Tornado coverage merits national award

Tornado coverage merits national award

By Karsten Burgstahler

The Southern Illinois University student chapter of the National Press Photographers Association recently received national recognition.

The Registered Student Organization, which achieved official membership in spring 2012, won the NPPA’s Student Chapter of the Year award for their Leap Day tornado disaster documentation in the book “4:56 A.M.” Photojournalism professors Phil Greer and Mark Dolan advise the chapter.

“(The NPPA) thought the students handled themselves in an exceptional manner in getting interviews and photographs, and the way that town opened up to them as well as the way the students opened up to the town,” said Greer, photojournalist in residence.


While several students were paid extra to assemble the book during the summer, many photographs from the Feb. 28-29 tornado and its aftereffects came from photojournalism students who were unpaid, Greer said.

“They didn’t want compensation,” he said. “They were trying to give something back to the community.”

Greer said Harrisburg citizens reacted to an image that depicted a photojournalist helping a grandfather and grandchild fold the American flag.

“That really flies in the face of the stereotype of photojournalists,” he said. “His camera is laying on the ground, and he’s helping to fold a flag. That speaks volumes.”

Issac Smith, a former university student and Cairo Citizen editor-in-chief, took pictures post-tornado.

“The day was obviously pretty insane for everyone involved,” he said.

Smith said he didn’t arrive in Harrisburg until around 10 a.m., and he was unable to access the area of town that had been most damaged by the tornado by the time he arrived. He focused on more low-income areas that had been hit, he said.


“Maybe their homes weren’t quite as damaged, but it was still in a way just as devastating because the economic makeup of people there wasn’t incredibly high,” he said.

Smith said two powerful images for him was a photo by Steve Matzker, which showed insulation caught in a barbed-wire fence, as well as a photo that showed a family crying.

“The only bit of damage that I saw, probably the first 30 minutes being in town, was a building that had initially exploded, and a bunch of cotton-candy insulation filled a little wooded area,” he said. “And that was the first time I realized I was kind of getting close to the right spot. Seeing Steve’s picture like that in the book kind of resonates with me.”