Snedden Guest lecturer Carolyn Cole visits UAF Journalism

Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist, carolyn Cole, shows a selection of her work at a talk at UAF's Murie Auditorium, Wednesday, April 13. Cole is a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Tomes. She was brought to UAF by the Department of Journalism's Snedden lecture program. Photo by Charles Mason.

Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist, carolyn Cole, shows a selection of her work at a talk at UAF’s Murie Auditorium, Wednesday, April 13. Cole is a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Tomes. She was brought to UAF by the Department of Journalism’s Snedden lecture program. Photo by Charles Mason.

Erin McGroarty / Sun Star

Pulitzer prize winning photojournalist, Carolyn Cole, has traveled the world to photograph global events such as Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, the civil war in Liberia and the conflict in the middle east. Cole has worked for the LA Times for more than 20 years but last week, she took a break from wars and disaster to visit UAF. While on campus, she discussed her career with students and faculty in the Journalism department.

During her time on campus, Cole met with several journalism classes to give advice to aspiring journalists and to share her experiences with the students and faculty.

“She has seen some of the worst that the world has to offer,” Robert Prince, Journalism Department chair, said. “And yet she is still a tremendously pleasant person.”

Cole also gave a presentation Wednesday, April 13, entitled “Europe’s Migrant Crisis.”

This hour-long presentation exhibited some of the work from one of her most recent photo projects focusing on Europe’s struggle with massive migration of refugees from the Middle East.

“I don’t claim to be a historian and I can’t possibly understand all of the political complexities of the Middle East,” Cole said at the beginning of her presentation, when she showed photos from Egypt taken in 2011. “But I think we can all agree that the Syrian conflict started as a result of the Arab Spring uprising, so I will start there.”

Cole also showed photos from her time embedded with the marines at the beginning of United States involvement in Iraq.

Another factor that played into the Syrian conflict was the power vacuum created when the U.S. intervened in Iraq, overthrowing Saddam Hussein, Cole said. This caused a power shift between Sunni and the Shiite population, the result of which we are still seeing today.

Cole is one of very few female journalists to have ever been allowed to embed with the marines, who are often hesitant to take embeds based on their more dangerous level of combat involvement. 

Cole went on to show photos from her time following refugees entering Europe from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos. She followed the refugees on their journey towards Germany. 

“My job over there was to be the eyes for those who weren’t there and couldn’t see this,” Cole said.

Cole recalled discovering her love for photojournalism in her junior year in college at which point she transferred to the University of Texas in Austin to complete her degree. She then went on to receive her graduate degree in Applied Photography from Ohio University. Following the completion of her master’s degree, she interned at a paper in El Paso, Texas.

“It was a really great place to start,” Cole said. “I was right on the border and was getting to cover Mexico at the same time.”

Some of her first work was covering the political struggle in Mexico between the National Action Party and the Institutional Revolutionary Party in the early 1980s.

Cole recalled massive political rallies of upwards of 20,000 people in some of the bigger cities in Mexico.

“This was something I had never seen before having grown up in suburbia,” Cole said. “Seeing people so emotionally involved and the whole experience in Mexico was very influential for me and the career path I took.”

Cole explained that being a foreign corresponder can be a somewhat isolating experience, but said some of her greatest lessons were learned during her time on her own as a freelancer in Mexico.

“It was a really great experience in that it helped me learn how to operate on my own,” Cole said. “Learning logistics, feeling out of place, learning to feel comfortable with that and being able to function and work in that kind of environment. That’s what I’ve done for most of my career since then.”

Following her time in Mexico, Cole worked at the Sacramento Bee in California. She remained there until she started her job at the LA Times in 1994.

Since then, Cole has covered stories across the globe.

Cole said that the stories that stand out the most during her career are the stories where she felt she had a voice.

One such story was the civil war in Liberia. As journalists were evacuated out of the area after the violence increased, Cole managed to stay behind and document the climax of the conflict. She was one of few journalists left there. This story would later win a Pulitzer for Cole.

Cole has found her career as a journalist to be a rewarding one. It gives her a sense of purpose in life, she said, and she feels strongly that she is able to contribute to the conversation about what’s going on in the world.

Cole attributes many problems in the world to misunderstandings. She says she tries to clear those up through her work.

“We can’t assume anything about other cultures and countries and there’s never an easy answer to the problems in the world,” Cole said. “When you’re there, you’re witnessing these events for other people. It’s my job to relay what’s happening and it’s a very rewarding feeling.”

Cole hopes to move on to become more involved in environmental photography by documenting climate change in the future. This was her first trip to Alaska, but she says that she hopes to return on a photo project to document how the environment is changing.

“This profession has been very good to me,” Cole said. “So it’s been really great to get the chance to give back to it.”

Cole visited the campus through the Journalism department’s Snedden Chair guest lecturer series. This program was endowed to UAF by Helen Snedden, wife of the late News Miner publisher, Bill Snedden.

It is through this program that award winning journalists from across the country are able to visit UAF each year either to teach for a full school year, as is the case with current Snedden Chair Richard Murphy, or to provide a short series of lectures as Cole did.

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