"I like to say that it is life as it is lived in this very small town."
This is how professor Robert Heller describes Lafollette, Tenn., the subject of the project he has continuously assigned to his advanced photojournalism class for the past 21 years.
Since 1993, Heller has taken his Journalism and Electronic Media 490 classes to the small town north of Knoxville. What started as an every-other-year project in conjunction with adjunct faculty members from the town became an annual project for students to photograph life in LaFollette for the town's newspaper, the LaFollette Press.
This year provides students with a unique opportunity to be selected for a special upcoming exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. The exhibit, scheduled to open in October, will feature the best 150-200 photographs over the 21 years of the project.
"It's a wonderful chance for students to see what life is like in a small community, if some of them aren't from a community that size," said Heller, who also teaches the introductory photojournalism course, "and to see what a small newspaper is like.
"And to see what it's like being a professional with time constraints trying to tell an interesting story in a small amount of time," he added, "at a place where nothing big really necessarily is happening."
On Friday, April 4, Heller and the 14 students drove to LaFollette and explored the town until the following afternoon.
The project, Heller said, is a simulation for the students to feel the pressures of a deadline while still spending time capturing the idiosyncrasies and uniqueness of the small Tennessee town. The work continues for the following days when the class sorts through more than 5,000 photographs and edits them down to the final 60 shots that are then sent to the LaFollette Press.
Chelsea Raschke, senior in journalism and electronic media, prepared for the trip by researching different interesting places in LaFollette. Once she arrived, she teamed up with a few other students and approached random people in hopes of taking their photos.
She cited Ralph's Donut Shop as one place she visited, describing how she took photos of the owners.
"Learning all these little stories about the people in LaFollette was so interesting because it's such a small place," Raschke said. "You don't really expect much, but that's usually because you're not used to having such intimate conversations with people and learning about where they live every single day."
Also citing a florist and a beekeeper as photo subjects, Raschke said the project was much more than just homework.
"It was so beyond photography," she said. "It was having an experience with people."
Although Heller is conscious of the fact that most of his students won't become professional journalists, he said the point of the project is something much bigger.
"I'm quite proud of my students for doing this and for always coming up with quality work," he said. "Because this is professional quality work that they're doing ... they know what a good picture is and they know how to get it."