Campus Consortium Brings Pulitzer Center to WCC for Fifth Year

The Spring Campus Consortium brought photographer Tomas van Houtryve to campus March 30 to present recent work with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which is offering a student fellowship at WCC.

WCC was the first community college to be associated with the Pulitzer Student Fellowship. One student will receive a grant of up to $2000 to report internationally on an underreported issue. The Pulitzer Center has been partnering with WCC since 2013.

Tomas van Houtryve being interviewed by students after his presentation. (Photo: Victoria Fennell)

Houtryve, who works with the Pulitzer Center, has taken on stories dealing with the refugee crisis in Europe as well as going to and photographing North Korea in 2013.

Houtryve’s latest work with Pulitzer, “Traces of Exile”, follows the social media photos of refugees across Europe.

“I thought Tomas’ presentation was unbelievable it really opened my mind because I come from a town and family that historically has thought pretty conservatively,” said Liam Thomas O’Reilly, a journalism major. “It really opened my eyes to see that these refugees have smartphones and Apple devices just like we do.”

As a photographer Houtryve has embraced the rise of cell phone cameras as a tool to explore new opportunities with his work.

“A lot of [photographers] are playing around with it to see if there a new kind of picture [we] can take with it,” Houtryve said. “On the one hand it’s smaller and less intrusive so you can take pictures more candidly and things like that, but on the other hand what interested me is that it’s not just the camera but it has all this information and it’s always networking all the time.”

The “Traces of Exile” project was inspired by an augmented reality app that would show the geotagged posts of nearby users. This app gave Houtryve the idea to follow the paths of refugees as they traveled around Europe.

“If someone had geotagged something 50 yards away you would see it through the camera view, plus that social media post would be hanging in the sky like a little digital postcard,” Houtryve said. “I was like ‘how can I use this to tell a story?’”

The project came together when Houtryve one day found himself near a Belgian refugee camp, and decided to check social media activity in the area.

“I was like, ‘I wonder if the refugees posted anything on there,’” Houtryve said. “I drove and held up the thing and, sure enough, I found some pictures.”

Houtryve, who lives in France, has seen the refugee crisis unfold close to home. Hardly an underreported story there, he was looking for a new angle to share their stories.

“I had been bugged and moved by the refugee crisis happening in Europe but I hadn’t found my voice or the way in,” Houtryve said. “Playing with this technology and suddenly the two wires crossed and I was like ‘oh, here’s something I haven’t seen in the media that’s interesting, that I’m learning about and that I can express through photography on a subject I care about.’”

The project gave Houtryve a chance to show another side of refugees apart from the ones we see over and over again.

“The image that we get of refugees often in the media is if you generalize it down to one photo is frowning people carrying bundles basically throughout time. That’s the iconic picture, it explains what’s happening, people are moving they’re carrying what they have and that’s it,” – Houtryve

Those are the pictures we see en-masse, and the plight of the refugees is certainly nothing to ignore but it’s not all there is. The migration from their homes with all the possessions they can carry is a reality but it’s not the whole journey.

“That’s actually a really really small part of the refugee experience and it usually doesn’t last that long,” Houtryve said. “The big part is integrating into a new society and things like that or the part where they’re fleeing bombing or persecution.”

He found something more in the photos: a human response to the struggle. Most people think of refugees in the negative aspects of their situation rather than a group fighting through hardship and intense struggle.

“What’s interesting to see is like how resilient people are and how their character and personalities are constant through time no matter what obstacles they face,” Houtryve said.

The social media aspect of refugees’ travels is not something that has been brought up.

“When people are being photographed on social media they’re also seeing themselves in the mirror through the screen at the same time they’re always trying to put their best side forward,” Houtryve said. “On the one hand I can see both hope and optimism and on the other hand I was like how much are you just putting up a facade for something that’s really difficult. That tension is something I would think about in the human experience of being a refugee.”

This different view of refugees stirred up the class and brought to light the stereotypes that many have against refugees as being beaten down and depressed.

“I feel like as a journalist it’s important to have an open mind, always putting yourself in other people’s shoes,” said WCC student Fiorella Calvelo. “I feel like what this whole refugee topic I never realized but I wasn’t putting myself in other perspectives. It was really eye opening.”

North Korea, where Houtryve reported from for one of his previous projects, has some of the strictest restrictions on visitors, only allowing tourists to take guided tours with no opportunity to deviate from the set itinerary without penalty. The risks taken by visitors and journalists are high: in 2016 an American student was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for trying to steal a banner from the hotel he was staying in.

“I did research before I went and up until that point everybody that had been caught or messed up had just been deported and that’s why I was willing to take the risk to go,” Houtryve said. “There’s been quite a few people who have been accused of hostile acts and then sentenced after a kangaroo court kind of trial to 12 years of hard labor. The risk has gone up since I’ve gone there.”

North Korea is one of the only countries on the planet where information is so strictly regulated. Penalties are harsh for crimes as small as expressing disagreement with the regime. These punishments can sometimes apply to as many as three generations of the prosecuted.

It seems like it would be impossible for a country to be so blocked off from the rest of the world, but with tight enough restrictions North Korea proves it’s possible.

“They’re not in the information age so they’ve done it by walling themselves off from the outside world,” Houtryve said. “I mean they’ve managed to create a complete monopoly on the narrative in their country and there is no competition to that.”

Escapees from the country have found the world outside to be very different than they had been taught throughout their lives. Brainwashing is practiced on citizens from childhood: they are taught that the “Great Leader” of North Korea is almost a deity.

“I did a whole project about going around the borders of North Korea and interviewing escapees,” Houtryve said. “It was interesting because most of them didn’t know what was happening in the outside world.”

As a journalist, Houtryve offered suggestions to students looking to break into the profession especially for those interested in international correspondence.

“Get out there and travel is one thing and read a lot of international news coverage so you know what’s going on out there in the world. Try and find the things that are below the radar,” Houtryve said.  “Huge stories will already have media assets assigned to them to a certain extent. Those are gonna be tricky ones to break through. If you can find something that’s an emerging thing but hasn’t yet hit the mainstream, that’s gold country.”

The presentation was received well by students—mostly journalism majors—in attendance.

“I feel like i’m more of a visual learner so this was really intriguing, it helps a visual learner engage so much more in the information you’re trying to depict as a journalist,” Calvelo said. “I will be applying for the Pulitzer Fellowship.”

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