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Home » Visual journalism is often the first cut in struggling local newsrooms. This fellowship aims to revitalize it.

Visual journalism is often the first cut in struggling local newsrooms. This fellowship aims to revitalize it.

In early 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic began, Ximena Natera found herself locked down at home, in New York, like millions of people across the country.

The photojournalist, who was living alone at the time, felt restless. She wanted to photograph people other than herself. So Natera ordered a portable backdrop. “A very small one, because it was all I could afford,” she said. As neighbors passed the backdrop, Natera would ask: “Can I take your photo?”

When George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020, protests erupted in New York City and across the United States — even globally. “I was not working for anybody, so I felt like, ‘What can I do as a photographer that can be useful?’” Natera recalled.

She brought out her portable backdrop again, this time to a children’s march in Brooklyn. She snapped photos of young activists and would later email them to their parents. The portraits were later published by Mother Jones.

In a way, those photos were a continuation of some of Natera’s earlier work in her native Mexico, when she photographed everyone from fishermen to community leaders and environmental activists from several indigenous nations in the Mexican state of Baja California.

“I knew I was going to do some regular photography, but I really wanted to do some portraits,” Natera said of the multimedia project that was published in 2019 in Pie de Pagina, a news site in Mexico City that she helped found. “I wanted to be able to have a conversation with people. … I also wanted to make sure that we would be able to see them, and at the same time they see us.”

For that project, Natera had brought along a big piece of black cloth that her mother had sewn holes into so the photojournalist could mount it onto walls. That served her well as a backdrop.

Years later, as Natera was interviewing for a photojournalist position at Berkeleyside, a nonprofit digital news site that covers Berkeley and the East Bay in California, she was asked about what kinds of stories she liked to cover, and what type of work she liked to do. The portable backdrop — what she likes to call a photo booth — came to mind.

“I said that I love doing regular photojournalism work, but I also enjoy interacting with people and finding different ways to use photography to engage with the audience,” Natera said. “So I pitched bringing the photo booth into our coverage.”

She was eventually selected as a CatchLight Local Fellow, a position supported by California-based nonprofit CatchLight, which pairs visual journalists with community-based news organizations in underrepresented markets. Natera’s two-year position at Berkeleyside is in partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places emerging journalists into local newsrooms across the U.S. to report on undercovered subjects.

Natera began the job on June 1, 2022, becoming Berkeleyside’s first-ever staff photographer. Two weeks later, she pitched her editor as part of their coverage of an upcoming Juneteenth festival in Berkeley. Maybe they could do a photo booth? Natera recalled editors being excited. The idea was greenlit.

This time her booth was an upgrade from her last backdrop — much sturdier and made of metal. There Natera stood, asking passersby if she could take their photographs. For those who declined to be featured in Berkeleyside, Natera asked for their email addresses to send them their photo anyway. Photos of those who agreed to participate were published a few days later — warm and inviting portraits of local Black residents in front of a bright yellow backdrop positioned on a sidewalk.

On left, Amarie, Brielle, Savannah, Ny’Mari and Kenia enjoy a day at the Berkeley Juneteenth Festival. On right, Ximena Natera prepares to photograph Berkeley resident Darion Hall. (Courtesy: Ximena Natera/Berkeleyside and Roberto Zubillaga)

“It was very cool because we got to give it a little bit more space and take it out from daily coverage to something more thought-out,” Natera said. “It is about Juneteenth, but it’s also about looking at the people who went there, and spending more time and visually working with that.”

Natera, who is in her late 20s, still considers herself a young photographer. But she confessed that she thought she would never again work in a newsroom.

“I thought and I understood that it was very likely that I would never be part of a newsroom again, because those positions are so rare, and they’re shrinking,” she said. “And big news media have very few spots for staff photographers, and local media has even less.”

Natera said she is grateful that the CatchLight Local fellowship exists. The program, a collaboration with newsroom partners, provides a two-year subsidy to cover a portion of each CatchLight Local Fellow’s salary. Jenny Stratton, managing editor and director of the program, said the current fellows have an option to renew to stay on longer. Natera and several other visual journalists are part of what’s being called the CatchLight Local Visual Desk in California.

“CatchLight Local is really about revitalizing visual journalism at the local level,” Stratton said. “Local journalism has certainly seen some really significant resource and budget cuts. And we found in our background research that typically visual departments or visual staff got significantly cut first.”

Stratton noted a paradox, “because at the same time, communication has never been more visual with the advent of social media” and everyone having a camera in their pockets (by way of smartphones).

“We started to see people were really connecting through visuals, but local newsrooms had less and less resources to tell stories with them,” Stratton added. “So we wanted to solve for that paradox by placing full-time visual journalists back in newsrooms, but not just placing them and being like ‘Bye!’” She said that part of the fellowship program ensures the visual journalists are paired with a visual editor, and that there’s community built among the fellows themselves.

Larry Valenzuela, who joined CalMatters as a CatchLight Fellow last year after freelancing for the nonprofit news organization, had always wanted to be a photojournalist. But he said he struggled to find a route to that path while working as a writer for The Fresno Bee. Valenzuela recalled feeling stuck in a breaking news capacity, instead of producing visual journalism like he truly wanted.

“But with this fellowship, it really opened that route where they wanted somebody in Fresno to be a photographer, and to work for CalMatters, and do all this work here,” he said. “It’s been amazing. I’ve gotten firsthand experience that I’d never gotten before. I’m definitely doing a lot more work that I think is really important.”

One notable CalMatters project from Valenzuela documented the story of Lorena Hernandez, a middle school student who overcame struggles with distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. The story — which includes a close look at Lorena’s school and personal lives — was the second part in a series of stories on the experiences of students attending three different California school districts during the pandemic

Lorena Hernandez (left) and her friend Yoselyn Curllar (right) take a selfie together as they get ready for their 8th-grade graduation ceremony in the Buttonwillow Union School music room on Thursday, May 26, 2022. (Courtesy: Larry Valenzuela/CalMatters)

Valenzuela, who was born and raised in the Fresno area, said it’s been great to report out of the community he was raised in. He’s always wanted to be a photojournalist

When selecting CatchLight Fellows, CatchLight Local California visual desk editor Mabel Jimenez said qualities like empathy are important. Jimenez said someone can be really talented and a really good researcher, but the CatchLight fellows are also representing their newsrooms and CatchLight in the communities they cover. “And so we want to make sure that it’s someone that’s going to be mindful, respectful, when they come into these communities to report,” she added.

Being ethical and respectful sound obvious, Jimenez noted, but those elements are not always present.

The spirit of service is a big element in the fellowship, Jimenez said. The program aims to help fellows grow their careers and move the visual landscape to a more sustainable place, she said.

“We are interested in creating opportunities that are going to move the fellows to the next stage, but also what are they leaving behind in those newsrooms? What are they leaving behind in those communities?” Jimenez said. “So that’s really important, that they’ll feel that impulse of, ‘This work serves a bigger purpose. These photos, I want them to look good, but what is their purpose?’ And so we really look for people that, somehow in their past, have found ways of leveraging their work or their photography, their reporting, towards positive change.”

Harika Maddala was working at the news wire service Bay City News when their job told them of the partnership position of CatchLight Local Fellow and Report for America Corps member.

Now, as part of the fellowship, Maddala is a staff photojournalist for Bay City News. Their focus has been the community of Stockton and San Joaquin County. The photojournalist said the Stockton and especially Central Valley areas no longer have many local news organizations. Being placed in a community like this, they said, gives them the opportunity to report on all sorts of stories.

“I become part of this community. So whenever I go to a place, I recognize someone I met before. And it’s such a small tight-knit community, right?” Maddala said. “Now when I tell their stories, I’m not just showing up one day and leaving. … I go back to them. I do follow-up stories, and I know these people very well.”

Bay City News photo intern Harika Maddala, covers a press conference about COVID-19 vaccination for youth ages 5-11, at the Santa Clara County administration building in San Jose, Calif., on Oct. 27, 2021. (Jana Kadah/Bay City News)

Maddala said that one of the first things that pops up when you Google Stockton or search for new stories about the city is its crime. There’s a stigma that it’s not safe.

“But after I started living there, and the more events I’ve been attending, I’m like, ‘Stockton is a really cool thing,’” they said. “I mainly cover a lot of positive stories, besides my enterprise project.”

For their long-term enterprise project, Maddala has been investigating trust between the Stockton Police Department and the community. They’ve met families who have lost loved ones to police shootings, or to street violence. “Some of them have lost someone because of the police. And then there were families who were helped a lot by the police,” they said. “So it was really interesting exploring that dynamic.”

For Valenzuela, this fellowship marks him finally getting his “chance in the photojournalism community.”

“Before this, I was really struggling to try to get to where I am now,” he said. “And it really opened the door for me.”

Back in Berkeley, Natera recently told Poynter that she was preparing to bring her photo backdrop back for this year’s Juneteenth celebration. This time, she said, it’s going to be a team effort between her and her colleagues.

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