Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Every other summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals across the United States. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora.
The next project is scheduled for the summer of 2020 and will focus on deforestation in Eastern Africa.
The smallest things can sometimes have the biggest impact on a person. I feel as though this is especially true here in Uganda. For me, there is no more poignant example of this than the thatch-roofed houses that cover every free inch of space not taken up by farmland in rural Uganda.
The thatch-roofed houses of rural Uganda are little more than mud huts covered by thick roofs of dried elephant grass. There is very little to these homes and almost nothing that differentiates one of them from the many others that dot the countryside. The floors of these homes are dirt and there are hardly any pieces of furniture or other interior decorations inside. To me, as a person used to the comforts of the new world it is absolutely insane that anyone person would be able live inside of those huts
After visiting a Jesuit school in Ocer County, Gulu, I had the opportunity to visit a family who was living inside a settlement of these thatched-roof opinions. Contrary to popular opinion amonst our group, the family of Roger Ocan who were living inside of this thatched-roofed hoisin complex was incredibly joyful and more than happy to share our home with us. They spoke of the traditional and emotional impact of the thatched-roof houses in their Achlor culture. This experience completely changed my negative viewpoint of the thatched-roof houses. Instead of being just meager abodes, these houses have a cultural significance that adds to the rich beauty of Uganda. Now, when I see a thatched-roof house, I cannot help but smile and think of the beautiful cultural connection that they have to the Achlor
I had the chance to conduct my first interview with a gentleman named Danny who is a citizen from Nogales, Mexico who volunteers at El Comedor.
One of the questions that I asked was, “Where do you see God in all of this?”
After a few meditative moments, Danny’s response was, “God is in us.” He explained that even though he prays for things to get better, he sees God in the actions of people helping other people. He emphasized the ability to see migrants as people and not as a statistic. When we treat people with human dignity and interact with them as an equal, our hearts are impacted and transformed. What an incredible response that really embodies the very essence of what it means to be made in God’s likeness.
I’ve always wanted to change the world, to make a positive impact for those who needed it the most. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that it’s a lot harder than it sounds. But I refuse to be derailed from my goal to change the world. My goals have just have just become more focused. I’ve realized that every person has their own world that weaves through other worlds. When my world collides with another, it is the perfect opportunity for me to take the gifts I have been given to share with another. Our human stories become one, if even for an instant, and we both can benefit. The weaving of all stories under the human race is truly an awe-inspiring mystery.
Even for those of you who don’t believe in God, I hope you believe in the beauty that surrounds us everyday, especially in the face of hardships. Since I have been on this trip, I have seen this over and over again.
Natalia is a singer/songwriter who used to volunteer at El Comedor. She was born in the US but spent most of her time growing up in Columbia, where she became fluent in Spanish. When she started to hear these stories that the migrants would tell her, she became moved to write songs about their terrifying experiences and turn them into hauntingly beautiful songs.
Natalia performed a concert at El Comedor that I was able to help film. A group of men who had just been deported moments before, had been dropped off just as everyone had sat down. The only table left was between my camera and Natalia. While I was filming, I made eye contact with a man and immediately smiled at him. He just sort of stared back at me. A few minutes later, our eyes met again and again I smiled. Shyly, a grin started to emerge from his face. The next time that our eyes met, he was beaming and his eyes twinkled. After dinner, I was conversing with a few other men in my broken Spanish and I could see him standing back and waiting. I went over and introduced myself to him and held out my hand to meet his. I learned that he was from a town in Central Mexico, 20 years old, and traveling by himself. His warm smile is what kept my tears from pouring out. We spoke very few words between us as I had to start packing up our gear, but the smiling seemed to be enough for the both of us.
This wall that everyone keeps talking about is ugly both physically and symbolically. It’s brown and metal and not aesthetically pleasing whatsoever. A Mexican-American artist, Ana Teresa Fernández, has painted murals on the wall in different cities at the border. Her project is called, “Borrando la Frontera,” or “Erasing the Border.” Her mural in Nogales is sky blue, meant to look as if the sky had been brought down and the border erased.
We need to believe in the power of our individual talents and abilities to interact with others in a way that can make a lasting impact, even if only for an instant.
“What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity,” Joseph Addison
First of all, I just want to say that this has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I never thought that I would completely fall in love with a culture, photography, and a group of classmates as I have now. Even after I committed myself to going on this trip, I still didn’t imagine how wonderful it would turn out.
I came into this class with almost zero photojournalism experience. During the first day of video boot camp, I thought that I would never remember any of what we were learning. I was overwhelmed with information. About a week later though, I was out on the tundra, taking shots of the river, and setting up interviews. By the end of the week, filming almost seemed like second nature to me.
I’m pretty sure that I’ve told almost everyone about this, but the absolute highlight of the trip for me was our boat ride on the Kuskokwim. The overwhelming beauty of everything that was around me cannot be put into words. Overwhelming beauty was kind of a theme for me during this trip. A lot of my classmates probably got used to me getting overly enthusiastic about things, sometimes to the point where I couldn’t form coherent sentences. Everything from the sweeping tundra, to the clear Kuskokwim River, from the midnight sun, to the wisdom of the people is too exquisite to describe.
When we talk about the highs and lows of the trip, it is hard for me to think of an actual low. Yes, there were moments that were hard or difficult, but that doesn’t mean that they were not good moments. One of those instances was when Rose talked to us about historical trauma. Her raw emotions touched me deeply and made me extremely sad, but it was also beautiful in its own way. It was one of those rare times where a connection is made with another human on a level much deeper than sympathy. I feel so incredibly privileged that she shared her story with us.
Alaska is gorgeous and this trip was life-changing, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as amazing if I didn’t go with such a fantastic group of people. In a little over a month, we formed our own type of family. Every member contributes something unique and valuable to the group. I’ve learned just as much from them as I ever have in the classroom. I think I’ve had a smile on my face for the majority of the past five weeks. This group of people is truly special, and I could not be more grateful for each individual’s friendship.
Going forward from this trip, it seems like so much has changed. The way I look at the world, how I see our resources and my understanding of culture has greatly shifted. All of this change can be a lot to handle at times. However, I know that there is one thing I can change based on what I learned while in Alaska. Going forward, I am going to change the way I interact with the people around me. Through this experience, I’ve learned that everyone has a story to tell. I may not recognize the story right away, but I have to keep listening until I do. A person is so much more than they appear. Behind the outer shell, there is a soul that has memories and experiences you will never know about unless you ask and listen.
Bethel has taught me to see the intricacy in the dull and the beauty in the plain. Wonder and mystery can be found all around you. I won’t attempt to try and convey the depths of this wonder and beauty because, as I’ve said before, there are simply no words. Instead, I will leave with a Navajo saying that we heard while in Bethel:
“Everything in front of me will be beautiful,
Everything behind me will be beautiful,
Everything on my right will be beautiful,
Everything on my left will be beautiful,
Everything above me will be beautiful,
Everything below me will be beautiful,
Everything around me will be beautiful,
Everything that comes from my lips will be beautiful.”
I have been home from Alaska for almost a week now, and I admit it still feels strange to be back in Nebraska. It seems that no time has passed, yet so much happened to me while I was away. I am definitely missing Alaska, from the community of Bethel to the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula.
Fortunately I haven’t had a lot of time to think about the twinge of sadness I feel as we dive head first into creating our documentary. I don’t feel a complete loss of connection to Alaska as I re-watch interviews and look at B-roll. I have enjoyed listening to the stories of people we interviewed early in our trip and finding the best quotes in our many hours of footage. It was a tiring week of transcribing and editing video, but we have made great progress in our project.
As I tell my family and friends about my Backpack Journalism experience, I feel a sense of excitement as I talk about the wonderful people we met in Bethel and the issues of the area that we learned about and witnessed firsthand. There is so much to tell, yet I can’t find the words to tell about everything. All I can do is try to express my love for the beautiful state.
I always seem to fall in love with the places I visit. My numerous trips to Chicago have led me to decide that it is my favorite city. Visiting Oregon and seeing its splendor helped me determine that I want to live there in the future. During my service trip to West Virginia, I was amazed by its beauty during the fall and inspired by its people.
Alaska was no different. I feel fortunate to have spent so much time in a part of the state rarely seen by tourists. I came to admire the Yup’ik culture and subsistence lifestyle. I saw tundra, ocean, glaciers and mountains, all in one place. The people I met and the stories I heard changed my life.
Being a Nebraska native, everywhere else seems to be more beautiful and exciting than the flat plains of the Cornhusker State. No mountains or oceans, just fields and rivers.
Yet being back, I have come to appreciate the beauty of where I grew up and the city I call my second home. On my first night back from Alaska, I looked out toward the sunset from my 10th floor apartment window. I thought about the stunning Alaska sky, but then I realized that Nebraska has pretty amazing sunsets, too.
From the outside looking in, the town of Bethel, Alaska, may not seem like the most exciting place. But for the people living there, it is home, and it is beautiful to them.
Our very last interview was with a woman named Susan, who worked at the Immaculate Conception Church where we stayed during our trip. She was born in Bethel and has lived there her entire life. Her love for the community showed, and there was no place she would rather be.
“Bethel is our paradise,” she eloquently stated.
No matter where I may end up living in my life, for now I will appreciate the beauty and comfort of Nebraska and the people here who have impacted my life. I hope that I have the opportunity to travel to Alaska again soon, but for now I am going to love the place where I am now.
Today was our last day in Bethel, and I think all of us are feeling a little sad. We’ve grown to love this small town. I know that for me personally, I will always feel a connection to this part of the world. At the beginning of the week, I said that Bethel seemed like a wise place. This continued to be true throughout my entire time here. Almost every day, this community taught me something important.
Bethel taught me to be patient. There is a different sense of time here. The only time to rush is when the weather is perfect for fishing. Actions are methodical and intentional. Responses to questions are proceeded by a short pause in which the person responding truly thinks about what they will say.
The natives taught me to be generous. We were given delicious food that people either caught or prepared themselves. The people of Bethel offered us boat trips and opened up their fish camps to us. They gave us their time to fully answer every question we had.
The tundra taught me to be present and look for beauty in everything. The tundra is constantly changing. You could miss the most amazing view if you aren’t paying attention. Not only do you have to pay attention, but you also must make a decision to see the beauty before you. Out in the tundra, it’s cold, there are mosquitoes everywhere, and the landscape appears barren. However, if you look closely, you will see how intricate the whole ecosystem is. Every foot of it is a sea of diverse life.
Finally, this part of the world has taught me to be fearless. Yes, I will gut that fish. Sure, I’ll try that piece of seal. Yeah, I’ll go on a river trip to a remote village. And of course I’ll trudge out to the tundra at midnight with water and mud up to my knees to watch the sunset.
I’m so thankful for everything I’ve learned here. When I first came to Bethel, I never imagined that so much wisdom would be shared with me. Now I can’t imagine my life without that knowledge. As we prepare to leave Bethel, the only thing I can think to say is thank you. Quyana, Bethel.
I don’t know if it’s the mass amount of photography terms and techniques that have been thrown my way in the past few days, or the fact that this is my second visit to the developing world that gives me a different perspective, but everything about what I see creates beautiful pictures.
As we drove through all the small towns, I couldn’t help but notice all of the raw and organic beauty around me. I promise I’m not just using those terms to sound all fancy and sophisticated, it’s a whole different kind of beauty. Something about looking at people who live in a culture that has yet to be slapped in the face with the concept of “ideal” body image and lack an emphasis on physical appearance, catches my eye. I feel like no American person would look as intriguing just sitting on a motor bike, or standing on the side of the road as the people here do. Not to mention, there is no such thing as an American taking a minute to just sit or stand in a public place like that. And if they do, they’re usually seen as crazy people, not potential works of art.
Speaking of catching my eye, I make a lot of split second eye contact with the people as we drive by. And for that one moment, I forget about where I am and how different our circumstances may be. For that one moment, we’re just two people, two humans exchanging a look, wondering about who the other person is. It gets overwhelming to visit all of these places packed with people because I constantly see faces and immediately wonder where their life is going, what they do with their time, what motivates them to keep living a life so vastly different than my own.
People are everywhere. And when I say everywhere I mean everywhere. Sitting outside houses, stores, on the side of the road, on top of trucks, riding bikes, everywhere. Even in the middle of nowhere (and by that I mean along the miles and miles of rainforest) you will always see men on bikes, women carrying fruit, even young children walking alone.
On a lighter, less deep and philosophical note:
I highly enjoyed our eleven hour bus ride to Lira. No, seriously (excluding that chunk where we moved about 100 ft. in half an hour trying to leave Kampala, good times). It was almost like a dysfunctional family road trip, only rather than visiting the Grand Canyon, we drove across the Nile River with baboons chasing after our bus as we tossed bananas out the window for them (True story, I know I can barely believe it too). All that was missing were some quality family sing-a longs. Next time, guys.
Keep on keepin’ on,
“The closer you look at something, the more complex it seems to be.” –Vint Cerf
“We are all bozos on the same bus, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride.” –Wavy Gravy (Yes, I just quoted a clown. More proof I lack the ability to actually be fancy and sophisticated.)