NSPA Photojournalist of the Year portfolio

Bella Russo, visuals editor

This year was my third year taking photographs for our journalism program, and my second year on the newspaper staff as a reporter and writer, so I figured by this point I knew what to expect. I was wrong in the best ways.

One of my first assignments of the school year set the tone pretty early on. I volunteered to cover a district board meeting that was supposed to feature some debate over new health and sex education curriculum. I expected the meeting to be as tame (i.e. boring) as they usually are, but the meeting room was packed to max capacity and about as polarized as the state of American politics. Half the attendees were vehemently condemning the new curriculum for its inclusion of “unconventional families” and LGBTQ health topics, and the other half defended the new curriculum’s inclusivity and showed support to all students.

As a photojournalist, I was able to have conversations with the people on both sides. It was a challenge, voluntarily talking to people that had revealed themselves through their signs and shirts and public comments to be hateful and ignorant, but I also found myself loving the challenge of it. All at a public school board meeting I thought would be boring! The whole night was made worth it to me again when community members showed appreciation for my photographs and reporting for keeping them in the loop. After that night, we made it a point of our publication to focus more on all of our school district’s events in order to round out our publication.


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NEW CURRICULUM, OLD DEBATE: A woman follows an anti LGBT public comment at Monday’s district board meeting with chants of “Trans Lives Matter,” before being walked outside by police. The cause of her outrage: a heated debate between defenders of AISD’s new sexual education curriculum, and those that oppose it. Public commenters like Caryl Ayala, who cofounded Concerned Parents of Texas after AISD “decided to bring in Welcoming Schools, a LGBT program that normalizes homosexuality and transgenderism,” urged parents listening to fight against the curriculum that they feel promotes underage sex by opting their children out of sex ed classes and lessons. Those on her side, many self-identified as concerned citizens from outside the Austin area, were angered by curriculum they described as “porn,” “Indoctrinization,” and as taking “steps closer to pedophelia.” “This district teaches kids to say no to drugs, alcohol, smoking, [and] vaping,” Ayala said to the board of trustees. “Why not sexual activity?” Defenders of the district’s new sex ed curriculum argued that last year’s changes made to its content benefited all students by teaching inclusive lessons about diverse families, gender identity and sexual orientation. They also argued that these lessons were nowhere near as graphic or harmful to students of any age as their opposition claims, and to make these lessons less inclusive of LGBT issues would be discrimination. McCallum parent Susanne Kerns of Informed Parents of Austin used her two minutes of comment to reassure parents that the curriculum was doing right by their children. “Kids of all ages deserve to know that their feelings are normal and healthy, no matter who they feel them about,” Kerns said. “I do agree with these groups that parents and caregivers should be actively involved in sex ed discussion. It’s a shame that many choose not to. And for those kids, these lessons will serve as a lifeline of critical health information. They will literally save lives.” The next board meeting available for public comment will be Sept. 23. More information regarding past and future meetings can be found at austinisd.org. Photos and reporting by Bella Russo.

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Most recently, I covered our city’s local police brutality protests. Covering such a sensitive topic brought some challenges, and as a staff we had to be extra mindful of the message we were sending with our reporting. I tried hard to capture the full narrative of the protests by photographing the violent and peaceful sides of the protests. After our peers voiced concerns over the safety of protesters, we had to decide how to respond to those criticisms. We consulted professional media and the Student Press Law Center and determined that we had every legal right to publish a photo at a protest that reveals a protestor’s face, but the SPLC also told us that they recommended that each staff consider carefully how it chose to present the events at a police brutality protest, so I decided to take down and revise a post even though it had pictures that were within journalistic ethics because I wanted to err on the side of empathy and caution. When school resumes, I will be co-editor-in-chief and I look forward to formulating a more coherent policy about how to handle coverage of protests, especially police brutality protests. This experience showed me how important it is to listen to and consider feedback from the community when doing reporting like this, and again was a lesson in getting outside of my comfort zone and actively trying to keep an objective lens. I’ve always loved photographing rallies and marches, but being a part of these protests felt like some of the most important work I’ve ever done.


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AUSTIN POLICE BRUTALITY PROTESTS CONTINUE: Protesters met at the Texas Capitol building Sunday afternoon to continue advocating justice for George Floyd, Mike Ramos, and other African-American victims of police brutality. Marchers walked from the Capitol to Austin City Hall, where protesters continued the cries of “Black lives matter,” and “No peace, no justice.” Tension grew early on at City Hall as graffiti was used to outline the hope of the protests, and a paper mache pig was burned by protesters. The march continued down Cesar Chavez, where an initial standoff with police attempting to clear a way for traffic resulted in the use of rubber bullets and some chemical agent to control crowds. Protesters responded by pushing back and taking silent knees, and ultimately the march continued back to the Capitol building, and later to the Austin Police Department Headquarters. Clashes between police and protesters picked up again later in the afternoon, as crowds grew around the Police Headquarters and protesters blocked I-35. Traffic stood at a standstill until rubber bullets and tear gas were used to clear crowds from the highway. Police later responded to separate instances of looting at Lakeline Mall and a Target store on I-35. Initially, the rally was planned by the Austin Justice Coalition as a peaceful “Justice For Them All” march, but the coalition canceled the official march due to safety concerns that other, more violent protesters planned to “hijack” the protests and in turn threaten the safety of black peaceful protesters. However, the protests were still attended by hundreds, and despite seeing many clashes between police and protesters, there were also moments of connection when protests were peaceful. Jazz Aguilar, a McCallum class of 2020 graduate, was one protester who was not only committed to peacefully protesting, but said she actively sought to connect with the law enforcement officers at the protests. “As I was standing there with my best friend in front of the Capitol, I saw how aggressive a lot of the people were towards the cops.” [Caption continued in replies]

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Along with continuing photography and reporting, I also stepped into my first editor positions this year as the staff’s news and visuals editor, the two things I am most passionate about. Being able to look at the bigger picture (no pun intended) of our publication was so rewarding because I was able to help inform the stories and visuals we ran on our Instagram, website, and print. Most importantly to me, being an editor gave me an excuse to get to know our ever growing staff. Collaborating with my peers is the most fun part of being on the Shield staff, and being the person to go to with a photography question or newswriting help was the greatest compliment.

This year really affirmed to me the kind of journalism I love to do. I was able to report on social issues and the fight for change, our school districts controversial plan to shut down neighborhood schools, photograph and feature our fire fighting training program for the first time in a print doubletruck and an online photo essay, capture another year of halftime shows and playoff games, and help our staff navigate a global pandemic while publishing our first print issue remotely.

My biggest lesson learned was to take a chance on any assignment, because some of the most overlooked topics have the best stories to tell, and if an issue is important to anyone in the community, that is the best coverage you can offer.

Photo 1: This image original appeared in a Macjournalism Instagram post on Oct. 13. It appear in the Shield in print and online and it was featured in a showstopper spread on page — and — in the 2020 Knight yearbook.

Attacking the fire from the side, the LBJ Fire Academy seniors inch their way closer and closer to the propane tank with the hopes of turning off the gas nozzle feeding the flames during their live fire exercise on Oct. 12. Currently, seven McCallum students are enrolled in the academy, a student sharing program open to all AISD students interested in fire science and emergency medical training. The drills were held at the Austin Fire Academy, where the city of Austin and Austin Community College also train fire fighters.

Photo 2: The photo appeared as the cover image in a MacJournalism social media post about the Board meeting on Monday Aug. 26 that was posted the day, Tuesday Aug. 27. The pictures from this event were used in the print Shield for news coverage as the debate and eventual adoption of the new sex ed curriculum unfolded.

A woman follows an anti-LGBT public comment at the district board meeting on Aug 26 with chants of “Trans Lives Matter,” before being escorted outside by police. At the end of the 2019 school year, AISD approved a new sexual-education curriculum that sought to benefit all students by teaching inclusive lessons about diverse families, gender identity, and sexual orientation. At the first Board of Trustees meeting on Monday, many self-identified concerned citizens from outside the Austin area spoke against the curriculum, likening it to “porn,” and “indoctrination,” and were met by opposing community support for the curriculum.

Photo 3: This photo appeared in a MacJournalism Insta photo gallery on Jan. 20.

Senior frontwoman Abby Green performs an original song with her band Pit Punch at Kick Butt Coffee on Jan. 18. The concert featured two other student bands, with Toad Hollow and User Unauthorized playing sets following Pit Punch.

Photo 4: This photo appears in a game coverage photo gallery that appear on the MacJournalism Instagram account on Sept. 2.

Sophomore quarterback Jaxon Rosales narrowly averts a sack by releasing the ball before he is sacked by an Anderson pass rusher. Rosales entered the Aug. 29 game as a starting wide receiver and defensive back but had to play quarterback after a knee injury to senior starter Cole Davis. McCallum suffered several major setbacks during a horrific first quarter and ultimately lost to Anderson, 29-7, for the first time in three years. With the win, the Trojans evened the Taco Shack series record at 9-9. Anderson scored the first touchdown of the game on its third play from scrimmage and then scored touchdowns on the next two offensive plays it ran. Toss in a safety in the mix, and by the end of the first quarter the Knights were losing 22-0. “We gave up some points early, and after about the first five minutes of the game we had given up those 22 points,” second-year head coach Thomas Gammerdinger said. “But after the first five minutes, it was a 7-7 ballgame the rest of the way.”

Photo 5: This image appeared in a MacJournalism Instagram photo gallery that was first posted on June 1 and then revised and reposted later that same day after we received criticism for our followers for posting images of protesters where their faces could be identified. I believe we need to rethink and draft a coherent policy about how to cover political protest when we resume school next year. I have found that the ethical considerations at play here are being reconsidered at all levels of journalism.

Protesters congregating around the Texas State Capitol building hold up signs, many reading “I can’t breath,” in protest of the killing of Minneapolis’s George Floyd and Austin’s own Mike Ramos by police brutality. Crowds marched through downtown Austin for hours on May 31 in peaceful protest, some later ending up at the Austin Police Department Headquarters and City Hall building. In order to control crowds and clear highway 1-35, Austin Police officers used “less-lethal” weapons like tear gas and bean bag rounds against the protesters, a controversial tactic that would ultimately lead to an Austin ban on the use of bean bag rounds in crowd control scenarios, after a number of protesters accrued serious injuries from the weekend of marches.