Photojournalist Matt Moyer Shares the Power of Visual Storytelling

We as humans are narrative creatures. How many times have you stopped everything just to listen to a dramatic telling of another person’s mediocre day? We crave stories, and we thirst for that beginning, middle and end. 

As the journalism industry transitions away from print, text-dominated media and towards visual media, the stories we yearn for now lie within photos and videos. 

To guide SUNY New Paltz down the picturesque path of journalism, Matt Moyer has been chosen as the spring 2020 James H. Ottaway Sr. Visiting Professor in Journalism. 

Moyer is a photographer and filmmaker dedicated to documenting the social and cultural issues that affect us all. He graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and photojournalism. 

With over 20 years of experience, Moyer has been noted for his intimate and in-depth storytelling. He has photographed numerous feature stories for National Geographic magazine and has immersed himself in the coverage of the Iraq War for The New York Times. He has also worked on assignments for other big-hitter publications like The Washington Post, The Independent, The Guardian and National Geographic Traveler, where he is currently a contributing photographer. 

Moyer’s repertoire doesn’t stop at photography and filmmaking. He is also a dedicated educator for the National Geographic Photo Camps, a program that “teaches photography to young adults and children in underserved communities,” according to Moyer’s website. 

His dedication to the craft has not gone unnoticed. In 2008, Moyer was named a Knight Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and in 2012, he received a Knight Fellowship at Ohio University. Moyer’s photography has also been recognized for various international awards and has appeared in books like “The Best of Photojournalism” series, “Report From Ground Zero” and “Witness to War.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 25, Moyer participated in a Q&A introduction on campus, after the event was rescheduled from the original date on Feb. 11 due to New Paltz’s water crisis. 

“What’s especially notable about Matt Moyer’s photography and documentary film is the access he is able to gain to his subjects, who are at times vulnerable, well-armed, remote and volatile,” said Assistant Professor of Journalism Rachel Somerstein, who introduced him at the event. “Some of his work is visually spectacular, other images invite viewers to wonder if Moyer worried for his own safety, or how he navigated the ethics of witnessing and photographing violence and suffering, like his photographs from 9/11 and the war in Iraq.” 

During the Q&A led by Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Barbara G. Lyman, various photographs from Moyer’s projects, like “Guns For Hire,” “Shiites of Iraq” and “9/11” were displayed. 

In regards to an intimate and peaceful photo taken for the “Guns For Hire” series, Somerstein commented that, “While many photographs from that project show them wielding their weapons, this photo shows the different side of the same story. This is the kind of moment that as a photographer you have to stick around to get, and one that asks the viewer to stick around too, and to think more deeply about the complexities of these tough seeming, gun-for-hire lives.” 

Despite all of his success, Moyer revealed a humbler side to him at the Q&A by sharing a story about his beginnings. 

“You never know what direction life is going to take you. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I loved art. I filled out one of those tests that tell you what you would be good at and I think I failed,” Moyer said, earning boisterous laughs from the audience. 

When he discovered that he wanted to combine his passions of wildlife, art and travel into a career as a photojournalist, he ambitiously sent out 17 applications to internships. He later received 18 rejection letters. 

“I loved his story about the 18 rejections and he only applied to 17 [internships] because he’s so successful now and has traveled the world, but at the time he was just a college graduate with a bunch of rejection letters,” said fourth-year journalism major Maggie Gibson. 

While the night was flush with anecdotes about Moyer’s experience, one stuck out in particular that nearly brought Moyer to tears. Moyer explained the context behind a photo he took for the “9/11” series, which showed a firefighter sitting at the end of a park bench with his head in his hand and a distressed look on his face. 

As it turned out, the firefighter’s wife worked in the World Trade Center and the couple had an agreement that if anything ever happened, they’d meet at this park bench. Because the firefighter believed his wife to be dead, he asked Moyer to stop taking photos.

However, years later, Moyer received a call from this firefighter. He told Moyer that his wife had actually made it out of the building safely and tried to go meet him at a different fire department. The couple had since reunited, and the firefighter told Moyer that he really appreciates that Moyer took that photo. He felt like the photo “represented the different perspective from what so many other images show that day, that this was sort of like that inner struggle, quietness that firefighters were dealing with,” according to Moyer. 

Moyer is teaching an upper-level journalism seminar this semester titled “The Picture Story.” The course explores the fundamentals of photojournalistic storytelling, and enables students to strengthen their visual literacy and practice creating impactful images. 

“When I saw the type of pictures he takes, I felt like ‘damn, I want to make people feel as much emotion through a photo as he does,’” said fourth-year journalism major Victoria Cymbal, who is currently enrolled in Moyer’s class. 

Thus far, “The Picture Story” has been a game-changing experience for Cymbal in terms of her confidence as a photographer. 

“The best advice he’s given me is to get deeper into the environment and take photos beyond what you see with your eye,” Cymbal reflected. “He sees the potential in everyone, as different as we all are, and he pushes you toward what your individual self can do.”

Make sure not to miss Moyer’s lecture, titled “Inheritance: An Intimate Journey into America’s Opioid Epidemic,” on April 7.

Nicole Zanchelli
About Nicole Zanchelli 82 Articles
Nicole Zanchelli is a fourth-year journalism major with a sociology and Italian studies minor. This is her third semester on The Oracle. Previously, she worked as a sports assistant copy editor, an arts & entertainment copy editor and features copy editor. Her favorite articles to read and write deal with exposing corruption and analyzing social injustices.