Cara Owsley still is surprised that she is part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team of journalists.
Owsley was one of about 60 journalists in the Cincinnati Enquirer newsroom who spent months planning the 20-page special section and online presentation, Seven Days of Heroin. The staff and partners spent a week spread across the state reporting on the costs of addiction to their community. The project won a Pulitzer this year.
“The whole time we’re not thinking about awards. We’re thinking about doing great journalism,” Owsley said to a group of student journalists and media advisers gathered for the 2018 Fall National College Media Convention. The convention, hosted by Associated Collegiate Press and College Media Association, was Oct. 15-28 in Louisville.
Through the award-winning reporting, Owsley said the team saw “a lot of crazy things, good and bad.” One of their sources who claimed to be clean overdosed during the reporting, leaving behind a toddler. Another addicted source got clean and now is in college. Owsley herself said she would sometimes take photos in courthouses, jails and on the streets, while holding back tears, then get in her car and cry.
“There’s so many people struggling in our community on so many levels,” she said.
Owsley even admitted to changing the slides she was planning to show the audience because her original presentation included too many photos of people crying.
Regardless, the series was worth the work and the heartache, Owsley said.
“It brought a lot of light to people in our community who didn’t know this was an epidemic,” she said.
Owsley, who most enjoys photographing sports, told the student audience that she originally learned most about her art by staying around to shadow other photographers after her internship shift ended. She said she watched what they did and mimicked it.
“You’ve got to have a mentor,” she said. “And don’t be afraid to talk to your professors. They know what they’re doing.”
Owsley also encouraged student photojournalists to ask their newsroom peers to look at and give feedback on their photos and videos.
As far as her approach, Owsley said it’s rare for people to say “no” to being interviewed or photographed. When she goes to an assignment, Owsley said she sits and talks to the source first, then takes a portrait, then she starts shooting photos and video. If she has time, Owsley even likes to go meet sources in advance. She’ll then schedule to come back and photograph them. The process helps sources know her and vice versa, making her photography less intrusive and her photos more authentic.
“You have to learn how to talk to all kinds of people,” she said. “If I want to get that image, I can’t be intimidated about it.”
Owsley encouraged student photojournalists to have internships. When she’s considering who to hire for internships, Owsley said she looks for people who worked on their school publications and who have a strong network. She also wants to see the students’ best 10-20 photos and cutlines. She wants to know that photojournalists can shoot, write and continue learning.
“This industry is going to continue to remain competitive,” She said. “People still love a great story.”