Framing American politics
Photojournalist Leah Millis has photographed her way from MSU Denver to the White House — and across the globe. Now, Millis and a team of Reuters photographers have been awarded a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for their work documenting protests in Hong Kong.
Leah Millis first picked up an SLR camera when she was 12 years old. But she didn’t fully realize the power of photography until her senior year at Denver’s East High School when she journeyed to Haiti with her father as part of the Colorado Haiti Project.
“I brought my camera and started talking to people and photographing people,” she recalled.
The experience volunteering at a medical clinic and photographing the people in a remote Haitian village was transformative for Millis, who in 2011 earned a journalism degree with a photojournalism concentration from Metropolitan State University of Denver. Today, she’s a trailblazing Reuters senior photographer based in Washington, D.C. It’s a position that has allowed her to document the most powerful people in American politics and taken her around the globe. This May, Millis and a team of Reuters photographers won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for their work documenting protests in Hong Kong.
As a member of the White House press corps travel pool, Millis is part of a small group of journalists who travel with the president. “We’re in the motorcade with him; we’re on Air Force One,” she said. In February, Millis became the first woman to capture the State of the Union speech from the single floor pool position. It was the first time a woman from any news outlet had photographed the annual message by the president from the floor.
When Millis learned that she was the first woman to have held that position, she had mixed feelings, including guilt. “I felt mostly just shocked and kind of angry, honestly,” she said. “(The female photojournalists that came before) made space for me. But I also realize that’s how change happens: The people who come first … don’t see that change, but someone behind them does.”
There are three photographer colleagues with whom Millis shares the White House shifts, and she’s the only woman in the Reuters photo department. In fact, she’s one of only two females on staff at Reuters in North America; there are fewer than 10 worldwide. It can be difficult to be one of only a few women in photojournalism, she said. Among her colleagues, though, she said she feels welcome and supported in sharing her opinion.
“A healthy community is a diverse community,” Millis said.
Taking her shot
The support she enjoys at Reuters has allowed Millis to pursue projects outside the Beltway, too. Last April, she wrapped a long-term project about a community of mass-shooting survivors — writing, photographing and producing a 10-minute short documentary that coincided with the anniversary of the Columbine shooting. She also covered the Hong Kong protests last year and many other stories in between.
She credited her education at MSU Denver for providing her the experience and confidence to pursue a career in photojournalism. Judy Walgren, a former affiliate faculty member and Denver Post staff photographer, was an influential mentor, she said. And shooting for The Metropolitan, the University’s student-run newspaper, enabled her to experiment with design in a low-pressure environment.
“I think the best things that I got out of (MSU Denver) were the real-life experience and exposure to local journalists,” she said, referring to the University’s connection to reputable, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists such as Walgren.
After her graduation from MSU Denver in December 2011, Millis returned to Haiti on her own. “My promise to myself was that I would always come back to Haiti and try to learn more about the culture of the country,” she said.
But true to her drive and creativity, Millis also raised the money and worked with University department heads to figure out how to write that experience into her minor, which she customized through the University’s Individualized Degree Program.
A risk pays off
Before and after graduation, Millis interned in newsrooms at the Denver Post, the Loveland Reporter-Herald, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Tampa Bay Times/St. Petersburg Times and landed her first staff job at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune. In spring 2013, she got an offer from Walgren to come work with her at the San Francisco Chronicle.
“That was a really formative time in my career,” she said. “The Chronicle was really important – it took me from being a good worker and a good staffer to the next level of what my capabilities were.”
There, she learned how to photograph violent protests, dodging tear gas and explosives. She also covered intimate community stories and long-term stories, spending six months on a piece about the effects of the California drought after Walgren, then the director of photography, gave her the assignment.
“That was kind of like handing the keys to a tank to someone and being like, here you go, figure it out,” she said.
After four-plus years at the Chronicle, a photographer job opening at Reuters based in Washington, D.C., caught Millis’ eye. She doubted that she’d have a chance at such a competitive job, but she applied anyway — and she got it.
“I think I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am, but they certainly took a risk on me,” Millis said, noting that she wasn’t a political photographer at the time and her eye was different than typical political coverage. “I think they said later that that’s why they went with me because they did want to shake things up.”
When she reflects on the state of journalism in the U.S., Millis is keenly aware that the country is increasingly hostile for journalists. Fortunately, Reuters takes safety seriously, and Millis is dedicated to bringing mental-health issues to the forefront in her field.
Looking forward, Millis hopes to mentor other women in her field, especially women of color. “I love photojournalism. It’s a really incredible job. It’s an honor to be able to be witness and be welcomed into people’s lives and to see things I normally would never see.”
She hopes to keep chasing stories that she’s passionate about and help others do the same.
“We can’t be activists as journalists,” she said, “but I can do things within journalism to try and help improve our industry. So that’s what I try and do.”