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National Road Trip

Brian Poulter photographs the National Road — using only an iPhone

Take a moment and picture a professional photojournalist in your mind. What pops into your head? Someone with all manner of complicated equipment hanging around his or her neck, or a person wielding nothing but a cell phone?

Chances are, your mental image resembled the first example much more than the second, but a Department of Journalism faculty member recently completed a project to prove the latter may not be as far-fetched as we once thought.

For just over a week in June, Brian Poulter photographed the many sights along the route of the historic National Road, showcasing his work on Flickr and via his website. As you’d expect from someone who has taught photojournalism at Eastern since 1992, there are plenty of quality images. Here’s what you might not expect: Each and every one was made with an iPhone 4s.

“The walls are coming down,” said Poulter, explaining his reasoning for going the iPhone route. “If you’re a reporter, you’re going to be expected to be able to make a good photograph, and you’ll be expected to do it without $20,000 worth of equipment. This is the kind of stuff you’ll be expected to use. The portability and ubiquitous nature of these cameras make everyone a potential photojournalist.”

According to a recent PCWorld blog entry, Flickr users upload nearly 100 million images each month … and the iPhone 4 is the most common tool used to do it. The quality of these cameras is constantly improving, with new apps and equipment being developed every day to further utilize mobile devices. With that in mind, it suddenly seems reasonable to believe a newspaper could soon expect its reporters to use a similar means to develop images rather than asking staff photographers to be on the scene to shoot every single story covered.

Poulter sees that kind of scenario on the horizon, and he feels his role as an educator makes him duty-bound to personally explore the technological possibilities and then make sure his students are prepared for them.

“What you know is obsolete almost as soon as you know it,” explained Poulter. “Advances are always happening. A good trick is to put some pressure on myself to learn these new things, much like a journalist who’s always facing the pressure of a deadline.

“I’m dedicated to being a really good teacher, so if my research and creative activity doesn’t help in the classroom, I’m not interested. I also want to find ways to keep it fresh. If I’ve been doing it this way all these years and find a new way, it’s reinvigorating. It’s exciting.”

Of course, that wasn’t the only reason it was exciting for Poulter. He’s also a motorcycle enthusiast and a history buff, both of which were incorporated into his trip. He traveled exclusively on a Ural Patrol motorcycle and sidecar, while the history aspect of the National Road speaks largely for itself. Now more or less emulated by the current U.S. Route 40, it was the nation’s first federally funded highway. Construction began in Cumberland, Ma., in 1811 and finished up in Vandalia, Ill., in 1837. For obvious reasons, Poulter made the trip in reverse, setting out from the former Illinois state capital, traveling eastward and then heading back home.

“I didn’t just shoot, either,” added Poulter, the son of a high school history teacher. “I did a lot of talking to local people, finding other things to shoot. I also did a lot of studying on the history of the National Road ahead of time so I’d know what to look for. I never traveled more than 200 miles in a day.”

This isn’t the first motorcycle trip for Poulter, either. Previous projects have taken him to Alaska, the Oregon Trail, and Mississippi. In some cases, he secured grant money to offset the costs. Many of his excursions have resulted in print pieces published in the Decatur Herald and Review. For this project, Verizon provided Poulter a backup iPhone in exchange for an offer to share his images. The company has also spoken to him about possibly working with its staff or conducting workshops on the iPhone’s photo capabilities.

So what was Poulter’s verdict on those capabilities?

“I found the iPhone to be a good tool if you work within its limitations,” said Poulter. “I learned a lot and got a great understanding of how the technology can work and also an idea of what it can’t do. I found some things we should and shouldn’t emphasize in the classroom.

“The work was very well received; Verizon seemed impressed and excited. My website got lots of hits, and there was even a feature on the Ural website.”

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