Russo named one of the top five student photojournalists in nation

Shield co-editor in chief continues outstanding scholastic newspaper career with National Scholastic Press Association honor

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NSPA

When she was in ninth grade, Bella Russo earned more photo credits than any other photojournalism student, but she didn’t feel like she was a true photojournalist until she started reporting and writing the stories that wrapped around her photos.

Bella Russo had been a freshman for less than a month when she earned her first photo credit on the MacJournalism Instagram feed. On Sept. 2, at the urging of her photojournalism teacher, Russo took some pictures of the cars lined up to buy gasoline and the closed pumps at a North Lamar gas station in order to document the impact of hurricane Harvey on the Austin economy.

 

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Thus began one of the most prolific years in the history of Mac photojournalism. After hundreds of photo credits, thousands even, Russo documented everything from volleyball to girls basketball and soccer, from the first Mac alumni basketball game, to a second-round football playoff victory, to a the marching band earning a trip to the UIL state marching competition

She earned awards from the Texas Association of Journalism Advisers, the Association of Texas Photography Instructors and the Quill and Scroll International Honor Society.

Despite her many successes, she did not consider herself to be a real photojournalist in the truest sense of the word.

Even after she had taken an iconic photograph of then Blue Brigade sophomore Addie Seckar-Martinez, an image that would become one of the most decorated images in MacJournalism history, she did not see herself as photojournalist. 

 

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“Photojournalism was just something I fell into because I took the class freshman year and Mr. Winter made photography fun and worthwhile,” Russo said. “But being a photojournalist wasn’t really a conscious thought I had until my first year on [the] newspaper [staff] when I started to write stories alongside taking photos, and I saw both of them come together. There’s only so much you can say with writing, and there is only so much you can say through a photograph, but putting equal importance on both makes a complete story, and I think that’s really valuable.”

There’s only so much you can say with writing, and there is only so much you can say through a photograph, but putting equal importance on both makes a complete story, and I think that’s really valuable.”

— senior Shield co-editor in chief Bella Russo

In November 2018, Russo remembered, she got her first taste of a story that allowed her to tell an important story verbally and visually with equal power.

The school board budget controversy sophomore year was the first time I was able to connect photography and writing,” Russo said. “It helped that those kinds of community events make really good photos and also lead to great interviews. Anything where people had a lot to say, and through the story, they had a voice to say it. Those stories make the reporting element really important.”

Russo has told an impressive number of meaningful stories over the past two years. In the spring of 2019, she covered the partnership between Mac students and the Austin Police Department, and in the fall, she covered the at times virulent debate over a new sex ed curriculum in the district and the district’s decision to close some campuses as a cost-saving measure. In the spring she covered COVID-19’s impact on the school and the city and the downtown demonstrations against the police brutality that led to the deaths of George Floyd and closer to home Mike Ramos.  

But even in her feature reporting, Russo developed a knack for finding stories about which people were passionate: stories like Ms. Gun’s commitment to having a schoolwide quinceañera for everyone who wants one, Ms. Galindo’s commitment to creating a path to college for her AVID students and the crazy commitment that drives student firefighters to battle a propane fire until they can beat the flames back enough to reach the nozzle to turn the propane off.

Russo’s ability to tell stories in words and images was recognized a week ago today when the National Scholastic Press Association honored her as one of the top five student photojournalists in the nation. 

Russo said the distinction came as a surprise. 

Through journalism, you are going to meet so many close friends and do exciting things, and it will be the most important part of your life for a good while.”

— What senior Bella Russo would say to her freshman self

“Actually placing in the competition was crazy, and so exciting, especially since it’s a national award,” Russo said. “I didn’t really expect to place at all, so getting fifth … blew me away, but it feels great knowing that my portfolio could compete with all the other amazing work done by the other finalists.”

As the Shield’s nominee in the Photojournalist of the Year category, Russo submitted a portfolio with a written reflection and five images that showed the breadth and depth of her work during the 2019-2020 school year.

Russo said just putting the portfolio together was a worthwhile experience.

“It was nice to be able to summarize a whole year of reporting into one portfolio and be reminded of all the things I had done and the people I got to talk to and stories I had written.”

The great thing for MacJournalism and its followers is that Russo still has a little more than a semester to write more great stories, take more great pictures and lead her newspaper staff as co-editor in chief.

But what would the seasoned reporter and photographer say to that cub reporter who took pictures at the gas station more than three years ago?

“I would say, it only gets more fun from there. And that through journalism you are going to meet so many close friends and do exciting things, and it will be the most important part of your life for a good while. And it will definitely save you from the monotony of school. And people will care about what you are doing, which is the best part.”

People do care to be sure but only because Russo cares to put her very best into the photos she takes, the captions she writes and the stories she tells.