Photojournalism student captures stunning mountain fire image, signs freelance deal with Poughkeepsie Journal

Photo courtesy of Emily Mortensen

Emily Mortensen ’21 (Digital Media Management) of Fishkill, New York, was likely one of the first people to spot the fire that blazed across Sugarloaf Mountain in Hudson Highlands State Park last month.

“Living near Beacon, I’ve always liked to go for walks near the water,” Mortensen said. “One night I was out and saw the fire, which I guess had just started.”

The fire burned through the weekend of Sept. 22, 2019, and eventually grew to cover nearly 40 acres before State Park Police and staff managed to contain it, and rainfall put it out for good.

More than just a lover of the great outdoors, Mortensen is a SUNY New Paltz student complementing her digital media major with an art studio minor, who has studied photography in both journalism and fine art contexts.

“Something in me is just really drawn to photography,” Mortensen said. “I remember taking pictures with my Polaroid camera as a kid. I just really like it, the way it lets you connect with people with things, and I feel like I need to follow that.”

Mortensen described a moment of inspiration when she went out the next day and saw that the fire was still burning.

“I knew Denning’s Point, one of my favorite places to walk, would be a good spot to see the mountain from, so I went there with my camera and tripod when the sun was setting,” she said. “I wasn’t like, ‘I’m gonna go send this to someone’ – I think it was more that I just wanted to take a picture of it.”

It was only later that day that Mortensen realized her photos were of much higher quality than many of those that were appearing in local coverage of the fire. She reached out to a professor, who was able to put her in touch with the editor at the Poughkeepsie Journal.

“It was really exciting,” she said. “He emailed me right away on a Sunday night and sent me a freelance agreement. The photo ended up getting used in two articles.”

Mortensen’s photo appears in a web article that ran on Monday, Sept. 23. Her image – shot from a low angle, looking up at the fire just as the sky is starting to go dark – helps tell a story about the magnitude of the blaze and its impact on the surround region.

While Mortensen is still weighing career options, she says this experience, and her time in Jane Martin’s Photojournalism class, have pushed her to think more seriously about professional freelancing.

“I’ve always thought of photography of my passion, but this class is taking me out of my comfort zone, helping me grow and learn about photojournalism,” she said. “I’m still exploring, but I’m definitely thinking this is something I could do.”

Use this links to learn more about the Department of Digital Media & Journalism and the Department of Art’s Photography program, and click the image above to zoom in on Mortensen’s photograph.