Melissa Farlow · 2013
When covering race riots in Louisville, Ky., in 1975, Melissa Farlow moved closer to bonfires and rock throwers to get the images she wanted as the light waned at nightfall.
“At one point, demonstrators threw bottles at her. Opponents of busing were angry,” according to an editor at the Louisville newspapers. “A crowd of 50 chased her, shouting ‘Kill her! Kill her!’”
Farlow not only found a way to safely stay and get the photographs that told the angry part of the story, she also photographed the sensitive side of the issue.
“I recall one (picture) that captured a gentle moment between a white teacher and an African-American pupil,” said Claude Cookman, an Indiana University professor and former picture editor in Louisville. “The teacher has her arm around the girl, helping her learn to write.”
Farlow’s most haunting memory “was of a school bus loaded with African-American children seeing racism for the first time,” a former editor, J. Bruce Baumann said.
Years later the subject was different, but Farlow’s cool, sensitive reaction was the same. While photographing a herd of wild mustangs in remote Oregon “a pinto stallion charged out of sagebrush, hooves churning,” according to a 2010 Smithsonian magazine article. Farlow simply sat down. “It worked,” the article continued. “Seemingly assured of his own supremacy, the stallion quit snorting and stomping and before long the photographer found herself being sniffed by mares and foals.”
It is not just award-winning pictures that make Farlow remarkable as a newspaper and National Geographic photographer. Colleagues say it is the rapport she establishes with her subjects. Cookman credits Farlow’s Southern Indiana roots and the influence of her Indiana University professor, the legendary Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame member Will Counts.
Melissa Farlow was born in Paoli, Ind. Her mother, Gertrude Luostari Farlow, by going to nursing school, gave her daughter the example and courage to believe in herself. She was inspired by high school English teacher and 1999 Indiana Hall of Journalism inductee Ruth Uyesugi. She worked on the yearbook and followed her sister Janet Farlow Perry to IU to study journalism.
But it just didn’t feel like the right fit. She considered photography only when needing to fill out her class schedule and a course on basket weaving was closed. She took one of the few available classes — Non-verbal Communication (photojournalism), finally finding a fit and “a better medium” for her journalism.
Farlow thrived under the inspiration of Counts, won college awards and graduated into a dilemma. She had to choose between an internship with the National Geographic or a job with the (Louisville, Ky.) Courier Journal and Times in 1973. Colleagues steered her toward the training opportunities in Louisville. That set up her work on the busing riots. Farlow’s pictures were instrumental in the newspapers earning the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. She continued her award-winning work at The Pittsburgh Press.
After the Pittsburgh paper closed, she received a story assignment from National Geographic, and it was only then that she realized her unspoken fear about turning down the internship.
“All the years of wondering how life would have been different were totally resolved,” Farlow said.
She continued as a contract photographer for Geographic, reaching at least 40 million readers with each of her 15 stories. She has been a repeat winner in the annual Pictures of the Year International competition in which she was a 1992 top-place finisher for photographer of the year. Farlow also was the photographer for two National Geographic books — Wildlands of the West and The Pan American Highway.
She and her husband, Randy Olson, also a photographer for National Geographic, received a grant to catalog the Pictures of the Year collection, preserving a great resource for scholars of photojournalism.
Farlow received a master’s degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri and was named an IU School of Journalism Distinguished Alumni.
Cookman compares Farlow to Farm Security Administration photographer Dorothea Lange because of her ability to establish “a rapport with her subjects which caused them to drop the barriers that people naturally assume in front of a camera. She doesn’t just take from her subjects. She gives of herself to them.”
Farlow also gives of herself to her colleagues, particularly to help young women entering the profession. When she entered newspaper photography in the 1970s, it was a man’s world, Baumann said. She let her work plead her case and then quietly spent time mentoring other young women with the same passion.
For the past 26 years, Farlow has been on the faculty of the Missouri Photo Workshop, where she gravitates to young, aspiring women photographers, encouraging them to take their talent into newsrooms, says Baumann, who teaches photojournalism at IU and was a 2011 Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame inductee.
“I can think of no woman in modern photojournalism who has done more to help women enter the field,” he said.
Farlow also understands the power of journalism and chooses topics carefully. She focuses her camera on the environment and on discrimination against women. She demonstrated how clear cutting at the Tongass National Forest is affecting Alaska’s ecosystem and the plight of wild mustangs in the American West. When she looked at mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, she not only showed the abuses of the mining company but also a grassroots efforts of residents trying to save their homes.
She “helped give a voice to people who had none,” Cookman said.
She spent years following a young black woman convicted of killing her husband. The impoverished woman grew up in a dysfunctional family, was raped at age five and gang-raped at 13. Farlow’s slideshow of photographs and interviews became a model for advocacy groups fighting for inmates’ rights.
Farlow excelled in a competitive profession “without compromising her humanity,” Cookman said.
Her knack is finding the kind of stories that can have an impact and she has talent to tell them. It is the stuff for which Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame inductees are enshrined.
By Linda Negro, Grassroots Editor, Evansville Courier Press