On a Wednesday morning in Huston-Tillotson University’s newsroom, Diversify Photo and Pulitzer Center grantee Tara Pixley drew more than 15 students, packed between hotdesks.
Huston-Tillotson is a historically Black liberal arts school in Austin, Texas, and a Pulitzer Center Campus Consortium partner. Pixley spoke to students about her career as a photojournalist and her Pulitzer Center-supported project Immersed in Oil, which documents Los Angeles communities living in the largest urban oil field in the United States.
“Millions of people living close to oil infrastructure have no idea that it’s killing them,” Pixley explained.
For such an intimate project, Pixley’s subjects had to trust her. She wanted her images to show who was being impacted. She told students that she demonstrates fidelity by continuing to “show up.”
“I just talk to them [...] If I have my camera, I’ll put it away,” she said. “Always share who you are first, [...] foregrounding why you are in this space.”
Showing up does not, however, deliver documentarians from necessary pre-reporting, Pixley said. Before she approaches a community, she said, she reviews reams of legal documentation, previous news reports, meeting transcripts, and interviews.
Portraying subjects as “their authentic selves," Pixley said, she saw success in her project House of Light, supported by World Press Photo. "These images became part of their family albums [...] a recognition that people were surviving and thriving.”
“Reverse-engineer your success,” she told students, adding, reach out to the people who received a coveted grant or work opportunity and ask them how they got where they are.
Pixley, who was among three winners of the 2022 Eyewitness Photojournalism grant, published her first photo at just 17 via a connection at her high school newspaper. She has gone on to work for several media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, NPR, CNN, and Newsweek. Through her lens, Pixley reimagines race, gender, LGBTQ+, and immigrant communities.
Pixley also gave students advice on how to deal with traumatic content and experiences.
“You have to sit with it,” she said. “You have to engage with it. A good journalist doesn’t separate themselves emotionally. We are here to uphold democracy and that is a very personal and political project. I wouldn’t be covering justice if I didn’t believe that justice mattered.”
She added, “You have to be a human first and journalist second.”
Professor Mike Hirsch helped organize Pixley’s visit to Huston-Tillotson.