UCLA reporting honors photojournalist’s memory

In their last year of college, a reporter and photographer spent 24 days in Malawi conducting interviews and taking photographs to create an ambitious newspaper report about a sensitive human-rights story. But to pay for the trip, they didn’t have to hit the lottery or save money by sleeping in their cars.

Presented by the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student paper, “In the Shadows” is a story of vulnerability, isolation and prejudice. Homosexuality is illegal and stigmatized in Malawi, so all the people who 2013 UCLA graduates Sonali Kohli interviewed and Blaine Ohigashi photographed had to remain anonymous. The three-chapter story details the challenges Malawi’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community faces in getting health care, including HIV prevention and treatment, and obtaining mental-health and addiction services.

Kohli and Ohigashi owe their opportunity to pursue such an ambitious story to the Bridget O’Brien Scholarship Foundation. O’Brien, who died in 2007, was a former staffer at the Bruin, where she worked primarily as a photojournalist. Kelly Rayburn, a board member of the foundation who knew O’Brien in high school and worked with her at the Bruin, said in a phone interview that “she inspired people to tell stories in a variety of different ways. She did everything at the Bruin. She was the photo editor, she was a copy editor, she wrote news stories — she just did everything.”

Nearing her graduation in 2003, O’Brien knew she wanted to travel. She started saving money and thinking about stories she could pursue.

“She was basically living in her truck and on people’s couches to save money to travel,” recalled Rayburn. “Over the winter break, we got this email from her — it kind of came out of the blue, but it was what you’d expect from her. She was always going from one adventure to another.”

The email is reproduced on the foundation’s website. In it, O’Brien thanked her friends for allowing her to sleep on their couches and in their extra beds so that she only had to spend five nights in her truck to save cash.

“I’m leaving in about 20 minutes to drive to the San Francisco airport and get on a plane to Nicaragua,” she wrote. “Sudden, yes. Random, yes. Malaria-ridden, yes.”

USA Today had hired her to cover a story about fair-trade coffee, she said, so she was heading out with a purpose. Her story was published in the Bruin, with her photographs appearing in USA Today. In October 2007, while on tour with her husband and his band, O’Brien was killed in a car accident when a deer ran onto the Ohio Turnpike, her father Kevin O’Brien said in an email.

After Bridget’s death, her friends and family wanted to find a way people could honor her memory besides sending flowers, Kevin O’Brien said. Rayburn and his wife Sarah, who had also worked at the Bruin and known Bridget, suggested a scholarship and offered to work out the logistics.

“The scholarship foundation in Bridget’s name allows us to keep her spirit alive by providing funding and resources not normally available at college publications, and by encouraging and allowing other student journalists to pursue their passion,” O’Brien said, adding that the support of the Bruin’s editors and adviser “help assure the reporting is carried out responsibly and to a high ethical standard.”

The teams are selected by an advisory board that includes Bridget O’Brien’s former Bruin colleagues, friends and her parents, said Tyson Evans, a board member who’s now deputy editor for interactive news at The New York Times.

Many Bruin staffers plan their application for the O’Brien scholarship far in advance. Ohigashi said he started thinking about a project when photo editor Maya Sugarman and her partner Matt Stevens went to Cameroon on the 2010 scholarship. In a phone interview, Ohigashi said he and Kohli first decided what issue they wanted to cover, then looked at countries in which LGBT rights was a pressing issue and to which UCLA had a connection. (In Malawi, UCLA works with Partners in Hope Medical Center to conduct research and provide free HIV/AIDS care.)

The scholarship committee chose Kohli and Ohigashi’s project because the team was clearly committed to the Bruin and because the proposal that became “In the Shadows” matched the scholarship’s mission, Rayburn said — “something with global reach and local consequence.”

Bridget O’Brien made it her mission to report on such stories, and her friends and family have now made it theirs to ensure other students have the same opportunities that she created for herself.

“We wanted to give other people the same opportunity without them having to spend a quarter in their truck,” Rayburn said.

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