Photojournalist Jensen: no 'fancy pictures', just tell the story

 

The images are simple but powerful. Pair after pair of dusty, worn down and ill-fitting shoes. The photographs instantly raise questions. How did the shoes get that way? What happened to the people who walked in them? 

Former DP photographer and columnist Shannon Jensen (Wh '07) was in South Sudan last year, documenting an influx of 30,000 refugees from neighboring Sudan, and beginning to feel frustrated. Here was this incredible tide of human misery yet she did not feel she was capturing it in a compelling or unique way.

One night, as she was looking through her photos, Jensen noticed three members of a family clutching their shoes as they walked.

"That was the light bulb," she recalled in an e-mail and a G-chat from Nairobi.

"I felt that solely depicting the shoes created a universal human connection to the situation that would hopefully encourage the viewer to pause and fill in the blanks. I also felt that the love and care that went into repairing many shoes, and the extent of their wear, conveyed the hardship far more effectively than any portrait could."

Jensen would spend hours a day hunched over shoes with her camera, to bring her idea to fruition. The refugees -- some of whom had walked for weeks in extreme heat -- instinctively knew what she was trying to accomplish, and would line up so she could shoot their footwear as well.

Jensen called the images "The Long Walk." The series has been published around the world, including in Newsweek and The Daily Beast, bringing Jensen international notice.

"It is the work that I feel like is starting to achieve what I hope to accomplish as a photojournalist, so I am proud of it for that reason," she said.

Photography was just a hobby for Jensen when she arrived at Penn from Annapolis, MD, and joined the DP in her freshman year. Her first assignment was to shoot a speaker at the Penn Bookstore -- "about as boring (a picture) as they come," she said.

Assignment No. 2, photographing Lenore Annenberg, wife of Annenberg School namesake Walter Annenberg, was nerve-racking.

"Lenore's PR person was whispering in my ear about how she 'better look good' and it 'better be on the front page of the DP' because she had just donated X million dollars," she recalled, "but it turned out alright and did run on the front page."

A summer spent in Shanghai gave Jensen a chance to refine her photography.

"I spent every weekend traveling with my Canon G3 mostly on my own," she said. "That summer was the first time the camera gave me license to explore, and (it) had a large role in my development as a photographer. So I knew that I wanted to try and go abroad again after graduation."

Ironically, it was only when Jensen began writing for the DP -- she was given a column in her junior year -- that she began to think seriously about photojournalism as a career. "Writing made me think as a journalist, which I then tried to apply to photography," she said.

East Africa has been a focus of Jensen's since graduation. She had arranged to do some photography for non-governmental organizations in the region, and intended to spend a year there "and then go to law school." But in 2009, she was accepted into a prestigious photography program, the Eddie Adams Workshop, which gave her the confidence to keep at it.

"I became a photographer full time in 2010. That fall I made the decision that this is what I wanted to do," she said. "That it would not just be an interlude before law school."

In addition to her work in Africa, Jensen has pursued projects near her family's home in Annapolis. Her burgeoning client list includes The New York Times, Le Monde, Stern, The Saturday Telegraph Magazine and the National Geographic Society. The photo agency Getty Images has placed Jensen on its Emerging Talent roster, designed to showcase "up and coming photographers" that "show great talent and potential." Indeed, Jensen already has won a number of awards for her work.

She will continue to work "on and off in Africa" while taking on projects elsewhere, too -- projects that she hopes will have the power of "The Long Walk."

"From an intellectual standpoint, in particular... I am most proud of 'the shoes,' " she said. "Photographically, it's nothing special but it ended up being an extremely effective way to tell the story and that is what my goal is as a photojournalist: not to show off with fancy pictures but just to tell the story as effectively as possible."

--Joel Siegel

 

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