Having an eye for finding storytelling photos


Zeta Tau Alpha sisters advertise their line dance event to raise money to fund breast cancer research.

This is a big deadline week in Writing for Mass Communication. This is the deadline for the students’ reporting assignment on an environmental, health or science story.

Students are scrambling to get those last remaining interviews and get their stories written.

Another part of the assignment is for them to take a photo that will accompany their story. I want the students to have several experiences this semester that require taking photographs as part of an assignment. Although most of them have digital cameras and regularly take photos of friends and family, taking photographs to accompany a story is a different concept.

After class today, students lined up to ask questions — how to attribute to a Web site, how to get a source to call back, etc. One student had a more involved photo question.

She explained that she is writing about the Sister Study, a study of environmental and genetic risk factors that influence breast cancer. The women she interviewed who are part of the study don’t live in Gainesville, so she can’t take their photos. So how can she take a photo that can help tell her story?

I suggested that she take a photo of a local activity related to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is October.

“But how can that work?” she asked.

I explained that the caption would tell about the event and note that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is held October each year but that breast cancer research, like the Sister Study, continues for years.

“But how can I find a local event?” she then asked.

I suggested doing a targeted Google search — narrowing to the Gainesville area.

We were standing on the stage of the auditorium. I started to scan the room. It was between classes, and students were just arriving in the auditorium for the next class. I was searching for someone in pink who might connect us to an event.

And there they were — pink lettering on their tank tops and the familiar pink breast cancer awareness ribbons.

“Say, you look like you’re part of a breast cancer fundraiser,” I said to them. (I was talking to two gals and the third joined them by the time I was ready to take my own photo.)

They said they were and that the event — a line dance sponsored by Zeta Tau Alpha — was tonight.

My student was taken by surprise that right in front of her eyes a great photo opportunity had materialized. She wrote down the time and location of the dance and said she’d be there to take a photo. It was one of those fun moments as a teacher when it’s as if I’d pulled a rabbit out of a hat.

That kind of experience is one of the reasons I so enjoy this assignment — helping students realize story ideas and photos all around them. I also enjoy the assignment because I always learn about so many new topics myself. A trade in learning.


  1. It doesn’t bother you at all that even in college (at a Research Tier I University and the hardest public university in Florida to get into) that you have to think of everything yourself? Shouldn’t that student have been able to come up with something without you doing her work for her? The problem-solving skills, or lack thereof, in schools drives me crazy.


    1. I am surprised when I encounter students who aren’t adequately resourceful. I can understand a student taking her first media writing class not being able to think about how a photo taken in Gainesville can work for a story about people not in Gainesville. But once I provided her the concept, she wasn’t able to do the thinking required of fundamental reporting — how to find a local event related to breast cancer. With October being National Breast Cancer Awareness month, almost daily we all hear about or read about events. So, yes, her inability to think of how to find a photo opportunity was concerning to me. I do think that whereas some students are eager to solve learning-related issues and most others, with a nudge, will take it on, some students really do want everything spelled out for them. In a beginning course, we can try to help students learn the steps of being personally resourceful. But if they don’t pick up that initiative…

      What strategies do you use in helping your students learn to be more self-reliant in problem solving?


  2. Prof Dodd,
    I agree that the student should have been able to make the first connection and past that I don’t know if it was laziness or lack of problem-solving skills that prevented her from finding a breast cancer awareness event locally. To be clear, I’m not questioning your judgement.

    And if I had to guess, the way I do things is similar to most teachers, probably including you. I ask leading questions to get the brain moving in the right direction. There is a point when I cut them off, but an advantage of high school is being able to have a better understanding of the question about being lazy or just not thinking.


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