“Let’s throw them together and see what happens.”
That statement may sound blasé, but it’s how photographer Steven Rubin and writer Julia Spicher Kasdorf felt when they embarked on a collaborative 400-level, special topics course in documentary writing and photography last spring. The result was the student creation of three books and three websites representing elements of Renovo, a small, northern-Pennsylvania town that, like many in the area, had declined since the heyday of the lumber, coal, and railroad industries in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“We wanted our students to get out, to work with residents in another community,” explained Rubin, a veteran photojournalist and associate professor of art. “It’s important for students to get out of the Penn State ‘bubble’ and learn how to work with, understand, and represent other people.”
Rubin and Kasdorf, director of creative writing and a professor of English and women’s studies, had met because of a shared interest in the rise and impact of Marcellus shale gas development: he was taking documentary photos, and she was writing documentary poetry, both chronicling the “real life” of those affected by the Marcellus shale industry. They realized that—together—they could take students on a journey through words and images they were unlikely to have encountered in a previous course. The two applied for and received a Schreyer Institute Teaching Project Grant, which helped to fund the class’s three field trips to Renovo, located about 75 miles north of State College.
Rubin and Kasdorf chose Renovo because of its proximity to State College while still being “a world away.” They also had personal contacts in the community who could facilitate visits, including John Harwood, Penn State associate vice provost for information technology and a priest at both the Lutheran and Episcopal churches in the town.
According to Kasdorf, the course opened students’ eyes to a type of community many had never seen before, especially the international students in the class. The once-thriving town, which had served as the midpoint on the railway between Erie and Philadelphia, has been reduced to practically a ghost town, with only 1200 residents. Its hospital, the only health care facility within 30 miles, was recently in danger of closing.
One of the goals of the course was to guide students through the ethical and moral issues that arise in documentary photography and writing.
“It’s about more than taking good photos,” explained Rubin. “The residents were really touched that we chose Renovo as our subject, especially because they wanted to show there is more to the town than its decline. We encouraged the students to look beyond that to see the challenges the community had overcome, the strength of the people. We didn’t want to simply feed the stereotype of the ‘rust belt community’ in decline.”
Kasdorf agreed, noting she and Rubin spent much of the course teaching the students about the “documentary tradition,” including famous writer/photographer pairs such as James Agee and Walker Evans.
Students began by conducting research in the University Libraries on the history of Renovo. During their trips to Renovo, they worked in pairs, interviewing residents and touring the town, chronicling their visits through words and pictures.
Kate Wright, currently an M.A. candidate in creative writing, said she enrolled in the course last spring because it offered an opportunity to work with students outside her discipline, in an area of Pennsylvania she had never visited. “The idea of working in a town with an interesting history, as well as being able to give something back to the town and community really excited me.”
According to Rubin, the students did “extraordinary work” in a brief period of time—only three visits. “The people who live in Renovo are extraordinarily committed to their community and its revival, and they really welcomed the students’ interest in the town.”
The students’ books and websites feature an introduction to Renovo (https://revealingrenovo.atavist.com/kwiwmc), a history of the area, highlighting the railroad (http://renovorailroad.weebly.com/art.html), and a focus on the Bucktail Medical Center (https://yanjin.atavist.com/bucktailhospital). At the conclusion of the course, the books were presented to the Renovo Area Public Library.
Top: A Renovo resident in her home. Photo by Yuanxin Luo.
Middle: Students meet with residents of Renovo. Photo by Steven Rubin.
Bottom: Writing student Makensi Ceriani sits near the Renovo rail yard, photographed by her photographer partner on the project, Jana Bontrager.