On a recent duck hunting trip to southwestern West Virginia, the author revisits memories of a photography internship and how it led him to his current career
Andy Bernard—Ed Helm’s quirky, cringy character from The Office—once said, “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.”
Looking back on a crisp, October morning in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, as wood ducks flew overhead and my Beretta lit up the fog and dawn darkness surrounding me, I didn’t realize then how I truly am living in “the good old days.”
Yet, driving into this tucked-away waterfowl haven near the first spotting of my home state’s most famous cryptid, Mothman, took me back eight years to a time I think about often–a time I truly regret not taking full advantage of.
It was then, with my acceptance letter to West Virginia University fresh on the refrigerator, I began a long-distance internship for my senior project. I’m not sure if you ever had to do a senior project in high school, but at Ritchie County High it was something you began stressing about—and somehow looking forward to—the first day of your final stanza. I thought about what I wanted to do my project on since that first day, mulling between music composition and news writing for months before finally, on a whim, choosing photography at the last minute. While I say a whim, my love for photography was a slow burn, the spark beginning my junior year when I began doing freelance work for my hometown paper. And, just as a wildfire born from a lightning strike grows rapidly, so did my passion to learn more.
I remember staying up late that first year studying the basics, but it wasn’t until I was actually partaking in the internship that a whole new side of things opened up to me. Every Friday, I would drive 2 hours from school to a small photography studio in Pomeroy, Ohio, roughly 30 minutes from Point Pleasant, blasting the Mumford and Sons album ‘Sigh No More’ the whole way. Once there, I’d spend hours with my mentors, Brandon and Rana Bartee, accomplished portrait photographers and the two who took my senior pictures. Then, following graduation, Brandon and Rana invited me back to learn more for a week over the summer.
It was this summer internship that really pushed me to fall head over heels in love with photography. It’s where I learned a little bit more about my style, and where I found out a little bit more about myself as a person, too. I’d never have imagined that, in a tiny pocket of Southeastern Ohio, this was possible, yet I came back home after that week ready to fully explore my new adult life.
However, once I started attending WVU, I never went back to that small town. While it was the site of a pivotal time of my life, I felt a strange disconnect from the town once my week was up. Brandon, Rana, and I eventually stopped talking, and with that, I could put that part of my life behind me.
I used what I learned to begin taking senior photos for friends, as well as to propel myself into the art director role at WVU’s student newspaper that I held for 2 1/2 years. Throughout college, photography would take me everywhere from Fort Worth, Texas, to Atlanta covering WVU football and basketball, to Washington D.C. and Charleston, West Virginia, covering politics and current events.
So, on this recent trip to Point Pleasant, there was a strange, underlying sense of anxiety as I took the familiar route through Ritchie County into Southeastern Ohio. It felt weird to drive down the main street in Pomeroy, albeit I didn’t stop to revisit any place, but all those memories of a time long gone came flooding back into my mind. From the late-night portrait sessions to playing guitar on the balcony of the Bartee’s apartment; from the many late lunches at the local restaurant and bar to getting my nose pierced as a symbol of 18-year-old rebellion against my Irish Catholic mother. For a moment I was transported back in time.
Then, as fast as it came back, it was gone and I was back in West Virginia.
The next day, I woke up at 3 a.m. to get to my designated area. The morning was crisp and fog hung over the small pond, and as soon as the light began to shine behind the black hills, birds began to cross every which way. I wondered if reality would break and I’d see the silhouette of that famous monster flying through the sky, but my early-morning thoughts were interrupted as shotguns sounded all around me. Within a minute of legal light, I shot my first wood duck, a juvenile drake. Soon after, I shot a hen as she crossed in front of me, and over the next few hours, I’d get a few more opportunities to fill my three-bird limit but couldn’t connect.
I’d walk away with two bird, and, at that moment, life was great.
My route back to Morgantown would take me the way I came. As I drove down Pomeroy’s Main Street, I realized then how little I appreciated that time in my life. But, as quickly as that thought popped into my mind, so did the realization that I can appreciate the life I live now. Truthfully, I wouldn’t be here writing this article without that internship. It was the cornerstone of why I chose to attend school for journalism. That, I thought, was pretty cool.
As I hit those country roads, I went to iTunes and opened up ‘Sigh No More,’ clicked song No. 1, and allowed myself to be 18 once more. It felt like the necessary way to end a trip in a pocket of the world that means so much to me.
Andrew is an award-winning, professional journalist, lifelong hunter, and digital editor of Project Upland. Born in West Virginia, he's spent most of his life chasing squirrels, rabbits, and whitetails around the Ohio Valley and Allegheny Plateau, but has since expanded his repertoire to include waterfowl and upland birds. A 2017 graduate of West Virginia University's Reed College of Media, Andrew's writing and art have appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines, and media sites.