He grew up like most other kids in Covington, Ohio, and did many of the same things. But when Mykal McEldowney left he found a rare and different talent for which millions now recognize him…and he likes the person it’s helped him become.
Indianapolis, IN – When I first met Mykal McEldowney in 2000 he was like a lot of other kids in Covington, Ohio.
He did the usual things, looking to fit in, like high school boys do.
He played football for coach Ted Peacock, during that remarkable string of 42 consecutive regular-season wins by Covington between 1999 and 2004. He didn’t exactly distinguish himself as a linebacker – he was too small – but he worked hard at it, was a good teammate, and bought in to the familiar ‘coach-speak’ that the experience of hard work, commitment, and working together would serve him well for the rest of his life.
He graduated in 2003, and as other classmates went out into the world to find their niche – their calling – so followed McEldowney to Ohio University, in Athens, where he sought to study engineering. It’s what you do if you want a professional career, along with finance, nursing, education, and the myriad of fields of study from which the others chose. But life and first impulses are not certain, as he was soon to find out. And after one semester he came to that fork in the road that many of us encounter…and he took it.
“I found out that engineering was not me,” he said recently during a visit in downtown Indianapolis. “I talked with a counselor there, we figured out that I was a little ‘nosey’ by nature, that I had a creative bent, and that I cared about people. She encouraged me to go talk with the staff at the visual communications office – to see if journalism would be something that I liked. So I sat down with some of the instructors and shared my interests. I had previously studied photo-journalism abroad for a summer (in Scotland) and the instructors thought I had a good eye for photography – so we decided to give it a try. I stayed with it, and in 2008 I graduated as a photo-journalist.
He found work in South Carolina – Greenville, South Carolina – where he rose rapidly to a position of recognition for his work, and ultimately served as the president of the South Carolina News Photographers Association.
But being a Midwest kid, he longed to come back to the Midwest, and when a position opened with the Indianapolis Star (a Gannett newspaper) in the 2016, he took it to broaden his experience and his life perspective.
“I grew up in Covington and didn’t have one black classmate. There wasn’t one black student in school. So when I left Covington I had a very small perspective. You study abroad, go overseas…and when I moved to South Carolina I covered a group of people I’d never been around before. So this job has given me so much perspective, and empathy, that sometimes I find myself talking to the ‘old’ me while trying to open people’s eyes to the way other people live.
“I covered the Confederate flag when it was taken off the South Carolina statehouse – the hate – and I was one of two photographers inside when they actually voted on it. I left that and came here and I’ve covered child sex trafficking in India. You talk about eye-opening? If they had known I was a journalist I would have died – been killed right there.
I was in Charlottesville – covered that for three days – attacked and punched in the face. I’d never had a black eye my entire life, and I wore one from Charlottesville for about three weeks. It was an incredible experience, but it gives you perspective – being here and covering last summer’s riots (in Indianapolis). Every window on the ground floor of downtown was busted. Nothing happened to me, but I believe in being out here and showing other people’s frustrations through my work. People don’t have to agree, and I try to be as neutral as I can, but the issue isn’t being netural. It’s showing facts.”
In grownup terms, Mykal McEldowney is one of the lucky ones. Happy, fufilled, married to Angie (from St. Marys, Ohio) and the father of two daughters, he’s found his life’s calling and the means to an end, wherever that leads.
He’s recognized for his work – numerous awards for photojournalism, including an expose’ last year of a football team of 19 members in Crawford, Indiana, and its battle to overcome drugs and financial issues before it could overcome opponents on Friday nights.
“The eyes that you can put on something like that are important,” says McEldowney. “One of the Colts’ former players saw it and gave money to the program because of what we did. We open eyes, and it’s a responsibility that I take very seriously.”
At 35, give or take, he’s already master at his profession, a true ‘professional’ capable of all the photo genres, from high-key portraiture, to news, and and of course, sports, perhaps the most appreciated profile of daily newspapers.
“I love news, and I love sports. But I love sports news stories, like the story about the football team in Crawford, the most fulfillment I’ve ever had from a story. You tell the story with the photos. It helps if you’ve played, because it helps you to be in the right position if you understand the sport. I’ve photographed the Pacers, and a multi-million dollar player like Victor Oladipo, telling him what to do for five minutes.
“You realize…I’m just a little guy from Covington, Ohio getting to rub shoulders with NBA and NFL players. It’s incredible.”
Draped with Canon camera equipment, he showed me around Monument Square, in downtown Indy, pointing out features of last year’s riots. It’s a big city, with a bigger perspective that feeds his journalistic appetite, not to mention better restaurants and two major league sports teams – NFL and NBA.
For those with a photographic interest, he shares that his professional preferences are a 24-70 zoom, a 50mm f1.4, and the photojournalist’s go-to optic, the 70-200 telephoto zoom.
And, he shares that he does it all for the love of the work, not for the bottom line. Photo-journalism is a long, arduous path to any definition of financial security.
“None of us do it for the money,” he admits. “What I do is an addiction, and luckily I have a great wife with a good job and she’s very supportive. It’s not a business you get into if you want to become rich. Being rich is relative, and I would take the perspective I now have over money…any day.
And his memories of Covington…?
“Growing up in Covington gave me the opportunity to figure out what I wanted to be. But Indy has more culture – black, white, and Latino and everything you can think of, and I love that. I wasn’t a big guy so I would never have played linebacker at a big school, but Covington is a close-knit town that was safe and it loves its kids. And there’s not a more supportive school. The friends I grew up with are still my friends to this day. I’ll never forget them, or my coaches – Coach Peacock, Coach Kevin (Finfrock), and Coach ‘T’ (Dave Tobias). They grew us into men.”
Back in Covington only a few will remember him for having worn #56, and that’s fine. Life goes on after high school football – high school for that matter – and better if you find your calling, your vision, and perspective. Such is Mykal McEldowney’s story.
What a vision he has now!