Alumni profile: Thomas Patterson, NGO multimedia storyteller

Thomas Patterson, MA '16
Thomas Patterson, MS '16

Story by Aaron Weintraub '17

Photo courtesy of Thomas Patterson

Editor's note: This profile was updated in September 2018.

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 nongovernmental 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 School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) in 2002 with a bachelor's in journalism and minors in philosophy and English, 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, he returned to the University of Oregon to attend the SOJC’s Multimedia Journalism Master’s (MMJ) program while working as a teaching fellow.

When it came time to choose his terminal project, Patterson was inspired to produce a multimedia project for Mercy Corps, a Portland-based humanitarian aid organization he had been volunteering for. The quality of his work earned him a paid job with Mercy Corps before he even completed the project.

During the two years Patterson worked as a multimedia storyteller for Mercy Corps, he hired photographers, planned and managed photo shoots around the world, and procured images for use in advertising and communication pieces designed to raise awareness about struggling communities in need of donations.

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 at Mercy Corps was probably a two-day shoot for Pew's magazine regarding different responses to the problem of opiate addiction in northern and southern Oregon. Another communications piece I helped produce for Mercy Corps is the Youth at a Crossroads campaign. The goal was 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.

I was also a photographer for A Family For Every Child, a foster program that matches children in need with families in Lane County, Oregon.

What have you been up to since you left Mercy Corps?

My day job is as a producer with Blue Chalk Media in Portland. The other producers and I manage the production pipeline for a huge series of educational videos for college students. I work with writers and researchers to script and storyboard the videos, and on shoot days I'm the director on set. After the shoot I work with editors and graphic designers in post-production. More than a million students watch these videos, which is intense to think about.

I am a member of the board of directors of Blue Earth Alliance in Seattle, where I serve as chair of the Projects Committee. We are a nonprofit that partners with documentary photographers building long-term environmental and social projects worldwide.

I also joined up with Momenta Workshops as a story coach and instructor. Our next Project Portland workshop will take place at UO Portland in October, and I'm really excited to help this new crop of photographers learn how to make great images for nonprofit clients.

I'd been unable to find an online home for Oregon photography projects, events, news and opportunities, so in January I created one! I founded OregonFocus.org, an online hub for our state's photo community. Got a project, info or resources you recommend for people in our state and industry? Send 'em my way!

This year I also wrote a few columns on photo editing for NGO Storytelling, and I've helped individual photo editing and consulting clients around the world.

Also, I still shoot when I can find the time. My primary clients are The New York Times and the Oregon Education Association.

What value did you get out of the MMJ program?

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. After getting a full-time job their, my purview expanded to include managing the organization's extensive brand portal and photo library and hiring content gatherers to add to it.

Photography is my first love, though, and it was such an important tool to show donors and the public-at-large the impact of what Mercy Corps does 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 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 was 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 the 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 humanitarian aid organizations? 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.

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.

Aaron Weintraub graduated from the UO in 2017 with bachelor's degrees in journalism and Arabic, which he hopes to use as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. He worked as a digital media intern for the SOJC’s Communications Office in 2016-17. He also 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. When he’s not writing or shooting photos, he enjoys climbing, biking and other activities that occasionally injure him.