Photo students win national Society for Photographic Education student awards

Left: Zora Murff. Photo by Jess T. Dugan. Right: John-David Richardson. Photo by Rana Young.
Left: Zora Murff. Photo by Jess T. Dugan. Right: John-David Richardson. Photo by Rana Young.

Photo students win national Society for Photographic Education student awards

calendar icon28 Feb 2018    

Lincoln, Neb.--Two School of Art, Art History & Design photography graduate students and one alumnus were among 10 students nationally who received Society for Photographic Education (SPE) Student Awards for Innovations in Imaging.

Third-year graduate students John-David Richardson and Zora Murff, along with Alec Kaus (B.F.A. 2015), who is now a graduate student at the University of Georgia, were among the winners. They will each receive a travel stipend to attend the SPE Annual Conference March 1-4 in Philadelphia, a conference fee waiver and a complimentary year of SPE memberships. They also will have their work highlighted during the Curator Portfolio Walkthrough during the SPE Annual Conference March 1-4 in Philadelphia.

In addition, Murff and third-year photography graduate student Emily Wiethorn will each be presenting during the conference. Several photography undergraduate and graduate students, along with Professor of Art Dana Fritz and Assistant Professor of Art Walker Pickering will also be attending the conference.

Murff, Richardson and Wiethorn have all previously won the SPE Student Awards for Innovations in Imaging in 2015, 2016 and 2017, respectively. (Murff won his first award as an undergraduate.)

“I am thrilled that UNL Photography students are consistently winning these SPE awards,” Fritz said. “In the six years since I re-started the graduate program in photography, we have had five of our graduate students win awards, one of them twice. I am also pleased that our undergraduate alum Alec Kaus won an award in his first year of graduate school. More than an honor, the financial award enables the students to attend the national conference and participate in a highly visible way. These conferences help to shape their work and future careers through lectures, exhibitions, and networking, and are an indispensable extra-curricular experience. I am certain that each of these awardees would agree that SPE conferences have been highlights of their student experience.”

Murff will present “Corrections:  Identification, Influence and Image,” which examines the use of the image in the criminal justice system. While working with kids on probation, Murff photographed those in his charge, culminating in the series titled “Corrections.”

Wiethorn will present “A Certain Kind of Woman,” where she will discuss issues of feminine identity, a woman’s indeterminate place in our turbulent society and political climate, society’s influence on us as we age, and how those choices impact our adult identities. Wiethorn is also the featured artist in the spring issue of PDNedu Magazine (Photo District News). Not only will her work be featured in an article in the magazine, but one of her photos has been chosen to be on the cover of the issue.

UNL regularly participates in regional and national SPE conferences. UNL and Metropolitan Community College in Omaha co-hosted the Midwest SPE conference in Lincoln in 2013, and Professor of Art Dana Fritz received the 2013 Imagemaker Award at the national conference.

More on the student winners:

Zora Murff
“I was really excited,” Murff said about learning he had won a 2018 Student Imaging Award. “I won it when I was an undergrad, and so I was eligible to apply again. But I didn’t really expect it, so it feels pretty good to win it again.”

Murff’s current work will be featured in his MFA Thesis Exhibition titled “Re-Making the Mark” April 16-20 in the Eisentrager-Howard Gallery in Richards Hall.

“The project I’m working on now focuses on the history of redlining, which is a form of government-endorsed segregation in which they used the racial makeup of neighborhoods and metropolitan areas to determine the value of the land,” he said. “I’ve been focusing on North Omaha because that’s the closest area that has this particular history, and it’s historically a Black neighborhood. How redlining works is since the government is saying this land value is bad here, people don’t invest in it, and the individuals who live there are not given access to loans to buy homes or improve their community.”

He became interested in North Omaha after a chance drive through the neighborhood after a trip to the airport.

“The first time I drove through North Omaha, I was leaving the airport and got turned around, so I kind of accidentally drove through the neighborhood,” he said. “It was really visually striking, not only because it was the first place since I’ve lived in Nebraska where I saw a majority of Black individuals, so I was really intrigued by that, but also how the landscape looked. There are a lot of empty lots where you could tell something had been there before, so I was interested in why the landscape looked in that particular way.”

He began researching and discovered more about Omaha’s history.

“I came across this kind of tumultuous history of racism and violence in Omaha, and in particular, the story of Will Brown, who was lynched in 1919 by a mob of 4,000 white individuals,” Murff said. “I was really drawn to that particular story, but also how the landscape seemed to kind of visually carry that out. In doing more research, I came across the concept of redlining and how that shapes the landscape. I’m looking at redlining as a form of violence.”

He also came across an article by Princeton sociologist Rob Nixon on perceptions of violence.

“It’s this kind of dichotomous viewing between fast and slow violence, so fast violence is our typical perception of violence because there is a perceived immediate risk,” Murff said. “But there is also slow violence. We don’t see violence in things like redlining or environmental issues, because there is a big gap between cause and effect. So that was the starting point with that work and using this idea of violence and how we perceive violence.”

In addition to large-scale photographic prints, Murff’s thesis exhibition will also include some sculptural pieces.

“I have these wooden panels that I’ve made where I’ve used the laser cutter to etch text onto the surface of the wood,” he said. “The text is sourced from the Federal Housing Administration’s underwriting manual, and I’ve found all the places in that text where they use race as a dictator of land value. For me, that language is really blatant, but how it was written into law was kind of this invisible or subtle way. The effects of those laws have had a subtle, lasting effect throughout history.”

His second sculpture appropriates a lynching photograph of Will Brown in 1919 and another photograph taken in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1920 where two African-American individuals were lynched.

“What was really interesting to me about the quality of those images is that they’re taken a year apart, but when you bring the panels together, it becomes this kind of seamless crowd of these white men who are engaging the camera. I’ve intentionally cropped the bodies out of all the images. Then, I have a sculptural piece on the floor that is paired with it, and I chose those materials so it represents Will Brown’s body in the lynching photograph, but it brings it into the physical space. So, to me, it teases out this idea of how we look at or engage with photographs to be able to step into it and really have to hash through that visual information.”

Murff’s work is also featured in a book with New York-based photographer Kris Graves Projects. The collection of 10 books, titled “LOST,” all explore different areas around the world. Murff’s book, “LOST, Omaha,” includes work from his ongoing series “At No Point in Between” and will be released in April.

His work will also appear in Aperture magazine in the spring issue, which will be released March 6, as well as an accompanying exhibition at the Aperture Foundation in New York City.

“The issue is titled ‘Prison Nation,’ so it’s looking at photographers who explore the criminal justice system,” Murff said. “I think that was always kind of a goal, but for me, it seemed kind of lofty to be published in Aperture magazine.”

He is looking forward to making more connections at the SPE Conference.

“For me attending the conference is really about connecting with other people,” he said. “You admire a lot of these people’s work from afar, and then you get this really great opportunity where you’re all kind of stuck in the same place for four or five days. So you get to hang out with them, meet them and exchange work and exchange ideas.”

John-David Richardson
Richardson said his first SPE Imaging Award in 2016 led to great opportunities, so he is looking forward to this year’s conference as well.

“It was a great opportunity, and I was able to get a feature in Aint Bad Magazine ( from it and made a lot of really great networking connections,” Richardson said. “It was a lot of exposure to my work my first year, which was great. And I think it can only help me as far as furthering my art career, especially if I have the work I’m doing for thesis and presenting that in my third year.”

Richardson’s work will be featured in his MFA Thesis Exhibition April 2-6 in the Eisentrager-Howard Gallery and is titled “Someday I’ll Find the Sun.”

“I grew up in less than favorable circumstances, I guess I’ll say,” he said. “I grew up really poor in Alabama, and my family suffered from extreme poverty. When I came to graduate school, I wanted to make really deeply personal work. So I started to investigate my own identity, and a lot of that is wrapped up in being poor and being in the underclass and how I very strongly identify with that group of people.”

He began investigating areas of Lincoln that felt similar to the area he grew up in economically, which included North Bottoms and two mobile home parks.

“Spending time with people of a similar background, I’m able to kind of ruminate on my own personal history and come to terms with that,” he said. “But a lot of the other research with the work revolves around how policy and legislation has deeply affected the people that are in the lower class. And how it’s this vicious cycle that continues to happen with each administration that comes in, regardless of Democrat or Republican. I’m interested in photographing that.”

Richardson first started taking photos during his junior year of high school around the age of 16.

“I wasn’t really sure what I wanted from a camera at that point or what I wanted from photography, but I was interested in art and creating, so that’s the reason why I started,” he said.

A fear of not remembering is what led him to get serious about photography.

“I had this fear of not remembering because a lot of the events that happened in my childhood were pretty traumatic, as far as domestic violence and drug abuse and neglect,” he said. “A lot of that caused some form of PTSD. When traumatic events happen, you tend to block those events out, and when those events happen frequently enough, large portions of your memory are just kind of blocked. So I think that has a lot to do with why I make pictures. It’s this ability to remember, to see, to witness and to record a memory.”

It’s not just memory, though, but also something metaphorical.

“Recalling a memory through an emotion is important to me, and I think that’s something important to the work I’m making now,” he said.

Richardson’s work has also been recognized as the grand prize winner in PDNedu’s Student Photo Contest and will be featured in the spring 2018 issue of PDNedu (

“It was amazing,” he said of the honor. “It’s a great award package, and it’s a lot of exposure.”

He is looking forward to the SPE Conference, whose theme is “Uncertain Times:  Borders, Refuge, Community, Nationhood.”

“It deals with our borders. It deals with nationhood, cultural identity, social identity, economic identity, which I think is great for my work because it fits right into that kind of mold, so I’m interested in that, just as an artist,” he said. “The networking opportunities at SPE are incredible. I’m looking to get my work out there a little more, and just seeing my friends and seeing people that are in my medium that we can get together for a weekend and just talk about photography in a way we’re not really able to do otherwise.”