Real-world experience: Photo students cover Special Olympics

Ashley Crichton

RIT's Special Olympics project faculty advisors with student leaders, from left: Josh Meltzer, Jenn Poggi, Boris Shirman and Jackie Diller.

With teams of spread out across Rochester region, Rochester Institute of Technology students documented hundreds of athletes participating in the 2019 Special Olympics New York Winter Games from Feb. 22-23. 

A multidisciplinary group of around 70 students, mainly from the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences (SPAS), covered the annual state games, filling a website with compelling images, video and stories. It was the second consecutive year of the SPAS student-led project, completed under the guidance of faculty and alumni.

The experiential learning opportunity offered students from various disciplines in SPAS — as well as some from RIT’s Journalism and Museum Studies programs — an opportunity to practice their skills in a real-world, collaborative environment. 

Students take a portrait on the ski slopes
Photo by visiting lecturer David Turner: Students Mustafa Hussain and Jennie Thomas take a portrait of an athlete during RIT's coverage of Special Olympics New York's Winter Games.

Most of the photography students took photos and video, those in Journalism provided written content and the Museum Studies students updated and curated the website in real time. Students from SPAS’ Photographic Sciences program toned and printed more than 150 photos for display during closing ceremonies.

The end result of it all was a website that captured the spirit of the Winter Games, which featured competition in alpine skiing, cross country skiing, floor hockey, figure skating, snowboarding and snowshoeing across several Rochester locations. 

Photojournalism students Boris Shirman (fourth year) and Jackie Diller (second year) led the project, with assistant professors of Photojournalism Josh Meltzer and Jenn Poggi advising. 

The Photojournalism alumni who volunteered throughout the weekend included Mike Bradley, Tom Brenner, Colleen Cambier, Brett Carlsen, Karen Cetinkaya, Seth Gitner and Kelly Jo Smart. In addition to Meltzer and Poggi, the faculty mentors included Don Cochran, Meredith Davenport, Tom Dooley, Dan Hughes, Clay Patrick McBride, William Snyder and David Turner.

Shirman and Diller were tasked with coordinating the entire production, a process that required months of planning and execution.

Question: As a project leader, what was your vision for the website?

Diller: Seventy-plus RIT students, faculty, and alumni worked together to make this project a reality. As a producer, I wanted to take the website made by RIT Photo last year and double the amount of content while also involving more students from different majors. 

Kyleigh Maslund, right, Tara Sayward, middle, and Kaitlyn Dunlap, left, race during the cross country competition.
Photo by Jesse Wolfe: Kaitlyn Dunlap, left, Tara Sayward, middle, and Kyleigh Maslund, right, race during the cross country skiing competition.  

Question: How beneficial was an experiential learning opportunity like this, to work in the field and document and tell important stories? 

Diller: Like many professors and alumni have said to me before, there is nowhere else we could have had a real-life experience like this in college. I am so honored to have been given the opportunity to produce a project so big and important as this. This project was an amazing learning experience and has helped me reaffirm that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. It was so gratifying to see the athletes notice themselves in the prints and be thankful for the hard work we all put into this project.

Shirman: RIT is a fantastic college for photography, especially photojournalism. This program does a fantastic job at having students take on huge projects that a student would never get to experience otherwise. During my sophomore year we covered the 2016 election for WXXI. My junior year we attempted the Special Olympics coverage for the first time, and this year we did it again. These projects give students a chance to have real-world experience while still at school.

Question: What was the weekend and the fast-paced work environment like? 

Diller: I would describe the weekend as organized chaos. Having small teams in charge of different aspects of the workflow at headquarters definitely lightened the load for Boris and I. Communicating with so many people, all in different locations, and making sure everyone is on the same page was a lot. But thanks to our team leaders working at each event, Boris and I were able to keep everything running smoothly. 

Shirman: Every student, photographer, editor, team leader, and mentor came together like a well-oiled machine and worked together to produce this fantastic website. Even as smoothly as everyone operated, there were still the hectic times. This was a fantastic opportunity, I could not be happier with how it came out. 

Coach, Marcel Chaine, congratulates Matthew Duffy on his metals for alpine skiing.
Photo by Emily Bishop: Coach Marcel Chaine congratulates Matthew Duffy on his medals in alpine skiing.  

Question: How helpful was it to have alumni and faculty alongside you, offering their mentorship?

Diller: It was amazing to work with the faculty and established alumni. Some mentored students on special projects while others were in the field with photographers or working alongside our editors to help and guide us with anything we needed. Having their support and words of affirmation throughout the weekend meant a lot.

Shirman: RIT does really well with having a network of alumni that are loyal to the school, as if they were still here. I can’t say how great it was to have so many alumni and professors volunteer to mentor during these events.

Meltzer said the project will commence for a third year in 2020, when Rochester completes its three-year run as host of the Special Olympics New York Winter Games.

Two snowboarders stand back to back
Photo by Molly Richardson: A portrait of athletes Alex Kiratsous, left, and Harlow Klemman. They have been snowboarding for nine and seven years, respectively.

Recommended News