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The Last Letter-My Story at the 69th Missouri Photo Workshop

Last week, I participated in the 69th installment of the stories Missouri Photo Workshop in Eldon, Missouri.  

The Missouri Photo Workshop takes place in a different small town in Missouri every year, and is designed to give photojournalists invaluable education and experience with finding, pitching and shooting documentary based stories. 

After completing the application process earlier this year, I was thrilled and honored to be selected to join a talented group of 39 photographers hailing from 11 different countries.

The faculty at this year's workshop included a group of renowned and seasoned photojournalists and editors who provided invaluable teaching, mentoring and critiques.

MPW provides many great challenges. Participants are limited to no more than 400 images for the entire week. Deleting, cropping, editing of photos is strictly prohibited. This constraint is designed to simulate the days of film when photographers needed to be extremely contemplative and judicious with their shooting-something that has virtually disappeared and been replaced with the "spray and pray" rapid-fire shooting of the digital age. 

I was assigned (along with a group of 7 other fellow photographers) to Team Lee led by Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist and journalism professor, Kim Komenich, and long time Detroit Free Press photographer and videographer, Eric Seals.

Kim and Eric were fantastic to work with and provided invaluable insight, advice and criticism. Both are videographers, and their focus on the arc of a story was instrumental to crafting my final edit-which included just 10 out of the 394 images I shot during the week. 

The first evening opened with a moving photo essay by National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson. His images and memories of his time in Cuba, Kansas deeply resounded with me. I swear Richardson has a mystical ability to predict human emotion before it occurs in order to capture it for eternity with his camera a millisecond later.

Richardson's account of the retirement of Cuba's town doctor was especially inspiring, and I believe it was a harbinger to the discovery of my own story in Eldon.

We were told the most daunting aspect of the workshop is discovering, pitching and getting approval of a compelling story. The town's population of 4,653 made the prospect difficult, but I was astounded by the number of deep and powerful stories the citizens of Eldon provided. 

70 percent of participants do not get approval on the first day. Many do not have a story until mid week.  

I was one of the fortunate few.

As I was driving into Eldon for the first day of searching and pitching stories, I spotted a postman hustling on the sides streets delivering mail. I briefly thought that might be interesting, but a story featuring a guy delivering mail wouldn't be compelling enough to pursue, and I quickly forgot about it.

I began my story search at the city hall to pursue leads on the town's animal control officer and the local humane society. After chatting with two helpful ladies in the office, I started to leave and remembered the postman. 

Tell me about the mail carrier I saw on the way in today

Oh, I'll bet you mean Greg. He's a great guy. 

You know, I think it's his last week. He's retiring on Friday.

Finding a story is a little like love. It's indescribable and unpredictable, but you know when it happens.

I knew I had my story.

I hurried across the street to the post office (the beauty of being in a small town), chatted with the supervisor, and 20 minutes later I met the postman...Greg Jarrett.

Greg stopped in briefly on his route to chat, and I learned a little about him. Greg  was retiring after 32 years of employment at the Eldon post office.

He was born and raised in Eldon and married his high school sweetheart, Juanita. Greg and Juanita have five children, two living at home and have a 16 year old son, Luke, who has Down syndrome.

I quickly understood this story was just as much about family, as it was retirement.  

Greg gave consent right away. I informed Greg this story needed to be deeper than delivering mail, or just his impending retirement. It would involve documenting his entire life and everyone connected to him. To my relief, Greg was still game. I told Greg I needed to pitch the story to my faculty and I'd be in touch.

I then drove a block (small town, remember) to the MPW headquarters in the high school gym to pitch my story to Kim and Eric.  

I excitedly told them about Greg, his 32 years of service, his family, his son with Down syndrome, and his retirement on Friday, the last day of the workshop. 

Thanks to my enthusiasm, conviction (I said, "look I have a couple other ideas to pitch to you, but THIS is my story!") my story was accepted.

Afterward, Kim Komenich said, "look, this doesn't happen. We don't usually accept stories this easily and so soon, but it's a great story."

And, he was right. It was a great story.

What ensued was a weeklong whirlwind of 18 hour long days of shadowing Greg on his eleven mile route and documenting the rhythm of his everyday routine with his family. When I wasn't shooting, I was in sessions with faculty and my team or attending evening lectures.

It was one of the most exhausting weeks of my life, but also one of the most exhilarating.

Greg is an amazing person with an incredible family. I thank the Jarretts for the access they gave me to their lives. 

And, thank you to the Missouri Photo Workshop-espeically to Team Lee and my faculty members, Kim Komenich and Eric Seals. I learned so many invaluable facets to documenting life. It was an unforgettable experience.  

Below is a detailed story description of my story, The Last Letter, with photos. Note-my 10 image story can be found on the Missouri Photo Workshop website here: http://mophotoworkshop.org/mpw69/jon-pearson/

Please take some time to check out the other stories from MPW69. It features some insanely talented photographers.

The Last Letter

United States Postal Service carrier, Greg Jarrett has delivered mail in Eldon, Missouri for over 31 years. On Friday, September 29th 2017, Greg will delivered his final letter. 

As he turns in the keys to the mail truck he’s driven since 1994 and bids farewell to countless customers and co-workers, Greg eagerly anticipates the next chapter of his life-a chapter firmly focused on family. 

Greg and his wife, Juanita, have been together since their Eldon high school days. They have five children ranging in ages from 14-31.

When Greg’s oldest son, Seth, was told the family was expecting child number five, he said, “Dad, you need a hobby”. Greg replied, “Obviously, I do have a hobby.”

The two youngest children, Emma, 14, and 16 year old, Luke, both live at home.

Luke was born two months premature with a hole in his heart. He’s had two open heart surgeries and is facing an impending third operation to repair his heart again and have a pacemaker implanted. The day after his birth, Greg and Juanita were also given the news that Luke had Down syndrome.  

While Greg and Juanita know Luke will require consistent supervision for the rest of his life, they also know that Luke also deserves to have a place to call his very own.

“No boy when he’s eighteen should have to wake up every day in a bedroom next to his parent’s room.” said, Juanita. 

So, on the property sits a small, 2 bedroom house the couple built themselves simply named “Luke’s Home”. 

Change is difficult for most individuals with Down Syndrome, so Greg and Juanita have a two year plan to help Luke gradually become comfortable staying in his house overnight by himself. With his father by his side full time, Luke won't be alone.