Introductory photography class cuts their teeth at the Empire State Winter Games

At 9am on Thursday Feb. 3, I joined nine other students from associate professor Seth Gitner’s one-credit, introductory-level “Photography for the Media” class on an adventure. We packed up two SUVs with our camera gear and luggage and set off on our four-hour trip up to Lake Placid, where we would be the photography staff for the 2022 Empire State Winter Games (ESWG).

A student kneeling on the snow, taking a picture of a bicyclist racing past.
Kayla Breen, a photographer with the Newhouse School photographing the Empire State Winter Games. Photo by Seth Gitner.

I signed up for the one-credit course hoping to learn more about photography. Being a graduate student in the magazine, news and digital journalism (MND) program, my focus has been mostly on writing and reporting, but I have recently been leaning more toward design work. For this reason, I wanted to learn how to capture stories visually as well as through writing and reporting. 

A hockey player makes a goal.
Steve “Paycheck” Pechacek of the Stride Wounded Warrior adaptive sled hockey team defends his goals against the Mountain Warriors at the Tupper Lake Civic Center during the Empire State Winter Games in Lake Placid, NY on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. Photo by Jamey Bulloch.

After one week of class, Professor Gitner planned a weekend workshop, which would give all of us—some undergraduates, some graduate students—a chance to do real work. All I knew was this: SONY was sponsoring the gear; it was going to be colder than anything I’ve experienced before (I’m from Johannesburg, South Africa); and the rest, Professor Gitner said, we’d figure out.

Upon arrival, we were given a half-hour training in basic camera techniques. Our group was led by two former Newhouse students, Lenny Christopher and Todd Michalek G’21, who were pivotal to the lessons we learned over the weekend.

A skier racing down a slope.
Gold medal winner Kevin Burnside navigates a turn during the adaptive biathlon course during the Empire State Winter Games at Mount Van Hoevenberg near Lake Placid, N.Y., on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. Photo by Eric Makic.

With our media passes, we were allowed to shoot from all angles. I stood in front of the arch, shooting everything, just in case. The other students stationed themselves in various spots around the outdoor space to get shots of the crowd, the athletes and the torch-carrier traveling on a dog-driven bobsled. Finally competitive figure skater and ESWG’s Athlete of the Year, Amanda Demmerle, lit the cauldron, signaling the start of the Games.

Toluwanimi Fajolu, a sophomore in MND, was the winner of the evening, shooting a brilliant moment when the cauldron was lit with the multi-colored lights and electric atmosphere around the event. She was the first of us to have her photo published, which ran in a number of media outlets including

After the opening ceremonies, the ten of us went to a sponsored dinner. We were no longer strangers, but friends bonded in the excitement and panic facing a challenge we weren’t sure we could meet. To our own astonishment, we each took photos we were proud of and couldn’t wait to select our sporting events for the next day.

Synchronized figure skaters in green dresses.
The Beaver Dam Blades synchronized team with the Beaver Dam Winter Sports Club figure skates on the 1980 Rink in the Olympic Center during the Empire State Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. Photo by Emma Vallelunga.

We were spoiled for choice. Some of the indoor competitions included adaptive sled hockey, ice hockey, figure skating and synchronized figure skating. Outside in the blizzards were ski jumping, biathlon, cross country, winter biking and more. The freedom and the desire to come through with some spectacular shots made for an incredible learning experience. Christopher, Michalek and Gitner moved between events to keep a close eye on each of us and assist if there were crises, but otherwise, we were free to enjoy our experience as photographers.

Between each event, we would gather at headquarters—a space provided by the ESWG staff in the Olympic Center to edit, caption and submit our photos to professor of practice Jon Glass who would upload our photos to the ESWG website where media outlets could access them for use in their stories, and fans could check them out for fun.

By the final day, we were sad to leave. The frantic experience of capturing the games was exhausting, but also incredible fun; we didn’t want the time to end.

A bicyclist racing down a snowy trail.
Bicyclists round a corner during the Cross-Country Winter Bike event at the Empire State Winter Games on Mount Pisgah on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. Photo by Kayla Breen.

Being thrown in the deep end turned out to be a great way for us all to find confidence in our work. As Professor Gitner reminded us, the real-world experience is “figuring it out as you go” a lot of the time. Not everything outside of Newhouse is going to be as structured as a classroom; Gitner wanted to focus his class on real experience. For the remainder of the semester, our focus will be on assisting publications around Central New York with photography and working towards having our shots published.

I’m very appreciative of this hands-on approach to the class structure and believe that this experience has allowed each of us to finally say, with confidence, that we are on our way to becoming professional photographers. 

Jamey Bulloch is a graduate student in the  magazine, news and digital journalism program at the Newhouse School.