In the past 18 months Western Kentucky University alumni photojournalists managed the new and unexpected conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic through adaptation and growth.
USA Today photographer Katie Stratman really had to reinvent her productive wheel in order to stay photographically sharp during the pandemic.
When Stratman graduated in May 2020, she began focusing on finding a job and emailing athletic programs, but nothing worked out. She lived with her roommates in Bowling Green, going on adventures while still taking photos and keeping her skills sharp.
“When the lease was up, and I moved back home with my parents, that’s where the real struggle began — having your own schedule and then having to adapt back into your childhood home for a long period of time,” Stratman said. “I ended up writing myself up a daily schedule which included working out, learning a new language, reading a book, learning a new skill, etc.”
Specialized photographers such as sports photographers and wedding photographers were out of work. Stratman struggled to pay her bills, specifically as a sports photographer, because there was not a single sport being played in basically the entire year of 2020.
Chris Kohley, a May 2021 graduate, shared the same struggles while working through the pandemic. Kohley worked for Western Kentucky University Athletics during the heat of the pandemic.
“It was strange being a photographer in the pandemic,” Kohley said. “My job required me to get 2-3 COVID tests per week and my mask had to be always on.”
Sporting events were often rescheduled, which added to chaos Kohley was experiencing.
“I also think it made me more grateful for how things were before the pandemic,” Kohley said. “Sports are a privilege, and they can be taken away or halted at any time, so any time I can cover a sporting event is a privilege.”
Athletic organizations worked to create a bubble effect for their events, keeping entry and exit extremely tight. They worked to isolate their groups from potential outside contamination. The NBA created a unique bubble because they hosted it at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
Steve Roberts, photographer for Western Kentucky University Athletics, experienced more professional changes than personal changes. The biggest professional changes were Covid testing and distancing.
“What and how I covered did not really change when covering WKU,” Roberts said. “Shooting for USA Today and covering the NFL and the NHL there were huge differences. No field access for the NFL. We were only allowed to shoot from the stands.”
Roberts experienced no changes while covering WKU. He faced heavy restrictions while shooting professional sports like the NFL and NHL, specifically being restricted to the stands.
“Having no crowd made it very quiet during the game,” Roberts said. “With the NHL, again having no crowd made it weird.”
Roberts has another job that was not nearly as affected by COVID. However, photography’s complete halt in light of the pandemic meant that Roberts had to connect with other photographers in a different way.
“The one positive thing that came out of the pandemic for me was being able to meet so many great photographers through Zoom where I would have never had the chance otherwise,” Roberts said.
Silas Walker a May 2020 graduate from Western Kentucky University, practices and works in news photojournalism during the pandemic. He got a job at the Lexington Herald Leader through Report for America, a national service program that places young journalists in newsrooms across the country.
“It was difficult with photography and journalism since so much access was restricted with events and even more regular things like restaurants or press conferences,” Walker said. “However, over the summer, I was still able to cover the protests over Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.”
Walker took just as hard of a hit during the pandemic with mask mandates hiding people’s faces, a key part of the emotional expression in photography. News events like press conferences and council meetings placed restrictions on the number of photographers allowed to attend. Walker faced struggles on an individual level during his work.
“Personally, the most difficult thing for me has been navigating the controversy and divisiveness that has come from all this,” Walker said. “While working I’ve had to be able to avoid arguments about masks, vaccines and everything else pandemic related, in order to still tell stories.”