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USM Photographer Kelly Dunn Has Southern Miss in Focus

Mon, 10/02/2023 - 04:23pm | By: David Tisdale


USM Photographer Kelly Dunn has captured multiples iconic images of the days in the life of The University of Southern Mississippi throughout her career.

It’s hard to picture The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) without Kelly Dunn.

A popular and omnipresent figure on campus, Dunn is a Hattiesburg-area native who joined the university’s staff in 2000, first as an assistant photographer for its former Photo Services unit and who now manages its Image Center while still shooting photos daily at such events as commencement, homecoming, concerts, forums and sports, among many others.

USMDunn captures the images that tell the Southern Miss story. And if indeed it’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words, her vast album of work speaks volumes, fueled by a passion for her craft that shows little sign of ebbing after more than two decades on the job.

“There’s something new every day,” she says of her work. “Sometimes I’m shooting a student event or an athletics event, or I’m photographing the president and alumni. Portraits, landscapes, planned, spur of the moment – it’s always different.”

USMDunn’s favorite photo subject is people.

“I like documentary and portrait photography,” she explained. “I like to tell stories with my photos, whether through an individual portrait or event. As a portrait photographer, you can be the first to photograph a newborn or the last to photograph a grandparent.”

“I also enjoy shooting weddings, because wedding photography is a combination of so many types of photography - portrait, journalism, and silly candids.”

USMAs manager of the Image Center, Dunn oversees all paperwork aspects of the office, including billing, planning, scheduling, as well as its ID printer and supplies, while also maintaining relationships across campus with partners and alumni as she takes on multiple photo assignments.

The busiest times of the year for her are in the fall and after spring break on through to graduation, working not only days but often nights and weekends.

USM“I truly love being a photographer, so the extra hours aren’t a bad thing,” she explained. “I also love learning, and working at the university provides opportunities to learn about new things when I cover an event, lecture series, or other programs.

“Loving what you do and where you do it make the long hours not so bad.”

Photography “bug” inherited from beloved grandmother

USMDunn says she got “the bug” for taking photos from her grandmother. “She was a true shutterbug,” Dunn said “My grandparents traveled a lot, and she was always taking pictures. Beginning in the fifth grade, I started bringing a point-and-shoot camera to school to take photos, which led to me joining the yearbook staff at North Forrest High School. When I expressed a desire to be a photographer, I had a teacher who encouraged me.”

As a student at Pearl River Community College, she worked for the school newspaper and had a mentor who taught her how to use a photo dark room and other lessons about photography. After transferring to Delta State University, she began digging into the technical aspects of the field.

“My faith is an important part of who I am, and I believe it was God opening those doors to my career at every step,” she explained.

Dunn’s favorite go-to camera is her Nikon D5 with 70-200mm and 24-70mm lenses with a Speedlight. “With those pieces, I can shoot just about anything,” she said. “I’m constantly tinkering with Polaroid cameras and phone cameras with additional lenses. Those are my toys on the weekends.”

She’s witnessed huge changes in photo technology over her career. “When I started, we were shooting on film,” Dunn recounts. “Now, we have a mirrorless digital camera that is silent when shooting.”

A self-proclaimed pack rat, Dunn says the hardest part of the changes involve image storage. “Do you keep everything?” she wonders aloud. “Only keep those images you use for that specific shoot? Keep raw or only jpeg? I have trouble narrowing down what to keep, so I keep everything.” 

An eye for making what’s old new again

USMWhile Dunn naturally leverages her skills as a photographer and artistic talents in her work, sometimes she’s forced to dig a little deeper into her mental toolbox to find a more compelling angle to portray a familiar subject.

“There are some days when I’m tired and frustrated, and have photo block, but I still have to shoot an event or project,” she said. “It can be hard to look at, say, the Lake Byron Bridge after 23 years and see it creatively. But that is when I go and sit with it, whether it is the bridge or the Dome (Aubrey K. Lucas Administration Building), or any other campus icon. I try to let it and its space ‘talk’ to me.”

Another challenge she happily takes on each year is the class photos for Golden Eagle Welcome Weekend (GEWW), when incoming first-year students become acquainted with their new home at the university.

“That takes a lot of planning and calls for teamwork,” Dunn said of GEWW. “I must depend on others to help, and just the sheer number of people in the photo makes it stressful, never mind the Mississippi August heat. But I love seeing and photographing the joy on the new students’ faces, especially for Paint the Eagle Walk.” 

BowieAnd then there are those people who just don’t like to have their picture taken. Dunn has mastered the ability to build rapport with those individuals and ease them into focus.

“If you can make a person comfortable while taking their photo, they’ll tend to like the photographs more,” she said. “They’ll remember and associate their feeling of happiness, fun and comfortability with those photos, and I try to do that through laughter or asking them about themselves and trying to get to know them.”

Inspired by the best to be the best

Dunn takes inspiration from the world’s most well-known photographers and those closer to home who have taught her the finer points of the craft.

“I’ve always admired Annie Lebovitz. In high school and through college I spent hours looking at her photography in Vanity Fair magazine. Her work made a huge impression on me stylistically; her photographs tell a story even if they are just individual portraits.

“The photographers who risked their lives to capture life-saving images like Danny Lyon of the Civil Rights movement, Lynsey Addario and her work in the Middle East, and Lewis Hine and his child labor photographs - those photographers’ images have changed the world and given voices to those without.”

USMTwo of her college professors, including Kim Rushing at Delta State and Clarence Williams at USM, pushed Dunn outside of the “pretty” element of photography.

“Kim wouldn’t let me stay comfortable right up through my senior thesis. Clarence taught me to let the subject of the photo breathe, and he challenged me with every assignment to think outside of the traditional portrait box I let myself get stuck in sometimes.

“Danny [Rawls, former co-worker] taught me posing; he was amazing at that. He taught me to look at the details, which make or break a photograph.”

And with so many daily assignments to go along with Dunn’s management duties at the Image Center, finding that work-life balance is a challenge. Even with her incredibly busy schedule, she somehow finds the time to pursue a master’s degree in USM’s School of Media and Communications, where Dr. David Davies serves as her advisor.

USM“I’ve known Kelly for years, as she’s been a near-constant presence across campus doing her work as university photographer,” Dr. Davies said. “She’s not only incredible at what she does, but typifies the helpful nature of all USM staff, always happy to assist those around her and does so with a smile. “She’s also an outstanding scholar who does top-flight work outside of the classroom. 

“Kelly’s always on the move, and I can't wait to see what she does next as her career progresses.” 

A homecoming to remember

USMUSM’s 2023 homecoming week (Oct. 2-7) will include the inauguration of Dr. Joseph S. Paul as the university’s 11th president on Oct. 5. This will be Dunn’s third presidential inauguration to shoot and second as lead photographer. Her strategy for juggling her schedule throughout the big week includes planning ahead and keeping additional events to a minimum when possible – plus getting plenty of sleep and fluids.

“Time management will be crucial,” she explained. “I’m checking this week’s schedule daily to make sure I’m not missing anything important. And I’m reaching out to partners for a detailed schedule of the [presidential] inaugural events being held on the Gulf Coast and in Hattiesburg.

“And I want to make sure I’m working just as hard on homecoming events as I normally would.”

Dunn appreciates that her work is a visual record of some of the biggest events in the life of the university.

“I want to achieve historical documentation, of course - taking photos that will be used throughout USM’s history going forward,” she further noted. “And Dr. Paul is such an iconic part of the university. He’s a rock star on campus, and I hope to portray that with my photographs during that event [inauguration] and throughout homecoming week.

“It’s very important for me to capture these special moments for him, our students, faculty and staff and alumni.”

A visual legacy of excellence

USMAmong the photos in Dunn’s immense catalog that stand out for her include an image of USM’s damaged Ogletree Alumni House following the 2013 tornado that struck the Hattiesburg campus. “That was my first UC [University Communications] emergency call from [Chief Communications Officer] Jim [Coll] and the photo was published in a national newspaper,” she recounted.

Other memorable moments and accompanying shots include from meeting and photographing the artist Christo, a large-scale, environmental installation artist, and the recent USM Foundation capital campaign “Give Wing,” the latter which she described as a “challenging project that sparked my creativity.”

USMAsked about her own legacy and its impact, Dunn hopes she has and continues telling USM’s story well and leaves a positive impression on colleagues and students alike.

“Although I’ve not been a professor, I hope I’ve taught my student workers [at the Image Center] something, not just about photography, but also about life. Nothing makes my heart happier than hearing former student employees say I left a great impression on them, or I was their favorite boss, or I helped make them better photographers. That also motivates me.”

Kyle Graves, a graduate public relations student from Monticello, Mississippi, works in the Image Center under Dunn’s supervision. Graves edits photos and helps fellow students with photo IDs and picture orders. He praised his boss for taking time out of her busy schedule to help him scale up his skills.

“I had a small amount of experience editing photos when I first started here - nothing extensive,” Graves said. “Kelly helped me make sure I was confident in my abilities before I was thrown into the deep end. She’s encouraging, talented, and a servant to those around her, no matter how high or low their position, as well as a genius photographer and wonderful boss.”

USM alumna Kate Dearman studied photojournalism and public relations at Southern Miss from 2011-2015, during which time she was a student worker for Dunn at the Image Center. A Hattiesburg native, Dearman is now a full-time freelance commercial director and photographer based in Nashville, Tennessee, and credited Dunn with helping her become not only a better photographer, but also a better person.

“While Kelly taught me a lot of incredible things about photography, she instilled in me the importance of being a good human first and a good photographer second,” Dearman said. “Kelly taught me the importance of always putting the dignity of my subjects first when taking photographs.

“She’s been instrumental in shaping the photographer and creative that I am today.”

USMMegan Burkes, associate director for public relations and donor programs in the USM Foundation, and Nicole Ruhnke, associate director for external affairs in the Southern Miss Alumni Association, have worked closely with Dunn on multiple projects over the years. Both praised her skills and professionalism in helping advance the university on multiple fronts with her photography.

“Kelly’s work allows us to visualize the impact of philanthropy at Southern Miss,” Burkes explained. “While the words are important, her photos bring life to our stories. Her work is highly technical, yet beautifully imaginative. She is an artist - and maybe a bit of a magician - behind the camera. 

“Kelly is also one of the hardest working people at USM, and her work touches every corner of the university. Not only is she a great talent, but a wonderful human being who truly embodies what it means to be a Golden Eagle, and I’m so glad to call her my friend and colleague.” 

Ruhnke echoed Burkes in commending Dunn as both an excellent photographer and a great university teammate.

“Her service to the USM and Hattiesburg communities is inspiring,” Ruhnke continued. “Simply put, Kelly makes us better.”