(Mourners take part in a vigil to honor the people killed in the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last week. Pitt News staffer Knox Coulter photographed the event as part of the publication’s coverage of the shooting. Photo courtesy of Knox Coulter.)
The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last week left 11 people dead and the community in Pittsburgh shattered. National media descended upon the Pennsylvania city to tell the story of this destructive act, but some of the best coverage came from student journalists at the University of Pittsburgh and their student news operation, the Pitt News.
Several staff members were nice enough to share their thoughts, emotions and advice for the blog, so this week was dedicated to their reflections on their work and the incident.
Today’s post centers on Pitt News photographer Knox Coulter, a sophomore with a passion for photography who grew up in nearby Oakmont, Pennsylvania,. Coulter explains how he came to cover the vigil at the synagogue and what it meant to him as a photographer and a member of the community.
Knox Coulter fell in love with photography when he was in high school, finding his ability to pair his mind’s eye with the camera’s lens.
“I got my first DSLR as a high school graduation gift, which I asked for because I thought I had a good eye for framing photographs,” he said in an email interview this week. “Ever since then, I started bringing it around with me everywhere to take pictures of things; whether it was a random candid of friends, or a unique angle of something, I wanted to become comfortable making the camera capture moments from the unique perspectives that I saw.”
His comfort behind the camera drew him to the Pitt News, where he said he found the perfect opportunity to hone his craft and help his fellow students learn what was going on around them. When the story broke about the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, the editors tapped Coulter to help cover the vigil for the victims.
“I was equally as nervous as I was humbled to be asked to cover such an emotional event in the last minute,” he said. “I was especially stimulated to cover the event because I had driven past Tree of Life countless times, and still couldn’t cope with the tragedy of the loss myself. When I joined the sea of people flowing to the Soldiers and Sailors building, I started to feel the emotional weight of what I was documenting.”
Coulter said he has photographed emotional scenes before, such as the vigil for Mac Miller and that he felt strong connections in both cases between the work and the scene. The importance of this situation weighed on him, he said, as he began to take photos.
“Upon my arrival, I felt a nervous pressure of having to perform, and ‘get the shot,’ that made me transcend my emotional connection with the event that I was settling in to document,” Coulter said. “At this point, I am dialing in my exposures for different lighting scenarios in the location, and really paying attention to what I think looks the most visually appealing. Once I start feeling comfortable with my exposures in the environment, I start to settle in to it, and truly just see it as I do through the lens, trying to capture the most beautiful, compelling moment that I can.”
Although some journalists say they feel the camera provides a buffer between them and the subjects they photograph, Coulter said he feels the opposite is true, as the camera helps him connect to the people on the other end of his lens.
“When I take a photo that is pleasing to my eye in a situation like this, I feel an immense emotional connection with the moment in which I took the photograph,” he said. “While I was at the Tree of Life vigil for instance, when I first took the photo that eventually made the cover, I had the thought of making someone reading the paper feel something about the situation I was in at the present moment, which made me realize for the first time for the day how much emotional weight the vigil really held. It is very difficult for me to see situations like these that I am documenting for what they are until I have captured some of that immense emotion through the lens. ”
In terms of advice for students and student journalists, Coulter said the goal of doing good work, regardless of the circumstances, helps him feel connected to the material but also helps keep him focused.
“The best advice I have to give about covering the ‘big story’ is just to relax, get there early for comfort, and treat it just like any other shoot,” Coulter said. “It is of the utmost importance to keep yourself relaxed, because there is no way that you can visually pay attention to the situation you’re in to the greatest extent, and thus give yourself the best chance of getting a great photo, if you’re frantically hustling between people and jumping from spot to spot.
“I was quite nervous when I found out that I was to cover this vigil, especially because it was raining and I do not have much experience with lugging gear around in the rain,” he added. “Once I got there about 15 minutes early though, I had a lot of time to settle in and become comfortable with the environment. Once I settled in and my exposures were right though, I could then start capturing and start creating art comfortably.”