Neither Lizz Cardwell nor Amy Stroth thought they had a chance at winning the Mastering the Method Photojournalism award.
But on April 9, the School of Journalism announced that Cardwell’s project, “The Cosmetic Aesthetic — A Problematic Commodity,” which explored the cosmetics industry, and Stroth’s “Olive,” which captured the life of a 4-year-old girl with Down Syndrome named Olive Werth, had been selected as the top entries in the contest.
Cardwell’s and Stroth’s experiences with photography are as different as the projects that earned them the award. For Cardwell, a senior at MU who grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich., photojournalism was the only career path that made sense when she decided on a major.
“Photography has been the only thing that’s really captured my interest for the long haul,” Cardwell said. “It’s been something I’ve been interested in since middle school. I wanted to find a way to make it meaningful, so it wouldn’t be just pretty pictures of pretty things.”
The cosmetic industry sparked Cardwell’s curiosity. As someone who never wears makeup, she wanted to investigate why people go through certain processes to make themselves more beautiful, she said.
“Even very intelligent women that I admire spend an enormous amount of time and money trying to make themselves more ‘beautiful,’ and I have a hard time trying to understand why they buy into the ideal being sold to them by the cosmetic industry,” Cardwell said.
She was able to explore this topic while studying abroad at the Danish School of Media and Journalism in February 2014. In Denmark, photojournalism is based on art photography, while at MU it is based on newspaper photography, Cardwell.
“There’s a lot more freedom about what’s considered journalism,” Cardwell said.
Cardwell wanted to intentionally capture an unappealing portrayal of the cosmetic industry. Her social-commentary approach to the project came from the work of two British photographers, Richard Billingham and Martin Parr.
Pointing the flash directly at the subject’s faces revealed the very characteristics they wanted to hide. Cardwell didn’t orchestrate any situations, she simply booked appointments at different beauty salons and schools and photographed the clients that came in that day.
“It was hard to get people to say yes at first,” she said. “I wasn’t that confident. But gradually I just kept going. I spent a lot of time in beauty school and found that people there were most likely to say yes.”
The project did nothing but confirm her perceptions of the cosmetics industry, Cardwell said. Exploring “the cosmetic aesthetic” provided an opportunity to work with different types of people and learn how to approach social commentary stories.
She is now working on a project about gun culture in the Midwest, another topic she said intrigued her, and is undecided whether to attend graduate school or pursue other interests.
“Photojournalism allows you to put yourself in situations that you wouldn’t be in otherwise,” Cardwell said. “For me, that’s how I understand the world around me.”
Just like Cardwell, Stroth faced unfamiliar circumstances while working on her project, and she too had always explored her surroundings through her camera lens.
“I had always been interested in taking pictures,” Stroth said. “I was the annoying friend in high school who took my camera with me everywhere and documented everything. I got my first camera when I was 13, and I always enjoyed seeing the world through my viewfinder.”
But that’s where the similarities between the two photographers end. Although photography had always been part of Stroth’s life, she didn’t consider turning it into a career until spring 2010, when she transferred into MU’s photojournalism program.
By then, she had already completed one year studying biology at Texas A&M, three hours from her hometown of Dallas.
In spring 2013, Stroth found herself wondering what her capstone photojournalism project would be. The faculty editor for the class, Rita Reed, told Stroth she couldn’t do yet another sports journalism project — she needed to get out of her comfort zone.
Reed said Stroth found it difficult to come up with story ideas. Stroth was a fantastic sports photographer and had an eye for capturing peak action moments, Reed said, but she was used to having events happen in front of her, not looking for them and building a relationship with the subjects.
“She needed to grow in her ability to get to understand why somebody was doing something and to have empathy for someone and connection, and to really be the author of the project,” Reed said.
Stroth could feel the pressure. Back then, Stroth was working at Recess, Inc., a local art studio. She shared her concerns with her boss, LG Patterson, who introduced her to Andy and Katie Werth — Olive’s parents — who gladly let Stroth photograph them.
“It was really great,” Amy said. “I felt I had known them for a long time, when I just had walked into their house five minutes previous.”
At first, Stroth was telling the family’s story through the parents’ perspective, but Reed encouraged her to get closer, get down and focus on Olive.
“I encouraged her to get down on Olive’s level, and see how Olive enjoyed her life and her experiences,” Reed said.
Stroth learned she couldn’t rely on sitting in the corner with her telephoto, she said. Capturing Olive’s story was emotionally fulfilling, and it caused Stroth to gain more interest in telling sports stories.
“It certainly taught me that getting in and getting close pays off,” Stroth said. “Even with sports now, I look (for) more feature-y stuff instead of just action.”
When the project was done, Reed was proud. Stroth had managed to get out of her comfort zone and learn how to shoot more intimate stories.
“If (photographers) really see the subject — and not just what they look like, but what it feels like to feel like them, then the viewer can feel the subject in the same way,” Reed said. “That’s what happened in the class. All the people in the class fell in love with Olive, like Amy had.”