Sunday, February 24, 2013

THON Things and Poster Fronts

Stacia Hollingsworth cries as she reads a letter 
during mail call on Saturday morning.
Shooting anything as long or expansive as THON is fun for me because there are so many possibilities and I like having time to get into an assignment.  Since THON takes place over an entire weekend, it was pretty much like camp for me - I'd edit for a while on press row with my favorite people, then whenever there were floor passes open, I'd go shoot whatever was going on.  Sometimes this would be in the wee hours of the morning, but there would always be something going on.  Since the majority of the Collegian photographers were associated with THON in some way, only nine of us could shoot this weekend.  Therefore, like 15,000 other people, I sacrificed my sleep and shot as much as I could both for the Collegian or COMM 469 - whichever had an open pass.
Stacia and her sister, Ebony Hollingsworth, laugh at a letter
 during Mail Call on Saturday at THON.

I was only on the floor for a little while on Friday, since I was trying to edit through some video and write a paper on Uncle Tom's Cabin.  If you've ever been to THON you'll understand why I didn't get very far with either.  I still shot a little bit, and it was a good time to get in the THON shooting groove.

Saturday morning was productive.  Mail call happened, which is when dancers get letters and packages from their various supporters.  These can be as practical as snacks and deodorant or as emotional as letters from kids with cancer.  I found one dancer, Stacia, who was an emotive person and I followed her through opening her packages.  She laughed, she cried, I shot it all.  It's great to find people who don't mind you quietly documenting them, and fortunately THON creates an environment that lets you shoot just about anything without surprising anyone.  Occasionally people will spot you and pose, but there's so much going on that in a moment they'll go back to whatever they were doing, and you can delete those shots and shoot something candid and infinitely better.

At noon on Saturday afternoon, after a pep talk from Bill O'Brien, the THON kids' fashion show happened.  While it was a great way for the dancers to get familiar with all the kids, the photo possibilities mostly consisted of little kids standing awkwardly at the front of the stage, so I hung around the back of the stage.  

Earlier in the day I'd shot a little kid in a lion suit playing with squirt guns.  His name was Layn Burger, and he was a Four Diamonds kid who had been treatment-free for five years.  As a matter of course, I got his name, age, hometown, and a nice quote from his mother ("Without THON he wouldn't be here").  Over the weekend I reached a point where I'd photographed so many kids so many times that taking names was redundant, which was useful for situations where I wasn't able to get to the family to take their name.

Layn Burger, 7, hugs the Nittany Lion after his appearance in
the THON fashion show on Saturday.
In his turn Layn went onstage for the fashion show.  I was watching him, and when he turned around to go off, he ran into the Lion's arms.  My heart skipped a beat - big lion hugging little lion - and I shot a few pictures of the hug before he left the stage.  I hadn't really anticipated the hug, so I was still zooming in as it happened and the focus wasn't tack sharp, but it turned out to be a pretty good moment anyway.  It was turned into a meme, which will probably be the zenith of my popularity as a photographer, and it made the front on Monday.

I stuck around the Bryce Jordan Center until 3:00 Saturday afternoon, when our editor realized that a group of THON kids had gone across the street to the football facility for a Make-A-Wish excursion with the football team, and we didn't have a photographer there.  So I snatched up my camera, sprinted through the Pegula Ice Arena construction zone, and found about 25 kids working out where a week earlier I'd filmed an open workout.  I shot a few frames - kids working out, kids trying on uniforms, kids playing with football players - before Bill O'Brien arrived and Jeff Nelson kicked us out.

Beta Sigma Beta’s THON child Sam Creasy, 5, of Harrisburg, tickles Penn State defensive tackle Derek Dowrey (53) during a Make-A-Wish event at the Lasch Football Building on Saturday.

Penn State fullback Andre Dupree helps Trenton Sullivan, 2,
of Hanover, do a pull-up at a Make-A-Wish event at the Lasch
Football  Building on Saturday during THON weekend.
When I tried to get back into the BJC, the line stretched a quarter mile down Curtin Road.  I had a four-hour shift at 8:00 that evening, so rather than stand in line for hours, I got dinner and changed.  These lines continued to grow for the rest of the weekend.  Lots of people gave up on getting inside, and some of the stalwarts got hypothermia for their efforts.  When I checked back in at around 8:00 the next morning, there were people in gym shorts and hoodies stamping to keep warm.  The wind whips around the BJC sometimes, and the line wasn't in a particularly sheltered place.  People were clumped by the one operating entrance in everything from gym shorts to snuggies, fog rising up from them like heat off a herd of cattle sticking out a cold snap on the prairie.  A gallon of iced tea and some water bottles on the ground beside the line had frozen rock solid.

Anyway, it's probably as exhausting to read about this as it was to cover it, so without much further ado, I present people crying, the Nittany Lion taking a baby powder bath, and Mike the Mailman.

The Nittany Lion receives a 10-second massage as part of THON 2013's Slides of Strength at the Bryce Jordan Center on Sunday.

Morale captain Dredeir Roberts and Mike the Mailman dance before THON's mail call on Saturday morning at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Left to right, Meghan O'Neil, Kevin O'Connor and Janine Patton, all Rules and Regulations captains, watch a video memorial for Bella Rinier, a THON child who died in August 2012.

Four Diamonds Co-founder Charles Millard reads 5-year-old Austin Lightner's sign during Family Hour on Sunday at THON 2013. Mont Alto's THON child Lightner, on his father Dan Lightner's shoulders, had a sign that read: "1125 days down: 37 'till no mo' chemo."
So finally, Layn hugging the Lion went over pretty well at the office, so they blew it up for our first poster front in... a while? and now I have a foot-high stack of Collegians in my dorm room.  It was a lucky shot to make; I wasn't planning on it, I barely had enough time to zoom in and focus, and I was only standing there because I wasn't shooting what THON wanted me to shoot.  But I was shooting THON for 20 hours, and I was in the BJC for 40, so good things come to those who wait, I guess.

Hillel child Layn Burger, 7, of Elizabethtown, Pa., hugs the Nittany Lion after walking down the runway of the THON 2013 fashion show on Saturday at the Bryce Jordan Center.  This is Layn's seventh THON, and his fifth treatment-free.

Images are property of The Daily Collegian. Don't steal, give us credit.  Also thanks to Penn State College of Comm for lending me a D800 and some wicked shahp lenses, to John Beale for letting me take out the gear I wanted, and to the editors at the Collegian for continuing to like me.


  1. I was just "Googling" my son, Austin, as I occasionally do to see what pops up, and came across your blog. In the days after THON, we were inundated with links to pictures of our family, but until tonight, I had never seen the one you captured of Austin on my husband's shoulders while shaking Charles Millard's hand. It is now one of my favorite pictures from THON. Thank you for capturing this wonderful picture! Charles Millard and his family have a dear place in our hearts, and I'm glad it was captured on film (Well, an SD card, but that just doesn't sound the same!). -The Lightner Family

    1. I'm so glad you like it! Feedback is kind of rare for photojournalists (at least for me) so it's great to hear when people see their pictures and like it. I'll be back again at THON 2014 - maybe I'll see you there!