Alum Spotlight: ‘Dateline’ field producer Sean Ryon ’12 on documentary production

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Documentarian and journalist Sean Ryon ‘12 studied English and film and media studies at Lafayette. (Photo courtesy of Sean Ryon ’12)

If Sean Ryon ‘12 were to come face to face with himself from 10 years ago, his younger self would probably be extremely confused.

“I think they would look at the overall career path and be like, ‘Oh, why did it end up going this way?’” he said. “Life takes you different places along the way and those places sometimes end up being better places to go.”

His path began as an English major and film and media studies minor, with a passion for writing about hip-hop music. He chose Lafayette because of its creative community.

“It was leagues beyond anything else that I had seen at any other college, where people were excited to be here and everybody was working on something really unique and different and interesting,” he said. “I think that [choosing Lafayette] was probably the greatest decision I’ve made.”

During Ryon’s time at Lafayette, the Film and Media Studies program was in its infancy.

“Everybody kind of felt like we were on the cusp of something that was going to become real and really fleshed out, and that was so much fun,” he said. “We were a scrappy bunch of us. It was so many people in one room and ideas are bouncing off the walls.”

Ryon uses the foundation in writing and production that he learned at Lafayette in his day-to-day life.

“I’m sort of standing on the shoulders of giants. It was professors like Andy Smith and Nandini Sikand … bosses and mentors and people who took me under their wings as somebody who’s chomping at the bit to get into production and get into the behind-the-scenes aspect,” Ryon said. “I’m really indebted to all of them.”

After graduating, Ryon attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and worked as a documentary journalist for media companies NowThis and Quibi.

Ryon is currently a field producer for NBC’s “Dateline,” which has given him the opportunity to explore the country while perfecting his craft. “We get to travel all around the country covering stories … It is a great way to sort of see the entire country in its full and places that you don’t really expect, while at the same time being able to actively grow my skill set,” he said.

In June 2022, his short film “Our League” premiered on PBS. The documentary follows Michelle Guzowski, a transgender bowler who faced hardships when returning to her favorite bowling alley after coming out. Ryon, who began working on the film in 2018, served as the director of photography and co-producer.

“It was a really rewarding experience and a film that I’m so incredibly proud of,” he said.

“Michelle is such a passionate, wonderful human being, and she’s someone with such a big heart and so much compassion. To be able to film with her and tell her story, and then at the end of the day have her say, ‘You did my story justice,’ was one of the greatest privileges of this kind of work.”

Ryon believes that the best thing for Lafayette students pursuing a job in the media industry to do is just start filming.

“You don’t need to have the fanciest camera. You don’t need to have incredible lighting equipment,” he said. “You have a phone. That has been used to make Netflix films. It’s been used to make full documentaries and Emmy award-winning movies. It is the greatest tool that everyone pretty much has in their pocket.”

To his past self, Ryon would say, “Don’t worry about making mistakes; embrace them.”

“Especially in production, that’s always been the best way to learn,” he said. “Even if you’re making mistakes, at least you’re making something.”

Ryon’s work can be viewed at seanmryon.com.