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BEST OF 2013, Jeremy Lurgio
Missoula, MT
Project: Lost & Found Montana, a multifaceted project documenting 18 Montana towns on the edge of extinction and reaching audiences through a robust interactive Web site, a multimedia exhibit and magazine publication.

© Jeremy Lurgio

© Jeremy Lurgio

Jeremy Lurgio traveled 7,500 miles to photograph 18 towns on the edge of extinction. Lost & Found Montana was conceived after Montana’s Department of Transportation (MDT) proposed wiping these towns from the map. Harnessing the power of still photographs, video, audio, text and graphics challenges Lurgio’s thoughts about effective storytelling and technology.

“Used properly, each discipline tells part of the story, together they enhance the project’s depth,” he explains. “The stories offer an unusual perspective on the fragility of place in the changing, rural West. As the MDT found out, proposing to erase a town is about so much more than just words on a map.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Jeremy Lurgio: I’ve been a professional photographer for 13 years. During that time I’ve been a staff photojournalist and photo editor, a freelance photographer, and a journalism educator.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

JL: Seven years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

JL: Editorial, documentary, multimedia, journalism, adventure sports.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

JL: Gear is gear. My most valuable tool is curiosity and compassion. However, I do love my 50mm, f1.4 and my 17-35mm, f2.8.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

JL: I think it is often easier for others to comment on how a photographer is unique. I hope to live up to my colleagues’ praise. “I’ve long admired his ability to do so much in just one frame; blending story, artistry and emotion in a singular image.”

My approach is linked to my parents. I have my dad’s gregarious personality that fuels my genuine curiosity to learn peoples’ stories. I am fortunate for my mother’s artistic eye for light and composition. That helps me make compelling visual images. Together they make me a storyteller.

ASMP: How did you first learn of Montana Department of Transportation’s (MDT) plans to remove towns from the map? Were you inspired to make this into a project right away?

JL: This story began when I read a short newspaper brief about the MDT removing towns from the state map. I clipped it out and it sat in my idea folder. While freelancing I wanted to start a new personal project and that clipping rose to the top of the pile. I was most fascinated by the fact that these towns were on the vanishing point of the 21st century. This wasn’t an abandoned buildings story. These were stories of towns clinging to existence like tumbleweed to a barbed wire fence. I needed to visit these people and places before they disappeared.

ASMP: You traveled 7,500 miles across Montana to document this story. We imagine spending that much time on the road also amounted to a personal journey of sorts. Did you keep a journal of your experiences, aside from what you were already documenting? Are there any noteworthy tales of moments on the road to share?

JL: I spent countless hours driving back roads and empty highways. Montana is a large rural state. But the nuance in landscape is quite stunning. I love to see what is around the next corner and that often inspired me. I listened to a lot of great music. More than anything, though, I reflected a ton on my own upbringing in a small rural town in New Hampshire — a place I hold dear to my heart. New Boston, NH, is a charming New England town reminiscent of the town in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The older I get, the more nostalgic I get for that formative place in my life. Although that 18-acre rural plot of land on an old dirt road holds deep memories, it can never be the same as it was when I grew up there. This project is no different. It explores the human dance with permanence of place and our nostalgia for places that mean something in our lives. Sometimes a place disappears; other times it changes so much that it becomes unrecognizable.

ASMP: Lost & Found Montana comprises still photographs, video, audio, text and graphics. What did you learn about multimedia storytelling as you put this project together? Which medium challenged you most and why?

JL: For me the use of multimedia storytelling is as much about the development of my creative work as it is about serving the greater good of the story itself. Used properly, each discipline told part of the story, but used together they enhanced the depth of the project.

The biggest challenge became balancing each type of reporting. When was it best to grab the video camera, still camera, audio recorder or notepad? Those decisions came easily and organically on some of the stories. In other cases, I struggled to figure out the right balance of reporting.

ASMP: In addition to being content creator, you also served as fundraiser, director and producer for Lost & Found Montana. Which of these roles came most naturally to you and which did you struggle with the most?

JL: For me, the roles of content creator and producer were the easiest and most fulfilling. I am a creator and I sometimes feel empty when creativity lies fallow. Sometimes creativity comes in the form of commercial or personal work; sometimes it is building a bookshelf for my son.

The distance involved in tracking the stories of 18 towns was one challenge. It made it hard to revisit places and achieve depth with each story.

The role of fundraiser was the most difficult. I had never done any fundraising. But as the project gathered steam it was logical to find funding. It was also necessary in order to build the final project I had envisioned.

ASMP: Did you seek any outside help in making this work?

JL: When I first approached Brian Storm at about this project, he asked what kind of crew I had. I told him he was looking at it. I really enjoy the freedom of working alone. Yet I craved input and often sought advice from many of my colleagues at the University of Montana School of Journalism. Their insight was vital. Fellow ASMP member Keith Graham joined me on a six-day shooting trip. His company, assistance and camaraderie fueled the next set of trips for the project. The interactive Web site for this project wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration of Web designer-developer Chase Doak.

ASMP: Which methods of fundraising have you found most effective while gathering support for Lost & Found, and which were less effective? Did you consider campaigning on Kickstarter or other crowd funding sites?

JL: For this project, the most successful funding tool was the work itself. The story idea had merit and my vision for the project was compelling. Yet the more I produced for the project, the more success I had securing funding. I had specific targets and focused proposals. For example, when I applied for a Humanities Montana grant, I focused that application on the multimedia Web site as a digital humanities project. State organizations were great places to start. I also had luck in getting funding through the University of Montana and the University of Montana School of Journalism. Small funds often kept the project moving forward. Kickstarter was a constant consideration, but I never started one.

ASMP: In regard to the images you capture in this project, what kinds of parameters or conditions do you have to deal with in composing or framing a shot? Do you previsualize the actual scenes you want to capture or is this more of a spontaneous process?

JL: Coming from a photojournalism background, I am most comfortable observing the world and letting the world lead me to the photograph. I like to know as much about a story as I can before photographing. I didn’t previsualize, but I thought hard about what was most important to each story. Sometimes an environmental portrait was the best solution, other times it was a shot of people living their lives.

ASMP: Who designed your Lost & Found Web site and how long did it take to create?

JL: Receiving a grant to build the site was a huge boost. I had a vision for the site, but making that vision a reality required a talented Web developer who also had a great Web design sensibility. Chase Doak, a former student of mine, had both qualities. Working with Chase took the project to another level. The collaboration benefitted the project greatly. Chase was a great sounding board for my ideas, and he brought his own ideas to the table as well. From start to finish, it was four months of part-time work to produce the site.

ASMP: This site has a page for each town that includes a multimedia piece, still images and text. In addition, people can add their own town to the map if it’s not already there. Are you finding that people are interacting with your Web site in this way?

JL: The site has gained decent traffic, but unfortunately the “add your town” feature of the site has been the least successful part of the project. People love the idea of that, but they aren’t taking the time to upload their stories. The marketing of this feature proved more elusive than I thought. I am in the process of reworking that feature so that it gathers more traffic and interaction.

ASMP: What kind of traffic has this Web site received? Please describe any efforts you make to monitor and grow the online audience for this project.

JL: The site has received over 5,000 visits, including people from all 50 states and from 20 different countries. Visitors spend an average of 3.5 minutes on the site and view 3.5 pages per visit.

I monitor traffic with Google Analytics and I continue to build viewership. I didn’t want to produce a site that launches, gains traffic for the first month and then disappears. I want the site to have life. That’s why I built the “add your town” feature. Currently the site sees about 10 new visitors a day.

I make announcements about the project via LinkedIn and e-mail. I continue to disseminate the work. I recently published three separate articles about the project. The traveling exhibit just opened in the Salt Gallery in Portland, Maine, the show’s second showing. Those cornerstones increase traffic dramatically for a period of about a week. Then it ebbs toward the average.

ASMP: One of the Montana residents you film doesn’t resist the change that the MDT is proposing, saying “Life goes on and it just drops things along the way.” Do you agree or disagree with this individual’s opinion?

JL: I think Don Greytak’s statement is quite poignant. His perspective on the story is important, whether I agree or disagree. That is what I love about documentary work. His comment alludes to the psychological implications and nostalgia associated with losing your place on the map. It also taps into the Buddhist idea of impermanence. These themes emerged throughout the project.

ASMP: Is there one Montana town in particular that you were particularly sad to see get taken off the map?

JL: Out of the 18 towns slated for removal, nine remained and nine disappeared.

Cartersville had as much life in town as Ross Fork, yet it slipped from the map and Ross Fork didn’t. Both are farming towns near former railroad lines. Both towns are home to a handful of farming families with roots there. The people of Cartersville had interesting stories and I feel like they could have kept a place on the map even though there were only a handful of structures marking the town’s past.

ASMP: What response to this project did you get from the Montana Department of Transportation and other state government officials?

JL: I interviewed three people from MDT. They were interested in the project and supportive. They were also interested in telling their side of the story. When they proposed erasing the towns, that got some criticism. As one employee said, “What we found out is that people are very passionate about what is on the map.” From their perspective, producing and maintaining an accurate state map that serves both state residents and tourists is a difficult undertaking.

ASMP: Has this project inspired you to document other places, people or things that are in danger of being erased? What do you see yourself focusing on next?

JL: When I finished most of the work for this project I had a two-year-old son and a baby on the way. I haven’t had the space yet to figure out the next project. But that is OK, for now. The urge to create a long-form project will begin again. I already have some new ideas in my idea folder, and I also recently finished my first short outdoor adventure film.

ASMP: You are an associate professor of journalism and multimedia at the University of Montana School of Journalism and an instructor at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. Do you ever reference Lost & Found Montana in your lessons with students? If so, how?

JL: I reference this project often in my teaching at both institutions. At the University, this project is great fodder in nearly all my classes. There are lessons in reporting, shooting, working with subjects and producing compelling multimedia projects. The project challenged so many of my skills that it works well in classroom lectures and discussions. The multimedia approach for this project was a great way to test techniques that I could bring back to the classroom.

ASMP: Do you see yourself maintaining and growing your current career mix as a teacher and freelance photographer in the future? What professional ambitions do you have for the coming years?

JL: Balancing teaching and freelancing is a tough challenge. I enjoy both so much. However, both take up a lot of time, effort and intellectual space. I hope to continue to find time to allow each to grow and thrive. My work at the University is paramount, but it only works when I am shooting and continuing my own creative work and scholarship. I hope to continue producing work that makes a difference.

ASMP: In the past you’ve worked as a photo editor and staff photographer. What have you learned from these positions that you’ve found to be useful in teaching or in your freelance career?

JL: As a freelance photographer you have to produce professional creative work in a timely matter, but often times it’s how you work with clients and subjects that matters most. My ability to report accurately, thoroughly and my ability to meet tough deadlines with quality work is quite useful. I refined those skills working in a small newsroom as a photo editor and staff photographer.

ASMP: What main piece of advice would you impart to a student who is about to tackle a multimedia piece wherein the photographer has multiple roles?

JL: Have a passion for your project, set a clear scope for the project, and do your research. With those in place you can begin clearly understanding how you will wear multiple hats as a multimedia storyteller.

ASMP: Has your BA in American Studies from Wesleyan University served as a useful foundation to you as a photographer?

JL: Absolutely. A liberal arts background serves a journalist well. I gained valuable critical-thinking skills, but most importantly I gained the skills to become a life-long learner. I learned to question the world and seek meaning and understanding. In many ways, the courses I took in American art, literature and history developed my innate curiosity about how things work. I’m sure that background fueled my decision to clip out that short article in the newspaper and ask “What? Erased from the map? What does this mean?”

ASMP: What inspired you to continue your studies at the Salt School for Documentary Studies and the University of Montana, where you earned an MA in Journalism?

JL: I always had an interest in photography. But something always intrigued me about journalism and documentary work. Pictures are powerful. That’s why I went to Salt. I returned for an MA in Journalism because I wanted more formal training to enter the world of photojournalism. I also wanted time to focus on my development as a photographer. Both of those experiences were paramount to my development as a photographer. The degree on my resume isn’t the most important thing — it’s the work I did at those institutions that matters most.

ASMP: How long have you lived in Montana? Please explain why you decided to call this home, and describe the challenges and opportunities to this particular photo market.

JL: I’ve lived in Montana since I arrived for graduate work in 1999. I spent one summer working as an intern at the Pueblo Chieftain in Colorado. But then I returned to finish my graduate work. One opportunity led to another, and I have stayed in Missoula. It’s a great college town with a lot to offer. The access to outdoor adventure is a draw: blue-ribbon trout streams in every direction, wilderness at your footsteps, and great hiking and mountain biking. However, it does pose its challenges in terms of freelance opportunities. I had to diversify to survive as a freelance photographer. I couldn’t just shoot editorial and documentary. I’ve balanced those with shooting outdoor stock, documentary weddings and small commercial jobs. Securing consistent clients was crucial in my success.

ASMP: Please talk about how you market your services and reach out to potential clients. Have your marketing efforts evolved since you’ve gone freelance?

JL: Marketing is probably one of my weaker skills. I am continually trying to improve my marketing. When I first started freelancing, the learning curve was steep and I wasn’t naturally inclined. I had to learn these skills. A multi-tiered approach seemed most effective. The Web still seems to be the best marketing tool, whether it is LinkedIn, a Web site portfolio, Twitter or the Find-A-Photographer feature on ASMP’s Web site. All have played their part. In addition, meeting editors face-to-face has also been a successful method.

ASMP: Your Web site places your photographs into five distinct areas: people, editorial, documentary, outdoors and weddings. Which type of photographs do you pursue most often for commercial purposes? Which areas are the most lucrative for you to pursue? How do you balance your commercial work and your personal work?

JL: The one downfall of working on this long-term project was my business Web site took the back seat. My site showcases my strengths as a photographer. In the small market of Missoula, I needed to diversify. Diversifying allowed me to pursue different kinds of projects. Different areas have been more lucrative at different times in my career. Documentary and wedding work often led my earnings each year. I could shoot for a concise period during the summer and then move on to my other work during the rest of the year.

ASMP: Boot Camp is a documentary photography project you made about the Treasure State Correctional Training Center in Deer Lodge, Montana. How did you learn about this center and what did you learn about this subject as you covered it?

JL: This story was one of my first long form projects. I spent four months covering the story. I was interested in places that helped people turn their lives around. The boot camp emerged after a discussion with a mentor. I decided to explore it. When I worked on the project, boot camps had a mixed track record of success. The most compelling thing about this boot camp was that they had a high success rate. Out of the 55 to 60 percent of trainees who graduated from the program in a four-year period, 92 percent had stayed out of trouble. This was quite striking.

ASMP: How did you gain the needed access to do the Boot Camp story? What kind of process was required?

JL: Access to the boot camp fell into place for me. I contacted a public relations employee at the state corrections office. Her husband happened to have worked as a photojournalist. Instantly I had someone who understood my mission. She paved the way for my meeting with the supervisor of the boot camp. We sat down for an hour in person and we discussed the project objective and approach. He agreed and introduced me to the staff. From there I was able to photograph and observe nearly everything that made this place tick. I had to call ahead to get cleared through security, but that was it.

ASMP: What equipment do you use most often? How much post-production do you do?

JL: I am a minimalist, I like to travel light. Yet you can’t quite do that as a multimedia shooter. I constantly battle that. I love shooting wide and getting close, so my full frame Nikon D800 with a 17-35mm or 24-70mm works best for me.

I do very little post-production. Again this is a factor of my journalism background. For most images, I am doing basic color correction and tonal adjustments if necessary. I’d rather be shooting than toning. And producing multimedia projects takes enough time behind the computer.

ASMP: What photographers or filmmakers have inspired you in the past and why?

JL: Eugene Smith is still one of my heroes because of his passion for his work and his compassion for his subjects. There are so many others who have inspired me along the way, such as James Nachtwey, Sebastiao Salgado, Donna Ferrato, Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank. Often, it is a great project that inspires me. Other times it’s my students and colleagues who provide the best inspiration.

ASMP: Lost & Found Montana was recently exhibited at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Montana and at the Salt Institute for Documentary Field Studies in Portland, Maine, with accompanying audio available via smartphone, tablet or iPod Touch through QR codes and an online link. Please explain the process of creating this aspect of the exhibition. What kind of technical challenges are involved?

JL: For some reason, I latched onto this idea of creating a multimedia exhibit of the project — as if creating the work itself and producing an interactive multimedia Web site wasn’t enough of an undertaking. However, I felt strongly about public showings of this work. Technically it wasn’t too difficult to create. Producing less than one minute of compelling audio for each town required a discerning ear. Then Chase Doak and I incorporated each towns’ audio onto the Web site. Each town had its own page, each page got assigned a QR code. That way each town had a QR code for the gallery. Viewers scanned a code and could hear the audio associated with any of the towns. Additionally, once a viewer scans one code they can then use next or back buttons to work their way through the accompanying audio. This way they didn’t have to scan every code.

ASMP: What projects, personal or professional, are you currently planning for the future? Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

JL: I hope to continue the important work I do as a professional shooter and instructor. I want to continue making a difference at the University of Montana School of Journalism as a teacher and scholar. I also hope to continue pursuing editorial and documentary work, with an eye toward more national and international exposure. In addition, I really hope to be able to collaborate more with people on multimedia projects.