Bella Russo: NSPA Photojournalist of the Year Portfolio

Bella Russo, co-editor in chief

This year was my fourth year as a student photojournalist and third year on our student run newspaper staff. As a reporter, I took photographs and wrote stories for our news website, instagram account, and print publication. I also led the staff through publication as co-editor in chief. 

Senior Bella Russo is a third year staffer for The Shield, and is currently co-editor in chief. On staff, she likes to do everything from reporting and photography to illustration and page design. Outside of newspaper, Bella is a visual arts major, PAL, writing tutor, and loves to go on joyrides in her Honda odyssey minivan.

Like everything else about the year, The coronavirus pandemic had a huge affect on our publication and how we do journalism. Even before school started, our staff was working over the summer to cover breaking news on the spread of COVID-19 and how it impacted our community. I worked to localize our reporting by covering our school district’s reaction to the pandemic, specifically the controversy over sending teachers back to physical campuses as death tolls rose. 

Reporting on these events was also a struggle. I learned how to do the little things on zoom or phone call to get an interview flowing and connect to my sources: being extra personable, listening for longer, asking questions that left more room to expand, having your Zoom camera on whenever possible. I learned to shout my questions from six feet away, to read body language and social cues to make sure sources felt comfortable, and to always have a zoom lens at the ready for a long distance shot. Since so much was virtual, some coverage of events was reduced to screenshotting a Zoom- but we learned to do what we could with what we had.

Because there was so much uncertainty surrounding us with the way COVID impacted our community, the news cycle this year felt like it never ended. Publishing photos and writing on our news sites became extra important to our community, since our social media accounts were often the first source of information on school reopening, safety policies, and faculty and student reactions. 

While COVID did present a multitude of stories for us to cover, it also threw a wrench into the already difficult task of writing, designing, and printing a physical newspaper. As an editor in chief, the learning experience was invaluable, although rocky. After relearning a new design software, I had to teach a group of new staffers the ins and outs of interviewing, the formulas of writing stories and captions, and the technicalities of page design through zoom screen. I learned what I was not willing to sacrifice- our print newspaper- and how good it felt to get a physical copy of our work as the rest of life remained virtual. It was extremely cumbersome and draining to put out four issues in isolation, but they also gave our staff a focus and a shared goal, and something to celebrate together. 

After covering the Black Lives Matter rallies in Austin over the summer, I made it my focus to continue highlighting underrepresented voices in our community. I worked closely with our school’s Students of Color Alliance and made sure our publications featured their perspectives and their work as a club. I also covered the national rise of hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, localizing the story by covering an Austin rally and action readers could take in our own community. These assignments were so fulfilling partly because the students in S.O.C.A appreciated the coverage so much- which taught me the importance of going out of your way to feature underreported groups and people. Representation does matter, and every story you assign should be looked at from an equity-focused lens. Taking the time to make sure our publications had enough diversity, and going out and getting more when we realized our stories were lacking, made the difference in how we viewed our projects and how the community saw themselves in our work. 

This year had its ups and downs. So much was lonely and isolated, but as soon as things started to open back up- when our school held its first masked play, when clubs started to meet again outdoors, I was there to capture that joy. I reported on death tolls, new principals, student firefighters, protests, and politics. I wrote my first obituary for an alumni not even four years older than me- it was heartbreaking and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I felt incredibly honored to get to know such an amazing person and tribute him in our paper. I learned to lead under crazy circumstances, to connect with sources and my fellow staffers in a virtual or socially distant setting. This year of photojournalism kept me on my toes, but I’m so grateful for the resilience of our staff for coming together to accomplish all that we did, and our community of followers and readers who supported and appreciated us along the way.

GELLA, YES! Freshman middle hitter Gella Andrew spikes the ball into the Cougar block for one of her six kills during the second set of the Knights’ 3-1 bi-disrict playoff loss on Friday night. The Knights lost the set, 25-23, in heart-breaking fashion to fall behind, 2-0. The Knights rebounded to win the third set, 25-17, beforing losing the fourth set, 25-20, and the match, 3-1. Andrew was solid in the middle in the final game of her breakout freshman season. Her kill percentage was a team best 37.5 percent, and she had one of the Knights’ four solo blocks for the match. Photo by Bella Russo.

Murchison Language Arts teacher Alex Murphy leads a group of protesters in a chant outside of the AISD headquarters. Community members rallied outside of the office on Saturday, Sept. 26 to voice concerns about campus reopenings in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases. Photo by Bella Russo.

WEEKEND FIRE DRILL: Students from the LBJ Fire Academy work their way towards a propane fire on Oct. 3, using fire hoses to control the blaze. The purpose of the drill wasn’t to put out the fire, but to use the spray to get close enough to the propane tank to turn off its fuel source. Five McCallum seniors, John Hughes, Thomas Lucy, Tex Mitchell, Molly Odland and Will Russo, participated in the live fire skill day, where they put into practice what they’ve learned during the two year student-sharing program at LBJ High School. “Being in the live fire gave me really intense adrenaline,” senior Molly Odland said. “I was the head of my group, meaning I was in charge of directing the hose line at the fire while my group supported me from behind.” Senior Will Russo, who also had the chance to lead the group, said that the drill felt like being in a hot car. “It wasn’t all that scary since you were with a bunch of people, but it was kind of intimidating because there was nothing in between you and the fire but water,” Russo said, before adding that “the propane smelled kind of like pumpkin spice.”  The next live fire the students will tackle will be a class A structure fire later in the month, before beginning EMT certification training in the spring. Photo by Bella Russo.

WEE THE PEOPLE: Junior Amethyst Mellberg-Smith holds up a sign during a Urinetown scene involving a protest for the right to “pee for free.” Mellberg-Smith thinks that the show is a commentary on the current political climate. “It’s totally political satire,” Mellberg-Smith said. “It’s making fun of serious situations that are somewhat similar to things happening now, but in such a comedic and absurd way it really shows how messy politics and fighting for what’s right can be.” Mellberg-Smith said that while being on stage for the first time in a year was a rewarding experience, her favorite part of the production was spending time with her friends. “Finally seeing people every day made all of the hard work feel effortless,” Mellberg-Smith said, “and I can’t wait to do it again!” Photo by Bella Russo.

English teacher Nikki Northcutt tapes a flyer to the AISD Southfield building at a teacher rally on Sep. 26, 2020. Caravans of AISD staff organized by Education Austin drove to the district headquarters to protest campus re-openings and raise questions and concerns for the district.