A Vision For Stories: Grand Valley State University


UPAA Blog 2022-23 #11 - 1/19/23 (text by Kendra Stanley-Mills)

In 2022, UPAA introduced a new competition, the UPAA Quarterly Narrative Competition.  (UPAA President Glenn Carpenter details the new contest in this blog article.) Grand Valley State University's project "GVSU Lakers: All Hands on Deck" won in the Online Photo Essay category in the 2nd quarter (December 2022).

Grand Valley was also first place in the first quarter results, and two quarters into the new contest has placed more online photo essays than any other UPAA member school. GVSU staff photographer Kendra Stanley-Mills has contributed photos and/or editing to most of GVSU's photo essays, and gives some background on the "Hands" project, her drive to tell stories in this format, as well as how GVSU utilizes photo essays for creative and informative storytelling. 

“Grand Valley State University is fortunate to have such talented photographers," said Bill Cuppy, Creative Director at GVSU. "Our collection of photo essays continues to grow and become an important part of our visual communication. Kendra has a special talent for storytelling and curates and creates photo essays that are not only visually stunning but moving and inspiring for the viewer.”

There are many links in this article and each opens a new tab. Be prepared to spend some time with these!-Ed.


I grew up in Edmonson County, Kentucky and, fortunately for me, Western Kentucky University was only a 25-minute drive from our family farm. Although I originally intended to be a lawyer, my path led me to pursue a photojournalism major. I didn’t know it at the time, but WKU has one of the best photojournalism programs in the country. After internships at the Glasgow Daily Times, the Harrisburg Patriot News and the Kalamazoo Gazette, I ended up with an internship at the Muskegon Chronicle in Muskegon, Michigan that led to a full-time job where I worked for 13 years.


Left: Kendra Stanley-Mills loads film on her first day as an intern at the Glasgow (KY) Daily Times. Right top and bottom: Images from Kendra's time at the Muskegon Chronicle.

With the downsizing of the newsroom, I decided to start my own photography business doing freelance, weddings, portraits and commercial photography. After 8 years of running my business, a friend shared with me that Grand Valley State University was hiring a university photographer. 

I was hired at GVSU in October 2019. As soon as I started at Grand Valley, my colleagues told me about UPAA and encouraged me to join. Although my photojournalism and photography business background have been a great fit preparing me for this phase of my career, UPAA has been instrumental to fill in the gaps with all the new caveats there are to learn with university photography.  I have been a full-time photographer since 1999. I’m still learning and, for me, that keeps me energized and excited about this profession I love so much. UPAA has been teaching this old dog a lot of new tricks!

Photo essays, photo stories or long-term projects have always been the thing that I care most deeply about. I think it is because once I have gained access and a strong vision – that’s when my photography is the most authentic. When I first started a GVSU, we didn’t have the Exposure platform. We had used a swiping gallery of around 5 images imbedded into a written story. I hadn’t heard of Exposure before, but a colleague pitched the request to our supervisor and I’ve been proud of how our team has utilized the ability to be more narrative with our visuals ever since. 


"It all started with one photo." 

The “All Hands on Deck” photo essay has been one of my favorites and it all started with one photo. In 2019, I took a photo of one of our president emeritus’ hands clasped behind his back. I really loved the image but there really wasn’t a “home” or use for the photo by itself. Another photographer on our team suggested we try to look for all the past presidents’ hands and maybe we could put them together in a gallery. I loved the idea and it always stayed in the back of my mind. Coincidentally, the president emeritus came to my office looking for some archive photos of himself and I mentioned that I took a photo of his hands that I really liked. When I pulled the photo up on my computer and showed him, he said, “I think you can tell that I’m a compassionate person by my hands.” It was a lightbulb moment. 

Realizing that hands really can tell a story, I started pulling any hand photos that I had taken over the time I’ve been at GVSU and there were a lot! (I guess I didn’t realize how much I was drawn to photographing hands.) I asked the other photographers if they had good hand photos, and it turned out they must love photographing hands, too. After compiling a folder of good hands images from the last three years or so, I pitched the idea to our creative director.


"All Hands on Deck" required no new photography, but it did benefit from thorough keywording!

The great thing about this project was that it was all archive imagery. I didn’t photograph anything new. It was just an idea that morphed with time, a little bit of archival digging (this is my plea to keyword your photos well--a little effort the day you import your images will save hours of time in the future!) and creative page design. Most of all, having the support and encouragement from your supervisors to give your ideas the green light is instrumental. We’re fortunate to have that type of environment at GVSU. 

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The images in the photo essay are strong as singles but take on new depth and meaning by being collected together.

The funny thing about the “All Hands on Deck” Exposure was that it was intended to go out at the beginning of the semester as a presidential message in an email to welcome students back to campus. Because of circumstances out of our control, that didn’t happen. However, our president loved it so much that she asked to have about a half dozen photos from that project printed as framed art for a new faculty staff dining area on campus. I’m happy that the images inspired a use.  

Exposure photo essays have opened huge possibilities to showcase imagery in a visually appealing way which has motivated me to look for and pitch ideas with the confidence that we have an avenue to give the photos proper justice.

Most of the Exposures have been pitched by an idea from our photo team, however, now that people are in the habit of seeing them, it is becoming a bit more understood across our department when something would lend itself to a good visual project.

We have implemented our visuals in a variety of ways by having the ability to use Exposure as a storytelling tool. 

Here are some examples:

We’ve told informative stories: 


"Parks and Trails" highlights natural areas close to the GVSU campus. "1 in 4" offered support and advice in dealing with the mental health challenges surrounding the pandemic.

We’ve told newsworthy stories:


GVSU utilized Exposure photo essays to document the unprecedented measures taken during the COVID-19 pandemic. Top: "A season of Adapting" showed how GVSU athletics made accommodations for COVID-19. Bottom left: "Essential Workers" showcased those who kept campus running when most faculty and staff members were working from home. Bottom right: "The Time the Show Couldn't Go On" began as a photo story on preparations for an April 2020 dance performance. Both the performance and the photography were halted as GVSU suddenly shifted to remote learning.

It’s been great to organize fun provided images: 

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Above: An image from the photo essay "Disposable cameras, timeless photos." In September 2021, a number of disposable cameras were left around GVSU with a prompt to "Show us Grand Valley through your eyes."

And historical archives: 

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"Grand Valley State University Turns 60" is a rich visual history of GVSU.

We have pumped the brakes to be able to tell stories from start to finish: 


Left: "Shaping Stone" followed a local Anishinaabe artist for months has he created and installed a sculpture on GVSU's Pew Grand Rapids Campus. Right: "Koda the K-9" told the story of the first days on the job for a campus police dog.

Showing our campus by the season has been a favorite way to utilize Exposure: 


Top: A drone photo by Amanda Pitts leads off "A Grand Valley Autumn." Bottom left: The photo of first year GVSU student Yash Hazari tailgating with friends is part of the story "Fall in Love with GVSU." Bottom right: Louie the Laker gets in a snowball fight in "A Grand Winter." (bottom photos by Kendra Stanley-Mills)

We also have done some more personal projects: 


Left: In "A Room with a View," Kendra Stanley-Mills shared the moments she's captured from her own office. Right: "PAWSativity" showcased the work-from-home companions of GVSU communications team members.

...And highlighted research through portraits: 

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Kendra Stanley-Mills' portrait of Ian Curtis, who does research on 18th-Century French literature is part of the series"Summer Scholars."

And fieldwork: 

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It all comes back to hands... Kendra Stanley-Mills photographed "A Head Start on Survival," which details work by GVSU researchers and John Ball Zoo to boost a small Eastern box turtle population at a nearby nature preserve.

Entering the MIC competition and especially this new narrative category is three-fold. First, it’s a great way to share ideas or get inspiration from the stories and projects other universities are telling. You don’t have to replicate the idea exactly but perhaps it nudges you to tackle a project you’ve always wanted to shoot. Secondly, if you place it shows your department that these longer photo essays have value. Lastly, judging helps you look at stories with a critical and analytical eye. Studying a project, and seeing its strengths and weaknesses, keeps that knowledge at the forefront of your mind when you start working on your next project. 

So, ENTER, JUDGE and WIN! It will make you better. It will make us all better. 


"In school I was given an assignment to do a 2000-word essay. So I turned in two pictures." Thanks for reading the UPAA blog. Something you'd like us to do a blog article about? Contact editor Matt Cashore, mcashore@nd.edu. You can see daily work from UPAA members by following UPAA on Instagram.