superficiality in snapping some good shots and quickly scribbling down the subjects' names for a caption. Now that this summer's experience has helped him become more outgoing, he will always yearn for deeper meaning in his work. He wants to know more than just the name behind the faces in his pictures. "With documentary photojournalism, sometimes you have to put down your camera and just listen." And he says that's exactly what he wants to do, now that he recognizes the truth behind the old cliche: "Literally, everyone has a story to tell."

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses.

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