Circuit Court Clerk Bobby Vann holds up a photo of himself from the very first issue of Eyes on Lafollette from 30 years ago in 1993. Photo by Ericksen Gomez-Villeda

On April 28-29, professor Rob Heller’s Advanced Journalism class traveled to LaFollette, Tennessee to take part in the annual class project “Eyes On LaFollette.” This year’s project wasn’t just another trip to take photographs, it was the 30th anniversary of “Eyes On LaFollette.”

According to Heller, he came up with the concept for this project 30 years ago when photographers at the time would travel to random locations and create projects called “A Day in the Life of…”, which ended up being a popular book series. Professor Heller did “A Day in the Life of UT” but thought there could be a way to do that project outside of the university. LaFollete became the right place at the right time.

CCI Distinguished Lecturer and UT alumna Sarah Lamb (‘94) remembers LaFollette and the people as the definition of southern hospitality.

“They really embraced us, welcomed us into their town and home. People were willing to show us that level of hospitality, and more than just hospitality, just a real intimate glimpse into their lives,” Lamb said. “It was a life-changing experience for me, being a photojournalist was my dream job. It was life affirming to know as far as my career, I was on the right path, to know that I was going to love what I was gonna do. It was a defining moment.”

As Professor Heller’s class prepared for this trip, they were reminded that this trip is “kind of a big one, no pressure or anything.” The students started the day in LaFollete at the LaFollette Press, taking the yearly group shot and going over a game plan for the day, where they might be able to get some shots, and when to meet back, but for the most part each student had their day mapped out.

The students ventured out into the town, stopping at places such as a rehab center, a tire shop, restaurants, schools and even a winery among other places. It seemed like just about everywhere the students went, the town welcomed them in. Most of the town knows about this project and according to Professor Heller, the town “looks forward to it and they are excited about it.”

Campbell County Circuit Court Clerk Bobby Vann was a school police officer 30 years ago in LaFollette. He is now an elected official for the city who met with a student on this year’s project to take a trip down memory lane.

“I think it’s a great project, it highlights how great of a community we do have here,” Vann said.

Bobby expressed joy about how this project has affected the morale of people in LaFollette. He remembered after the first issue came out, how all the school kids came up to him and showed him his photo in the paper. Bobby also expressed his desire to see the project continue.

“We need to keep it going, comparing today to 30 years ago, it’s a great thing for everybody,” Vann said. “Our number one industry is tourism, so I’m sure this project has had an effect on that. Anytime you reach outside the community, that’s good.”

Journalism master’s student Amanda Brooks said the hospitality of the people in LaFollete stuck out to her.

“The people were willing to talk and interact with us,” Brooks said. “There was a sense of ‘let me explain to you and teach you’ in that moment, which was cool. People were really excited to tell us what they do.”

Eyes on LaFollette isn’t just a UT thing. This project has been featured in the New York Times Lens Blog, and their international print edition, which had a combined viewership of around 700,000. Another LaFollette resident, Matt Bowens, whose photo first appeared 10 years ago in the 20th Anniversary Edition, said that after his photo was taken, he was on vacation in Mexico where he ran into a man from the U.S. who recognized his photo from the “Eyes on LaFollette” project.

“We’re a small town, we don’t have a lot of stuff like Knoxville does, but people come from all over to come to Norris Lake,” Bowens said. “This town has changed so much in 30 years. It’s a great town, great people, great community. This project just builds people up”

It seemed like everywhere the students went, there were throwbacks to the past 30 years. Old photos from past projects hung in random buildings, businesses with photos of themselves or loved ones who had been photographed in the past and people who had been photographed before were more than willing to talk about when they were in the paper.

“I have been working on the idea of a book of the best photos from the past 30 years as sort of a ‘thank you’ to LaFollette,” Heller said. “It’s been quite difficult because there’s been so many wonderful photos over the years. Hopefully this is something that will happen in the next year or so, then you’ll have that book to remember all of this. At least that’s the hope.”

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