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School of Communication professor and Backpack Journalism Project Director Bill Gentile

Courses at AU SOC

Project director Bill Gentile teaches three courses at American University's School of Communication. Each lets students build skills that are essential to the effective practice of backpack journalism.


My courses are modeled after my own experience as a visual journalist in the field since 1977 when I went to work at the Mexico City News as reporter/photographer/editor. One year later I was working as correspondent/editor/photojournalist at United Press International (UPI). In 1985 I signed on as Newsweek Magazine Contract Photographer for Latin America and the Caribbean. In 1995 I went to work with Video News International (VNI), a bold experiment launched in the mid 1990s and based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. VNI’s founder was the first in this country to understand that advances in digital technology could revolutionize and democratize the television newsgathering process and visual communication in general.

The “backpack” component of this arena refers not only to the compact nature and portability of the equipment used. It also is a reference to the multi-skilled nature of its practitioners. In all of my courses, students learn to use some of the latest and most sophisticated equipment available and the skills essential to the effective practice of the craft.

Photojournalism and Social Documentary (3)

Course Level: Undergraduate/Graduate

This course is designed to teach the basics of the visual language and how it is used in the craft of photojournalism. Students learn about the importance and the power of the visual image in communicating ideas and information. They develop an appreciation for, and an understanding of, photojournalism as a craft using light, form, composition and motion as its primary raw materials. They learn to distinguish a good image from a bad one – and to defend their appraisal of each. The learn about the history of photojournalism and key practitioners, then and now. They learn about the structure and the business of the craft, from local newspaper to global news and stock photo agencies. In addition, they learn how to apply this craft to the field of Social Documentary.

Foreign Correspondence (3)

Course Level: Undergraduate/Graduate

This course prepares students to work as journalists, photographers, documentary makers, and social media producers in foreign countries and provides research skills and training applicable in business, non-profit, non-governmental organizations as well. It examines the structure/process of news/information gathering and journalistic standards. Students build a "Trip File" with analysis and story ideas to execute overseas. Prerequisite: minimum 2.5 GPA. 

Backpack Documentary

Course Level: Undergraduate/Graduate

Selected Topics: Non-recurring (1-6)

This course is built on the premise that a properly trained video journalist, alone or in a small team, can tell stories with powerful images and intelligent words, using hand-held, digital cameras for a more intimate, more immediate, more fluid brand of communication than that achievable with a large crew and the larger, shoulder-held cameras -- and for a fraction of the cost. The tools and the techniques taught in this course will help you to compete in the very fertile, and growing, arena that we call visual journalism, or visual communication.