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Under the radar

senior column

I’ve been a rather under-the-radar contributor to The Chronicle over the past four years. As the photo editor and audio editor (yes, we have podcasts!), my name has only ever appeared on photo credits or listed as a host or producer for podcasts in a rather small department. This is my first and final written contribution to a paper that has shaped my college experience beyond any other organization at Duke. I regret that I didn’t write at times, but as a history major, I think I’ve written enough. I’m thankful I spent my time with The Chronicle and the community it creates in the way I did. 

I always tell people that college is a fantastic place to experiment with new things. For me, that was photography. After an interest meeting, I approached sophomore Bre Bradham, who went on to be the V. 114 editori-in-chief and a dear friend. She reassured me that no prior experience or camera ownership was required to work for the photo department: The Chronicle could not only train me but provide me with access to DSLR cameras. Anyone can join, and you only contribute as much as you want. I liked the open invitation. The rest, I tell people, was history.

Except it wasn’t, at the time. I got invested. I spent hours shadowing upperclassmen, trying to learn how aperture, ISO and shutter speed interact, producing grainy or dim photos that at times were salvageable but often were not. I struggled with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, groaning in frustration as my cutouts for the sports department took much longer than they should have. Eventually, with the help of upperclassmen and those in my year like Henry Haggart and Charles York, I started producing things I was proud of. As time went on, I started helping other photographers do the same. I continued to rely on those upperclassmen and the freshmen and sophomores who kept coming back to our Sunday night meetings when I served as one of the head photo editors for The Chronicle’s 115th volume. 

As I grew comfortable with editing software, I experimented with audio production and helped grow a podcast department during my sophomore year. I’ll admit it floundered: I struggled to turn out our regular sports and opinion content once I became the photo editor. During this atypical senior year, my bandwidth was limited. But I remain proud of the stories we told and expanded on over the past three years, especially thanks to the work of Cameron Oglesby on our collaboration with The Bridge this academic year. If you haven’t listened to “Bridging the Gap”, an exploration of diversity and discrimination at Duke, I highly encourage you to do so.

As a photographer, I got to attend events from across campus that I either wouldn’t have had the credentials/tickets to get into or never would have made the time for otherwise. This lifetime North Carolinian got to travel to New York City to cover the men’s basketball team in Madison Square Garden. I was run over by Tre Jones in Cameron and have a gif of the pictures to prove it. I photographed Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Gretchen Carlson, Tanara Burke, Reverend Dr. William Barber II, Zion Williamson, and Quinn XCII. These are the things I generally talk about when people ask me about my experience with The Chronicle. It’s what I pitch to first years during recruitment for our little family of photographers: the magic of a press pass.

But I also covered things that seemed minute in the moment. I took stock photos of crests in West Union that most of us never notice. I got a perfectly timed shot of someone yawning in Bostock during midterms. I photographed the beginning of the sticky-notes-in-dorm-windows craze (remember the word “NUT” in the window above the arch that leads to Crowell quad from Towerview Road?). I learned to recognize faces in Duke’s administration, from Board of Trustees members to leaders in the Academic Council. My assignments forced me to spend time outside of the Duke bubble and took me all over the Triangle. The dreaded chore of hiking from the office to photograph Duke Student Government meetings on Wednesday nights, typically pawned off to first year associate editors, made me more invested in both their activities and regular, late-night walks across campus.

I spent hours sorting through these photos and those in our archives, organizing, editing, and uploading whatever sports or news or recess needed for the next day’s coverage. I interacted with staff from every Chronicle department at one time or another, asking for specifics of what was needed and brainstorming when we didn’t have the right stock image. We bonded on editing nights, cocooned in the warmth of yellowing newspapers on the walls, handwritten jokes, and laughter coming from across the office. I became much more appreciative of journalism as a practice and all the work it takes to keep news agencies afloat by watching our reporters. 301 Flowers became a haven for me that provided a glimmer of routine and familiarity during some of the most hectic years of my life.

Looking back, it’s those quotidian events I covered, the countless hours spent learning my way around a camera, and my regular time in the office with friends that I value the most from my Chronicle experience. In the moment, they felt inconsequential. But the photo department has taught me to appreciate perspective. Photojournalism at times felt like another responsibility to juggle. Even so, it was the only one that asked me to slow down and take in my surroundings, if only briefly every week. The Chronicle helped me survive my time at Duke by getting me out of my head and giving me something concrete to focus on: capturing the rhythms of university life for our readers and supporting my friends as they did the same. I will always be grateful for what my quiet roles provided me, and that I had a chance to document our home with people I love.

Mary Helen served as the Photography Editor of the Chronicle’s 115th volume and the podcast editor for volumes 113 and 116. She is grateful to Ian, Sujal and Bre for teaching her everything she knows about photography and is so proud of photo editor Simran Prakash, upcoming editor Bella Bann, and the rest of the photo department for all the work they’ve done this year and will do next. After four years of working for the photo department, she is proud to announce she bought her first camera in April 2021.

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