Justin Philalack has not yet finished college, but the 22-year-old is already doing exactly what he wants to do for a living: use his video production skills to help nonprofits get exposure.
He is currently doing a summer internship with Teach for America, but before the end of the Spring semester at Western Kentucky University, he did a video showcasing the work of The Music City Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a nonprofit that works to promote LGBT issues.
The video was a three-month assignment his for photography class, which usually gives students just a week to work on projects.
"It’s never enough time," he said. "The reason they do it is to expose you to different things. So giving you three months to work on one project is something we all look forward to do."
When it came time to pick a subject, the choice was clear for him.
"I immediately thought of working with the Sisters, because I truly care for what they do and want to give them the opportunity to showcase their story," he said.
The group works with organizations and campaigns for several causes, including AIDS research, LGBT rights and bullying awareness.
Philalack met the group when he was covering Pride three years ago as an intern for Out & About.
“I was down there covering it, shooting photos," he said. “And I’m walking around, and I see the Sisters.”
The group employs elaborate wardrobe and make-up.
"Being a visual person, I was naturally attracted to them," he said. "I was just watching them, riveted."
He started speaking with them and exchanged information. He eventually featured them in a still photography project but the idea of doing more stuck with him until he got the opportunity to do the video.
Eye for detail
Philalack's videos are clearly the work of someone with a sharp eye.
"I look for those small moments we may overlook," he said. "I think that sharp eye came from Western Kentucky training me for four years. It’s always trained me to look for detail."
He said it has taken him a lot of work to get to the level he is.
"Starting off, I was just terrible at it, but as you go, you start to learn what to look for," he said.
He said the program is grueling but top-notch.
"We’re trained to turn around efficient, high-quality, great storytelling images or bodies of work really quick," he said.
You might expect that such a demanding program would have a lot of dropouts, but Philalack said that's not the case.
"Once you get through about halfway through the program you don’t really drop because your heart’s in it," he said. "Everyone — those guys and girls are my best friends. They’re my family. … They push me to become a better photographer, or videographer."
College for Philalack is not only what has allowed him to become the young professional he is, but it is also a personal goal, important to him and his family.
"My dad is from Laos," he said. "He’s worked every day of his life at welding plant, and all he wants is for his kids to get an education."
For that reason, Philalack, who grew up in Middle Tennessee, will finish the remaining 12 credits he needs to graduate.
For his internship at Teach for America, Philalack was sent to Cleveland, Miss., where he is gathering footage later to be used in videos intended for future teachers.
"I’m really excited that the videos I’m producing will make better teachers and improve education," he said.
While there, he is also following a group of kids in a low-income area of Cleveland, which he said there are too many of in that part of Mississippi. He said he hopes to produce a short film about them as part of his work for Teach for America, but if not, he'll just produce it on his own.
After filming in Cleveland, he will spend the rest of his internship in New York City editing and putting the finishing touches on the videos.
Importance of videos
Using his skills to help nonprofits is important to Philalack, because without a video, he said, it's very hard for nonprofits to get noticed.
"I feel like now, in the 21st Century, if it doesn’t have a visual, people won’t really connect with it," he said. "I can be that opportunity — to give someone a voice. That’s just something I really care about."
He even hopes to go to Laos one day and showcase the work some of the organizations there are doing.
As for the video he did for the Sisters, he is already seen his work pay off.
After one screening, friends of different backgrounds and sexual orientations told him how they connected with the mission of the Sisters, and the Sisters themselves — understanding not only what they do but who they are.
“Now when I see them out, I’m going to approach them,” a friend told him.