Paris High is putting its name on the map with a growing photography program and students excelling at the state — and now national — level. Junior Lindley Loughmiller is the first student in Paris High history to make it to the national level in the Skills USA competition, and it’s thanks to her hard work and the well-loved program, headed up by photography teacher Jennifer Cook.

“When I came on staff here we were at a very basic level starting the photography pathway, and now it’s just blown up and, man, it’s exciting,” Cook said of the commercial photography pathway.

Paris High students have participated in Skills USA competitions for the past few years, which test students’ photography prowess across the state and country. This year, Cook’s student Loughmiller placed first in the state level and will be making a name for herself at nationals.

She said she fell into the program and competitions by chance when she was selecting courses for her sophomore year.

“After competing the first year and just getting to learn all of the things, I just really grew to love it, and now I’m in (Cook’s) Photography II class, and I have just continued to love it and to compete in the (Skills USA competitions),” Loughmiller said.

Cook, a professional photographer, is headed into her fourth year teaching. She said the commercial photography pathway has progressively grown and is now the second most popular educational pathway for Paris students preparing for higher education or the workforce.

The program weaves together creativity and practical skills, teaching students not just artistic and portrait photography, but product photography they could use in a wide array of careers, like marketing.

“They get both of the best worlds, really,” Cook said.

Not only do students get to explore their creative side through photography, but Cook said the program incorporates skills like resume writing, meeting deadlines and interviewing, which they’ll be able to use for the rest of their lives.

“It’s very goal-oriented. They can’t procrastinate so it teaches them those skills that they’re going to use in everyday life …” Cook said. “These are definite life lessons, whether they choose to go on to higher education or they choose to go into the workforce, that they will use for the rest of their lives.”

That combination of skills is what makes the Paris High program stand out, Cook said.

“I feel like it’s a pretty big deal because we are the only school that offers what we do in this county,” she said. “So I know a lot of them offer just the basics of photography or yearbook, but the things we’re doing, nobody else does.”

In a year without Covid-19, Cook said she would take her students to the state level competition in Corpus Christi. This year, however, they had to adapt and compete virtually. Students had to tackle several photography challenges, including a portion that tested their knowledge of using Adobe Photoshop. Cook said her group worked all day, starting at 7:45 a.m. and pushing all the way through to 3 p.m. It was magical to see how dedicated her young students were, Cook said.

“There wasn’t one portion of that day where they struggled. I mean, I just saw these kids excelling and working and pushing hard and it was really cool to watch …” she said. “It’s pretty exhilarating to watch them be able to do all of these things without your help.”

Loughmiller said while she likes the excitement of competition, part of her love for photography comes from the creativity and freedom it affords.

“It really is just an opportunity to express yourself and I love how there’s really no right or wrong, you just take a picture of whatever catches your eye,” she said.

Cook said after several years as a teacher, she’s gotten to see her students grow and move on to careers and higher education that involve photography. But after building relationships and growing along with her students, she said it’s tough to say goodbye when they graduate.

“I guess I never expected it to be that hard, you know?” Cook said. “It’s like losing your own kid.”

Loughmiller will be moving on to nationals in June where she’ll test her mastery of skills against tough competition. She said for other young photographers who want to follow in her footsteps, it’s all about perseverance and love for the craft.

“(I’d tell them) to never give up because sometimes you can just take a photo and instantly be like, ‘Well that’s no good.’ But really it’s just the way you look at it, and just to always have an open mind and try to look at things from a different perspective,” she said.

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