Story by Aaron Weintraub
Photo courtesy of Thomas Patterson
Multimedia storytelling skills are in high demand these days — not just at media organizations, but at private and public companies across the board and around the world, from multimillion-dollar corporations to advocacy nonprofits and non-governmental organizations.
For storytellers who want to use their skills to make a difference in the world, the NGO route is a growing and promising field.
Thomas Patterson, MS ’16, has already found great success and a fulfilling career as a multimedia storyteller for an NGO. After graduating from the UO with a degree in philosophy and English in 2002, he worked for a decade as a freelance photographer for numerous publications, including the Statesman Journal, the Oregon Education Association Magazine and The New York Times. In 2012, Patterson returned to the University of Oregon to attend the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s Multimedia Journalism Master’s program while working as a teaching fellow.
Patterson first got acquainted with the Portland-based Mercy Corps, a disaster relief organization, while working on his terminal project for the MMJ program. They were so happy with his work that they hired him.
During the past two years that Patterson has been a multimedia storyteller for Mercy Corps, he has developed ads and taken photographs all over the world in an effort to raise awareness for struggling communities in need of donations. He is also a photographer for A Family For Every Child, a foster program that matches children in need with families in Lane County.
We sat down with Patterson to find out what it’s like to use his multimedia storytelling skills in service of a cause.
What have been some of the most significant experiences in your career since you graduated from the SOJC’s MMJ program?
I spent a decade at the Statesman Journal newspaper, but most of my work is outside of journalism now, though I still freelance for a few publications when I can find the time — most recently The New York Times, Pew Charitable Trusts, San Francisco Chronicle, ProPublica and Oregon Education Association. But I have a 5-month-old daughter and a full-time job at Mercy Corps, so my flexibility to shoot for publications is limited!
My most significant journalistic piece over the past few months was probably a two-day shoot for Pew’s magazine regarding different responses to the problem of opiate addiction in Northern and Southern Oregon.
One recent communications piece I helped produce for Mercy Corps is Youth at a Crossroads, which is an ongoing campaign that just went live and will be expanded over the next couple months. The goal is to explore how Mercy Corps supports adolescents and young people in crisis around the world, because youth is a time in which investment in resilience can pay off in a huge way.
What’s the single most important piece of advice you’d like to give to current SOJC students?
Try everything, but pour your creativity and discipline into your own vision. Don’t fill your portfolio with pieces you think will make other people happy. You have to find a way to do the work you want to be doing, so you will be able to show that work to people who can hire you.
How have you used your education since getting your master’s from the SOJC?
My grad school education helped broaden my horizons from photography to other areas of communication that I use regularly. For my graduate school terminal project, I built a multimedia piece focusing on a Mercy Corps program that helps women prisoners who are about to be released adjust to the outside world. My purview now includes managing our extensive brand portal and photo library and hiring content gatherers to add to it.
Photography is my first love, though, and it’s such an important tool for us to show donors and the public-at-large the impact of what we’re doing in more than 40 countries around the world each day: empowering people to survive through crisis, build better lives and transform their communities for good.
What are the differences and similarities between strictly journalistic reporting and creating media to help promote NGOs?
When working for a journalistic publication, I investigated the truth without preconception and told the story purely as I saw it. In creating and sharing content on behalf of Mercy Corps, my job is to tell the story of the organization’s mission to help people survive, build better lives and create stronger communities. This is a meaningful and powerful task, but it can add an additional challenge: Many photographers can take great pictures. Fewer can use those pictures to tell a cohesive, evocative story. And fewer still can shoot in our brand style. This was definitely an adjustment for me as I left journalism. What’s consistent is that I use the same rigorous ethical system I learned in journalism school. Issues such as accuracy, authenticity and respect for vulnerable people are paramount.
How is the role of media changing for organizations like Mercy Corps? Where do you see it going?
In a challenging environment for organizations that rely on foreign aid funding, it is more vital than ever to tell our story in a clear, authentic way. Every message we create — every photo, every video, every press release, every calendar and annual report, every social media shareable — is our chance to help people deeply connect with our work.
Our work is also increasingly important, given that there are now fewer media organizations with their own foreign news operations. This means that more organizations rely on us to supply them with access and content. We appreciate the opportunity to shine a light on these underreported stories and raise awareness about our work, and it also makes our work more important than ever.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years?
I really enjoy working for an organization that’s making a tangible difference around the world everyday, and I want to keep doing it!
Aaron Weintraub is a senior in the SOJC studying journalism and Arabic, which he hopes to use as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. This is his first year working as a digital media intern for the SOJC’s Communications Office. In the past, he studied Arabic and Islamic studies at Keble College at Oxford University and at the Qasid Institute in Amman, Jordan, where he worked as an independent feature writer during the summer of 2016. He has also served as a writer and photographer for the UO’s environmental publication, Envision Magazine. You can find Weintraub’s collection of photography, much of which he took while traveling, at aaronweintraubphotos.wordpress.com. When he’s not writing or shooting photos, he enjoys climbing, biking and other activities that occasionally injure him.