CARBONDALE — While he admittedly likes to talk, Ryan Michalesko is also comfortable letting his photographs speak for themselves.
Spending several weeks this spring documenting a monastery in Princeville while on an internship in central Illinois, Michalesko recalls the assignment was important in his personal growth as a photographer.
“I really had to stop and think about my images, and then photograph very subtle, quiet moments,” said Michalesko, a junior in Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s photojournalism program. “It was really cool to build a relationship with the Brothers and have them slowly let me into their lives more and more.”
A distinguished portfolio
Although he is still in college, Michalesko has photographed a varied array of events and people — including high school, collegiate and professional athletes, former presidents, and crime scenes. He is now in Puerto Rico, chronicling the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria as a part of his Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting International Reporting Fellowship.
A compilation of Michalesko’s photographs earned a Gold Award for his sports portfolio in the 72nd College Photographer of the Year (CPOY) competition earlier this month. Michalesko also earned two awards of excellence; one for a sports feature photograph and one for a photo story about the monastery. Fellow journalism major Jacob Wiegand, a May 2017 graduate from West Frankfort, also received an award of excellence in the sports feature category.
Michalesko, the son of Debbie and John Michalesko of Carbondale, snapped the winning photographs while in Carbondale or during internships this year with the Peoria Journal-Star and Dallas Morning News. The competition is prestigious; more than 11,000 images and 140 multimedia projects were entered in 18 categories by nearly 500 student photographers from 123 colleges and universities in 22 countries.
Mark Dolan, an associate professor in the School of Journalism, said CPOY is one of the competitions that editors and employers, as well as potential photojournalism students, pay attention to.
Stories about people
“When I shoot I try to treat all of my assignments the same – they’re stories about the people. As I am still learning, not that we ever stop learning, it’s always important for me to try to humanize the events I cover,” he said. “Whether that’s finding a feature photo at a sporting event, or a president making a funny face.”
Michalesko said his photo editor at the Peoria Journal-Star emphasizes that as journalists, “we are investing time in people we should know more about – the photos are just the evidence.”
“I believe that right now journalism is as important as ever in the world and moving forward, we need to keep this in mind,” he said. “The School of Journalism and all of these internships are teaching us to be witnesses to history and invest time in communities and their people.”
Interest in photography began in middle school
Michalesko became interested in photography in middle school, thanks to his part producing the school’s newsletters and yearbooks. In high school, he was active with both the school newspaper and yearbook programs.
“When I picked up a camera for the first time in middle school, I never thought it would be the tool that would provide me all of the opportunities I have had so far,” he said. “For me, a really cool thing about photojournalism is that you hardly ever know for sure what you’ll be photographing the next day – I love that.”
The decision to attend SIU Carbondale was not difficult because of the school’s photojournalism program, which provided a vital combination of experienced faculty and the opportunity to pursue internships.
“Internships are such an important part of growing as a photojournalist. You can learn a ton by going to class and learning from professors ... but you really grow when you’re thrown out into real world situations as an intern,” he said.
Dedication and work ethic
Dolan said Michalesko’s success is “as much about his work ethic as it is his work.”
“He is just dedicated to and committed to his photography,” Dolan said. “He’s looking to make good, strong images. The way he sees things and his skills with technology is constantly growing and evolving. It is not easy to become a good photographer; let alone a great one. He gets that and he puts that in.”
Michalesko is the 11th SIU student to participate in the Pulitzer Center fellowship. He was prepared to spend time in Mexico documenting the lives of migrant workers who travel to and from Southern Illinois, but decided to postpone that project due to safety concerns for the subjects of his story.
While in Puerto Rico for nearly two weeks, he will focus on the U.S. territory’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Maria and the storm’s impact on veterans who rely on public infrastructure to support their health needs.