VisCom Director and Professor Terry Eiler talks about how the program bridges the gap between communication and creativity, the school's small-town setting, and the extensive contributions its graduates have made to contemporary media.
For more information about Ohio University's School of Visual Communication, and to see photos of the campus and student projects, visit the school's profile.
PhotoVideoEDU: What is distinctive about your program?
Terry Eiler: First of all, we’re a standalone school of visual communication. Most photography programs are locked into either a school of journalism or a school of art. We got started as an institute of visual communication in 1978. Chuck Scott was in the School of Journalism, and I was in the School of Art, and we kept watching students run back and forth between the two schools. So we went to two deans and said, "If you put a program in the middle, we can make a world-class program out of it." And they did, and we did. In 1986, the institute became the School of Visual Communication.
Philosophically, we still like to bridge the gap between the problem of communication and the problem of creativity. That means students take courses in theories of communication, writing, journalism, business, business communication, business law, and publishing law. And then they also take courses in art history, design, and sometimes just plain drawing and other traditional art classes.
Although we're known as a photography program, 50% of our students are on the design side, and some of our most successful graduates—whether it's at People magazine, The New York Times, or National Geographic—are print and web designers. In our program we have visual designers for both print and the web working side by side with photojournalists and commercial photographers. So there's a symbiotic relationship, with good pictures and good design working hand in hand. Every photo student has to take classes in design. Every design student has to take classes in photography. So photo students have some idea of how words, pictures, and graphics interact.
At the graduate level, the program has always been heavily focused on documentary photojournalism, picture editing, and publication editing. That has broadened a little to include online publication, interactive multimedia, and storytelling. But it is still a graduate program driven by documentary storytelling in all of its forms, whether through commercial photography or publication design or classic photojournalism.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kinds of students does the program attract?
Terry Eiler: About 20% of our students are from out of state. We have the largest percentage of out-of-state students in the university. We attract a very high caliber of design, photojournalism, and commercial photography students who want to go into a program where they can launch their major in their freshman year. An awful lot of liberal arts schools don't let you take your major classes until you're in your junior year. In our school, you do courses in your major as well as liberal arts courses all the way through the four-year program.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kind of campus does your school have, and what is student life like?
Terry Eiler: We have a residential campus 70 miles from Columbus, in the edge of Appalachia. Athens is a classic little brick Colonial college town. There are about 10,000 townspeople and 22,000 college students. It's a small town.
Ohio University has been around for over 200 years. We were founded in 1804, and we were the first university in the old Northwest Territory. We actually predate the state. A bunch of former Revolutionary War soldiers, educators, and landed people in Boston decided there needed to be an education area out in the Appalachian wilderness, and they set up Ohio University to be that place.
What student life is like depends on who you ask. If you believe the Princeton Review, we're the number one party college in the United States. Everything pretty much happens in the town. There are twenty bars within two blocks of the main campus gate, and probably five coffee shops, and everything revolves around student life.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have required courses or final requirements?
Terry Eiler: We’re a liberal arts university, so approximately 70% of our undergraduate education is in the liberal arts, and 30% is in the major. Every sequence has a capstone class in its senior year in which students are asked to bring all their tools together and create some form of finished product. They also do a portfolio for each class in their major, beginning in their freshman year.
Multimedia classes are also required. We’ve been offering them to the photojournalism students for ten years or more, but the requirement is relatively new. Five years ago, we launched soulofathens.com which is an award-winning website that does nothing but storytelling.
Our graduate program is more of a mid-career program; the average age of our graduate students this year is 34. We have a Knight fellowship that brings working professionals back to campus and pays them $25,000 plus all their tuition to get their master’s degree. This year’s Knight fellow is Karen Kasmauski, who has been a National Geographic photographer for 25 years. Next year it's going to be Matt Moyer who's been a National Geographic photographer for 15 years. Most of our graduate students have a minimum of three years working in the field.
Master's students are required to do five classes in their sequence—commercial photography, design, or photojournalism—and then three courses in a cognate area like multimedia or video production. They also take electives and do a master's project, which is the practical hands-on project, as opposed to pure research.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students do internships?
Terry Eiler: They do very few internships locally, but an internship is part of the graduation requirement. Typically, there are between 50 and 75 students a year interning at places ranging from the Seattle Times to National Geographic to a commercial studio.
The college has an internship coordinator, and about 95% of our internships are paid. Unpaid internships can happen, but we also have funding from alums for something called the Paris Scholarship, which is named after Don Paris. If you get an internship that doesn't pay, then you can apply for Paris internship support, and it will typically grant $3,000 for a ten-week internship.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you hold special events for photography students?
Terry Eiler: We have four or five major guest lectures a year, and we do a lot of Skype and iChat conversations with editors, photographers, designers, and picture editors. We have a dawn-to-dusk photographic shoot-off every fall that produces an online event, and we also have a VisCom Alumni Day celebration in the spring.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students get opportunities to show their work?
Terry Eiler: We do a spring show called the VisCom Show that heads up VisCom Alumni Day. There are also galleries where people show regularly in the community and in a little town just up the road called Nelsonville. Students get involved in shows in Columbus, as well as the College Photographer of the Year competition, which we've won five out of the last six years.
PhotoVideoEDU: What areas do graduates of your program go on to work in as professionals?
Terry Eiler: Commercial photographers typically go on to studio work, either assisting or working in some kind of starting role in a corporate or corporate-driven studio.
In the past, photojournalism graduates would go to work for a small- to medium-sized newspaper. In the last three years, I would say about half of them go to small publications, newspapers, and magazines. The rest go on to some level of running their own business right out of school, stringing and doing weddings and event photography. They find a niche or do a combination of work. That's why about five years ago we shifted over to running business courses for all of our majors. So many people were going out and starting their own business from scratch.
PhotoVideoEDU: Could you name a few distinguished graduates?
Terry Eiler: From commercial photography to editorial photography, there is very little work that is seen every day that hasn't been touched by somebody from VisCom. These are a few of our distinguished graduates:
Michael Christopher Brown [Read an interview with him on PhotoVideoEDU.]
Penny De Los Santos
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have any important new developments on the horizon?
Terry Eiler: We're moving to semesters from a quarter system next year.
Another change is that in 2014, we will all move into a new building. The entire Scripps College of Communication will be in one building. We'll expand the number of studios from two to three, and we'll expand the number of computer labs from three 20-station labs to five 20-station labs. Two of them will be dedicated to graduate students. Instead of sharing a wet lab with the School of Art, we'll have a 10-station wet lab of our own.