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Late Pulitzer winner's workshop has inspired thousands of photojournalists

Mary Ann Thomas
| Sunday, May 29, 2016, 11:10 p.m.
Tribune-Review photographers and Eddie Adams Workshop alumni Justin Merriman (left), and his fiancé Stephanie Strasburg, are reflected in the 'Eddie Adams: Vietnam' photo exhibit at Penn State New Kensington on Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Merriman attended the Eddie Adams Workshop in 2002; Strasburg attended in 2013.
Dan Speicher | For the Tribune-Review
Tribune-Review photographers and Eddie Adams Workshop alumni Justin Merriman (left), and his fiancé Stephanie Strasburg, are reflected in the 'Eddie Adams: Vietnam' photo exhibit at Penn State New Kensington on Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Merriman attended the Eddie Adams Workshop in 2002; Strasburg attended in 2013.
Tribune-Review photographers and Eddie Adams Workshop alumni Justin Merriman (left), and his fiancé Stephanie Strasburg, pose at the 'Eddie Adams: Vietnam' photo exhibit at Penn State New Kensington on Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Merriman attended the Eddie Adams workshop in 2002; Strasburg attended in 2013.
Dan Speicher | For the Tribune-Review
Tribune-Review photographers and Eddie Adams Workshop alumni Justin Merriman (left), and his fiancé Stephanie Strasburg, pose at the 'Eddie Adams: Vietnam' photo exhibit at Penn State New Kensington on Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Merriman attended the Eddie Adams workshop in 2002; Strasburg attended in 2013.
Jeff Swenson
Jeff Swenson

The legacy of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Eddie Adams lives on at his elite workshop that annually unleashes 100 camera-ready photojournalists on the world.

The 2,700 Adams alumni include Tribune-Review photographers Justin Merriman and Stephanie Strasburg, and Jeff Swensen, a former Valley News Dispatch photographer who shoots for Getty Images, the New York Times and other international newspapers. All three live in Oakmont and continue to inspire each other's work.

Established in 1988, “Barnstorm: The Eddie Adams Workshop” matches photography luminaries with hand-picked young photographers for a free workshop at Adams' farm in New York's Catskill Mountains.

The young photographers are feted as stars upon arrival for the four-day workshop. A bus drops them at the end of a long drive lined on both sides with renowned photographers, who clap and cheer to welcome them.

Merriman, 38, remembers the scene vividly when he made the cut in 2002.

“To this day, when I think about walking up that drive, I felt like I had arrived,” he said, especially when he reached the barn strung with the banner, “You've arrived.”

“It was a milestone,” Merriman said. “It was a turning point in my career when you have the ability to be in the room with some of the best photographers of all time.”

Swensen, 51, who attended in 1997, said, “You are excited. You have been chosen and inevitably you got there. Then, I felt, I'm not good at all. It gives you something to work for.

“Then you pay attention to the people you met and, wow, they really like how your story was done. And you have conversations about this. Those conversations build ideas, and the ideas build a lot of work,” he said.

Their lives changed, their professions elevated, these photographers live the lessons of the workshop. All have gone on to win numerous awards and have been published in nearly every major U.S. newspaper.

Following in Adams' footsteps, Merriman traveled overseas for the Tribune-Review to photograph the military conflicts in the Middle East.

“It's hard for me to quantify the success the workshop has given me, but I carry what I learned every day,” he said.

“When you leave that workshop, you are ready to set the world on fire because you know you can, and you want it that badly,” Merriman said.

In 2013 when Strasburg was bound for Adams' farm, she worked one-on-one with John White, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who spent most of his career at the Chicago Sun-Times. White was known for his timing and ability to capture the human spirit on film.

White sat down with Strasburg to review her photo project on life in the Mon Valley cities of McKeesport, Clairton and Duquesne.

“What made me feel good is that he saw what I was going for,” Strasburg said. This kinship was important as Strasburg was not formally trained in photography.

“When you walk away from him, you feel like you are on a cloud. He is incredibly positive and he has an aura of peace about him.”

White, whose father was a pastor, has a religious aura when discussing photography, Strasburg said.

“Every day, you look at the light and you try for something better,” she said.

In addition to her Trib job, her clients include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Department of Labor and others.

For these photographers, the workshop revealed a bigger world, now easily within reach.

“If I worked in a small town and I thought that's all it ever was; and if I just ate at McDonald's, the world is, indeed, limited,” Swensen said. “The workshop gave me perspective on what is great photography, and that gives you a place to work and invent.”

Shortly after leaving the workshop, Swensen garnered assignments for national and international news outlets and never looked back.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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