From the Desk: On Assignments

From the Desk: On Assignments

I wanted to share some background info on a few images from the previous week’s work: the premise of the assignments, how I approached them and the thoughts behind the images. To be honest, I don’t know how much interest there will be in a  post like this. I’m writing this post for myself so I can take some of these experiences to heart and remember them. If theres one thing Iv’e definitely learned, you can’t remind yourself enough of the basics.

Daniella Salem, 3, playfully puts her hand over her mother Egija’s face prior to going onstage for the kids fashion show during Diwali Night at the School of Mines on Saturday evening. Put on annually by the India Club at Mines, Diwali, also known as the festival of lights, is a celebration of the triumph of light over darkness. The event is used as an occasion to increase awareness and understanding of Indian culture.

This image sums up (at least for me) the objective that all photojournalists look for in approaching an assignment…

The challenge is relatively simple; find the unscripted in the scripted, the anomaly in the routine, the unique in the standard.

You see, there’s a quick formula for completing a photo assignment at its most basic level. You need a wide, overall image that sets the scene. You also need a medium image that shows the subject of the story. Finally, you need a tight, detail shot; a close-up image of an item or object that accompany’s the medium shot and adds additional information to the story. As an example; if I were shooting the stands in a stadium during a playoff game, the wide would be an overall shot of the stands, the medium a group of fans in the stands, and the detail a sign that someone was holding. There’s a phrase that sums up this formula; CYA or Cover Your Ass. These are the pictures you take so as to fulfill the basic requirements of the assignment and not piss off your photo editor and the layout team.

And then there is the anomaly image.

One of my professors described it as the “surprise” image.

The surprise image is the shot that rises above the others. It transcends the parameters of the assignment itself and stands on its own. Sometimes the surprise of a football game shows itself on the sidelines. Sometimes it is the backstage during a show; the finish line of a parade or a face in the crowd during a politician’s speech.

Learning the technical aspects of a camera down to an intuitive level is the easy part. It’s capturing a moment; a real moment. Not forced but a candid, intimate, human moment. That’s hard.

Chuck Thompson poses for a portrait inside of his apartment on Friday afternoon. Thompson, who served in the Navy for two years working as a mechanic on F-14 Tomcats, was homeless for several years in Colorado and Rapid City before enrolling in the HUD VASH program that helps veterans with rent so they can have a place to stay.

I was assigned to photograph a formerly homeless veteran in his apartment as a part of a larger story the Journal is doing on homeless veterans in the city. I had ideas for photos that I wanted and packed accordingly, but along with my canon gear and a lighting kit from work I also decided to bring my own Nikon with a 50mm f/1.4 attached, hoping to get a tight shot of his face after getting everything else I wanted. However, as soon as I got there with the reporter it became clear that nobody had spoken to him prior about a photographer being there as well, and he flat out refused to have any pictures taken. Rather than just leave right then and there as I might have done in the past, I sat down with the reporter and listened to the vet talk for almost two hours, engaging in conversation with him at times  and just letting him get used to me. After the reporter had exhausted all of her questions, I was able to talk him into having his picture taken; just him, no apartment. It was clear he wasn’t going to let me bring in any lights and there was just enough window light to make a passable image, so I was glad that I brought the Nikon with the 50mm that I used to take this shot. The picture’s not great. I went into this assignment anticipating walking away with a lot more than this. But I still consider it a small success because it’s an example of one of the most common and frequent challenges of being a photojournalist; turning a no into a yes.

Krista Young, a volunteer and mother of Thunder Boy goalie John Young, cleans the windows during the Thunder Boys varsity hockey practice at the Thunderdome Thursday evening in preparation for tomorrows game when the Thunder Boys will host Pierre for the first game of the Thunder tournament tomorrow.

I was assigned to shoot this hockey team’s practice before their first game of the season the next day. I spent the entire assignment with them; shooting them changing into their clothes in the locker room, waiting on the side of the rink for the ice resurfacer to finish and the practice itself. I was on my way out when I noticed a few people cleaning the floors and windows around the rink. I thought that the act of people cleaning the arena was as much a visualization of preparation as the hockey players themselves practicing, and I liked the idea of capturing that with both elements in the same image. The woman who turned out to be a volunteer for the team rushed to clean the window pane because she thought that I just wanted to shoot the team through the window, Ha!

A fireman watches the fire line of the Silver Mountain Prescribed Burn from a roadway Tuesday afternoon. Today’s prescribed burn of 209 acres marked the first phase of the project which ultimately calls for the burning of more than 1000 acres.

This was the last image that I took on this assignment, and it turned out to be my favorite image. I got to shoot my first fire; a prescribed burn that was five years in the making. I shot the guys lighting the fire and walked with a crew to an overlook where they were putting down photo points. I even walked up an adjacent ridge to shoot the fire from above. I was driving on the dirt road away from the fire when i noticed the stark light beams being made through the smoke. I stopped my car and leaned myself as far out the window as I could to shoot one of the guys who was watching to make sure that the fire didn’t jump the road. At first his back was turned to me, but I waited assuming he would turn at some point which is when I took this picture.

The blue spruce tree is placed onto Main Street Square on Wednesday morning.
A large blue spruce tree arrives at Main Street Square on Wednesday morning. A lighting ceremony will be held at the Square’s Holiday Celebration and Winter Market on Saturday at 5 p.m.

I’m trying to look more and more for the quirky image; one that gives at first glance a chuckle. This visual of a person disappearing into this massive tree was one that came to mind before the assignment and tried to capture as the tree was being placed into a harness to be moved into the square.

Aviation mechanic Roy Kimbell returns to finish repairing an oil leak on a Cessna 172 engine inside a hangar at the Black Hills Airport in Spearfish. The city recently assumed control of the airport which until now had been under the management of Lawrence County.

I was assigned to take photos of Spearfish airport, which had recently been granted control of the local airport which had previously been under the control of the county. I wanted to shoot more than just a couple photos of a line of jets set out on the runway. Walking across the airfield to a hanger that housed the administrative office, I came upon Roy fixing up an airplane. Talking with him for awhile was a great experience, an he added a human element to what could have been arbitrary images of some buildings or planes.

Some additional photos from this week.

From the Desk: 1 month; a retrospective

From the Desk: 1 month; a retrospective

It has been exactly one month since I started working at the Journal. So I wanted to share some of my images taken while on assignment and put down some thoughts I have had since starting…

A group of women and their dogs wait to participate in a competition during the 2016 Rapid City Kennel Club Dog Show at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center Friday afternoon.

Photojournalism is in some ways unlike any other job in the world, while in others it is like any other job. One of those things being that it’s very easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and become frustrated with yourself; what you are doing and where you are going.

Julie Gilliland and Eli Hernandez practice reading during Denise McCormick’s kindergarten class at Badger Clark Elementary School in Box Elder on Tuesday afternoon. The Douglas School District Board of Education has approved a proposal to realign grades k-3, which has upset some parents.

While photojournalism is hands down the best career in the world and one that I wouldn’t trade for anything else, it doesn’t mean there aren’t days where I want to rip my hair out from dealing with the daily grind.


And what is the daily grind?

The varsity boys cross country teams of local community high schools run at the start of the 2016 Region 5A Cross Country Meet at Rocky Knolls Golf Course in Custer.


The daily grind is a high school volleyball game and a minor league hockey game followed the next day by a city council meeting and a building dedication ceremony.

Forwards Josh MacDonald and Ryan Walters wrestle the puck away from forward Travis Ewanyk during the Rapid City Rush’s match against the Idaho Steelheads at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center on Wednesday night.

The daily grind is running back and forth for an hour and a half on a football field in 35 degrees because both teams suck and won’t stop punting.

Bonny Petersen and Leanna Bussell meditate to remain calm during a 2016 presidential election watch party for the democratic party in Pennington County at the Rushmore hotel in downtown Rapid City.

The daily grind is a person at a podium.

Ellen Pinholt proposes the construction of a fenced-in dog park on Idlehurst lane in Rapid City to the Vision Fund Citizen Committee in the community room at city hall on Tuesday.


The daily grind is another high school volleyball game and a minor league hockey game, followed the next day by a photograph of an elementary school.

The daily grind is trying to make a storage unit and an exercising room look interesting.

The daily grind is being told about a really awesome assignment you’ll be doing the next morning then being told 30 minutes later that the paper is using handout photos instead.

The daily grind is waiting another hour to go home because the writer hasn’t got back to you yet about info you need for a caption and there’s a hornet that somehow got through two separate doors just to exclusively menace your desk.

The daily grind is two more high school volleyball games.

Custer outside hitter Morgan Parys hits the ball during a match against the Hill City Rangers on Tuesday afternoon.


But sometimes…

The daily grind is running on a muddy field with rain and hail pouring down on you without a rain jacket using a safeway plastic bag to keep your camera dry and not caring because you know the photos will be great.

Crusader Running back and Line Back Daveon Provost leads stretches during football practice at Red Cloud High School Wednesday afternoon.


The daily grind is getting up at 4:45 am to climb boulders in the dark and stand in 27 degrees waiting for the fog to clear just enough to get your picture.

Mt. Rushmore is seen through clearing fog at sunrise from Iron Mountain road in the Black Hills in October.

The daily grind is hearing that people are keeping a copy of the newspaper in their car from that story you did on them to show other people.

The daily grind is having insightful conversations with people you’d otherwise never meet.

Maybe, the daily grind isn’t a grind at all. Maybe this job and every assignment is ultimately what you make of it. Granted, there are some assignments that will just suck no matter what you do. But you embrace them anyway. You work like hell to find that different angle; that something that will elevate a routine event into something that challenges you. Because you’re not OK with just doing OK…

I’d write more but I have a football game to go shoot.







From the Desk: on mistakes and starting up again.

From the Desk: on mistakes and starting up again.


Before leaving DC to take the staff job at the journal, I told quite a few people of my impending move. While some reactions were positive, a fair amount of them were what you might expect them to be; a grimace followed by an incredulous and confused “South Dakota?”

There are a lot of reasons why I took this job. I wanted to do something that was outside of my comfort zone, working for a small newspaper in an area that I’ve never been to. I also wanted to use my time here to gain experience in aspects of photojournalism that iv’e always had trouble with, such as finding and pitching my own stories, shooting sports, improving my lighting skills, etc.

but one reason in particular stands out. It’s one that I don’t usually share with a lot of people, as its nothing to be proud of. But in this case it might just be the most important.

Not long after ending my internship with the San Francisco Chronicle, I was arrested for a DUI. .11. About a drink and a half over the limit, but more than enough to do lasting damage. My license was taken away for a year. The financial cost was in the thousands (I still owe my parents the money for court fees) and it denied me opportunities that I otherwise could have had.

Instead of building on the progress that I made at the Chronicle with another summer internship, I spent summer 2015 in a three months long DMV program in Ventura to get my license back. Even more damaging was that the DUI also made me a liability to company insurers. As recently as six months ago, I was offered and accepted an internship with a newspaper in Ohio, only to have the offer rescinded a few weeks later because I couldn’t be covered to drive on business for them. I interviewed at another newspaper in Virginia shortly after, and was initially chosen by the photo department before they were overruled by HR for the same reason.

I learned that while there are some exceptions, most HR departments won’t vet you until about three years have passed from the offense, so I wouldn’t be completely eligible for another internship until mid-2017. The thought of sitting on my hands for another year in DC just to become eligible again, and at that point a year out of college (which lowers the pool of possible internships i could apply to even further) was paralyzing.

However, I also applied to the Journal earlier in the summer, and was considering it before a hiring freeze was temporarily enforced for a few months. It wasn’t very long after I had been rejected from the internships that my editor got back into contact with me and offered me the job, despite the DUI.

So the truth is, I didn’t necessairly plan on being here. And just as a matter of fact, i wouldn’t be had I never made that mistake two years ago. But now that I am here, I’m determined to make the most of it that I possibly can. Because this isn’t just a job for me. It’s a chance to start up again after almost two years of having everything on hold.

And Iv’e got a lot of catching up to do.

ps. Don’t drink and drive. Really, if you only get one thing out of this post, I hope it’s the weight of the consequences of doing so.