Attending this year’s Picture of the Year judging in February helped POY’s inaugural Rising Star Scholarship recipient Rosem Morton better understand how pictures are organized into stories. “I know it contributed to effective storytelling, especially my own storytelling,” she says.
The Rising Star Scholarship is offered to working visual journalists of color with five or less years of experience who want to attend POY’s judging competition at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Missouri.
For Morton, a nurse in Baltimore who grew up in the Philippines, publishing her first story was more than getting a foot in the door of a photo career. It was about facing her fears in sharing her story, which was recently published by CNN.
The story “I was raped and broken. So I picked up the camera” shares how Morton uses photography as part of her recovery.
During her visit to Missouri, Morton received feedback on her work and listened to the POY judges discuss the complex work of photojournalists from around the world.
She also presented her work to photojournalism students and faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism. It was the first time she had shared her story publicly. Morton’s quiet voice and jarring images stunned the room into silence. Afterwards, several students talked with her one-on-one. Many hugs were shared. “It was really like a family there,” she says.
About her story
The black and white pictures range from abstract images that convey a sense of entrapment to pictures that punch with raw emotion. Then there are pictures of small details from her everyday life that share gentle, private moments. One image shows just four words — “When you are ready” written on the back of a note that she left for her husband.
The words come from Morton, not her husband. They are not an outside reassurance, or a hand reaching in. Instead, it is Morton herself telling him that she’s the one who is ready. It is the same for her photographs. These images are not so much “of” Morton, but “from” her. They are reaching out to us. “I did it to connect with people who feel alone,” she says.
Finding a home for her story
Following the POY judging, Morton met former POY judge, CNN Director of Photography Bernadette Tuazon, at the New York Portfolio Review in March. “I was drawn to the images immediately,” says Tuazon.
The editing process was slow by design to ensure that Morton was ready to publish her story. Morton was worried about possible trolling and negative backlash. Tuazon knew establishing trust was essential and introduced Morton to other picture editors on the team and matched her with an editor to help with the writing process. “We kept close contact throughout the editing and production process,” says Tuazon.
Not only did the editing require care, the autobiographical nature of the photos required consideration. The pictures are not straightforward documentary news. The work includes portraits and conceptual images alongside frames that convey a documentary feel. “I thought the best way to show this work and her words was to publish this as an opinion piece,” explains Tuazon. “We had an internal discussion on the subject and everyone was on board in producing and publishing the work.”
As the publication date neared, Morton surrounded herself with support and planned time off to coincide with the story’s publication. “I took a leap of faith,” says Morton. “It was really important to publish this message.”
“As a picture editor, this story made me embrace what I do as a journalist,” says Tuazon. “It is an absolute privilege to be in this profession and be able to meet people like Rosem and connect her to the public.”
CNN published the story on Friday, July 12, just a few days ahead of the anniversary of the rape. “I wanted to empower myself on this day,” Morton says.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. “I just got this outpouring of support,” says Morton, who has received notes of encouragement from nursing colleagues, friends and others who share their own stories. “It’s freeing, I didn’t know how much not telling your story took a toll on you.”
In September, Morton will return to the Midwest to take part in the 71st annual Missouri Photo Workshop in Boonville, Missouri. Morton anticipates continuing to work on the project. “I don’t know if it will have an end,” she says.