The Digital Journalist
Trying to Find My Photograph

by Jim Gehrz

Soon after realizing that photojournalism was my calling, I came to understand that if I was going to enjoy a family life and survive in our creative yet incredibly competitive profession, I would have to find a niche. I had to find my own vision. While my ultimate dream remains to make a difference by finding that once-in-a-lifetime single photograph or picture story where everything falls into place, I finally feel like I have reached my potential. What has become clear to me over the years is that my strongest asset is to find wonder and eloquence in the everyday aspects of life. I seem to have found my way by seeking out those simple treasures. Unless these are frozen in time by the still, photographic moment, readers often take them for granted or fail to appreciate them even when they witness them in their own daily routines. While not necessarily monumental in scope, these moments are genuinely meaningful and instantly connect with the readers. Of course our job as photojournalists entails recording all walks of life, positive and less so, and I do the best I can to document both. Whenever I get a chance I like to balance the scales by contributing everyday moments that celebrate life.

Sixteen-year-old Micah Eveland, Backus, waits with his quarter horse, Snort, for his turn to compete in the Minnesota High School Region 5 Rodeo in Little Falls, at the Morrison County Fairgrounds.

© 2005 Jim Gehrz//Minneapolis Star Tribune
To stay motivated and to maintain the highest level of work I can, I have learned to search as deeply as possible on each assignment to find "my photograph," an approach I adopted after listening to a gifted National Geographic photographer speak many years ago. He described going on assignment and not being satisfied until he found what he termed "my photograph." I took that advise to heart, and though instead of having three months to find it, as newspaper photojournalists sometimes have only three minutes to find that elusive prize called "my photograph," I discovered that setting the standard to such a high, personal level made a dramatic and positive difference.

Erin McPadden, from Norwood Young America, is a blur of motion as she competes in the barrel race event in the Minnesota High School Region 5 Rodeo in Little Falls, at the Morrison County Fairgrounds.

© 2005 Jim Gehrz/Minneapolis Star Tribune
Recently I was assigned to photograph a story about a high school rodeo. When I arrived at the small county fairgrounds in Little Falls, Minn., rain had been pouring down for hours, with no letup in sight. That turned out to be a lucky break, as inclement weather can often add to the aesthetic appeal of an assignment.

Even so, as I stood in the rain trying to gather my thoughts about how I was going to approach the subject in order to come up with an interesting and hopefully insightful essay (not to mention trying to figure out how I was going to combat fogged elements in my zoom lenses!), I was uncertain how to begin. I had some definite ideas for images that I was looking for, but none seemed to materialize. For example, I assumed I would be able to easily focus in on the relationships between contestants, particularly boys and girls. But for the most part, each rider seemed emotionally isolated, immersed in the individual concentration required to compete. Ultimately I decided to stick with what I know best, that is to go looking for "my photograph," one moment at a time.

As you might imagine, there was plenty of mud, but in addition, the less than ideal weather afforded visual opportunities that would not have occurred on a warm, sunny day. For instance, many contestants opted to stay dry while waiting for their turn to compete and found refuge inside an old barn. Those waiting by the open door were bathed in a beautiful, directional light, kind of like a natural Soft-Box, that afforded a nice chance to compose quiet portraits and other details to round out my story. The relatively low outdoor light level also allowed me to experiment with some slower shutter speeds and panning. Sometimes it's best to check the preconceived notions at the door and go explore the situation with an open mind in order to uncover images you had not expected.

Cowgirls and cowboys who were competing in Minnesota High School Region 5 Rodeo in Little Falls relax at day's end during a dance Friday evening at the Morrison County Fairgrounds.

© 2005 Jim Gehrz/Minneapolis Star Tribune
Day's end turned out to be best for finding images that spoke to relationships. A small strobe triggered by a Pocket Wizard afforded me the chance to get a warm, twilight scene setter, with a group gathered around a camp fire, and their horse tied to a trailer looking on nearby. Later in the evening, a teen dance gave me another chance to share yet another side of the rodeo experience.

Some photographs from the rodeo ran in the newspaper, while additional images were shared with readers at our online site,

See the rodeo slide show at

I feel very lucky that I have had the good fortune to work with a great number of amazingly talented photojournalists over the course of my career from whom I've learned so much, a process that continues today here at the Star Tribune. The feeling that your work can always improve is exciting and rewarding. Still, before it's time to retire from the newspaper business the hope remains high that I might one day realize my dream of finding that once-in-a-lifetime photograph, but while I'm waiting for that image to materialize, I'll just have to keep working hard every day to find my photograph, one moment at a time.

© Jim Gehrz

Jim Gehrz has been with the Minneapolis Star Tribune for a year-and-a-half. Before that he worked as a staff photographer at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Worthington Daily Globe. Jim has been named state Photographer of the Year numerous times in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and this past year won the Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism award for photojournalism and was also named Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association. In 2005 he was nominated as finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in feature photography. See also:

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