Renee Byer, who grew up in the mid-Hudson Valley and was the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in photojournalism, will be the ninth James H. Ottaway Sr. Professor of Journalism at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
Byer is the fourth Pulitzer Prize winner the college has brought to campus since it began the distinguished professorship in 2000. She is the college’s first photojournalist and its first visiting professor with local roots. Byer is currently Senior Photojournalist at the Sacramento (California) Bee, one of the nation’s top newspapers.
Byer was born in Yonkers, N.Y., but grew up in nearby Rosendale where her father, Walter, was chief of police. She is a 1976 graduate of Rondout Valley High School. Her interest in photography began when she studied at Ulster County Community College, where she graduated in 1978.
“Like all her predecessor Ottoway professors,” said College President Steven Poskanzer, “Renee’s work shows us the passion that the great journalist brings to her craft – and it shows us the journalist’s ability to reveal so much about the human condition.”
Byer won her Pulitzer Prize, the top award in journalism, for a year-long series of photographs of a single mother and her 10 year-old son who was dying of cancer. "A Mother’s Journey" is an intimate portrayal of a single mother’s emotional and financial struggle as her son battled neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer.
“When done well,” said Byer, “photojournalism is a powerful tool because it connects people to the reality of life and can bring understanding and awareness to important issues.”
This year-long documentary project was published as a four-part series and on the Web as a multimedia package. Along with the Pulitzer Prize, it won a World Understanding Award, as well the Society of Professional Journalist’s Sigma Delta Chi Award for feature photography. Its publication has led Byer on a whirlwind series of speaking engagements across America and the world.
Byer’s work will be exhibited at the college’s Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art beginning on Jan. 30 to April 11. An introductory ceremony for Byer will take place on Feb. 5.
Byer, who graduated cum laude from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., will then spend two weeks at the college, April 5 to 16, conducting a series of workshops, class visits and public performances.
About her visit to campus, Byer said, “I would like to show students how documentary photojournalism can give back to society by engaging our compassion, empowering those without power or influence, and inspiring us to be better.”
Dr. Howard Good, coordinator of the Journalism Program, noted the increasing importance of photojournalism in today’s fast-changing media landscape. “Amid the glut of information bits and images, it is very easy for the purpose of journalism in general, and photojournalism in particular, to become lost,” he said.
But, Byer added, “a still photograph stops time. It gives the viewer a moment to think, to react, to feel.”
Eight well-known journalists have preceded Byer as Ottaway professors. Three have been Pulitzer Prize winners, including former New York Times investigative reporter and columnist Sydney Schanberg; Bernard Stein, an editorial writer with the Riverdale Press in the Bronx; and John Darnton, a former Times foreign correspondent.
The other professors were award-winning National Public Radio reporter Ann Cooper, who headed the nation’s foremost advocacy group for the protection of journalists; Roger Kahn, the author of 20 books and one of America’s foremost literary journalists; Trudy Lieberman, one of America’s best consumer reporters; Martin Gottlieb, the editor of the International Herald Tribune and an award-winning New York Times reporter; and, last year, Barney Calame, an award-winning Wall Street Journal editor and former public editor of The New York Times.
The Ottaway Professorship is named for the founder of Ottaway Newspapers, which was a coast-to-coast group of community newspapers. The largest newspaper in the group was the Times-Herald-Record in Middletown. The group was sold to the News Corporation in 2007.