Serendipity and the Life of a Newspaper Photographer

Veterans Memorial, Depot Park, Kalispell, Mont.

People are constantly asking me what it’s like being a newspaper photographer. What kinds of things do you photograph? What is your favorite kind of assignment? What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever shot? Where do stories come from?

For most of these the answers are fairly straightforward. I shoot whatever is needed. That could be sports, breaking news, editorial portraiture, or working to fill the never-ending need for “Wild Art” (photos of random people out living their lives not connected to a particular story or event). My favorite assignments — the ones that really engage me. I love telling stories of people who live lives that inspire me, that challenge me. The coolest thing I’ve ever shot? Where to begin? Being a photojournalist has it’s ups and downs, but I could never regret the choices that brought me to this life, I have a collection of moments and memories that I would part for under any circumstances.

Where do stories come from? That question runs a bit deeper than one might imagine. Story ideas are generated by the newsroom. By editors who read news stories from other regions and look for ways to localize an issue. Stories are generated by reporters as they work to fill the needs of their beat. Wild art is primarily generated by photographers – the process involves a lot of time driving around, aimlessly wandering, looking and hoping something interesting will drop in your lap. Wild art hunting is one of my least favorite aspects of photojournalism.

But, sometimes, something really cool can come out of the hunt. Like the project I just completed for Sunday’s Montana Life feature. Montana Life at the Daily Inter Lake is basically the photography showcase. It’s a story that features 5-8 photos (most stories have room for a max of 2 or 3). This Sunday we will be publishing six photos related to the care and upkeep of one of Kalispell’s landmarks: the Veterans Memorial.

This is where serendipity comes into play. Monday morning I went to Lakeside to do a portrait. The photo shoot fell through (I still don’t know why) and so I headed back north to Kalispell to the office and to whatever the day would bring next. As it happens I didn’t make it to the office straight off. I got side tracked as I drove north on Highway 93 a.k.a Main Street and saw someone drilling wholes into the granite face of on of my favorite monuments in this area. I quickly changed lanes and pulled into the Chamber of Commerce parking lot to check things out and take a few pictures.

Day One — Monday

This is Zach Ginnaty. Why is he drilling wholes in the Memorial? Because the engraved names have begun to wear away and so bronze plates have been ordered and will be hung so the Memorial is ready for Veterans Day. It turns out that Zach and his brother Nick are responsible for taking care of the Memorial. They have been taking care of it since it was dedicated in July of 2007. Working at a newspaper you learn to embrace curiosity. Ask questions? Why not? People will tell you. It’s actually quite easy. They’ll open up and tell you their life story in most cases. All you have to do is ask. Well, my curiosity on Monday lead me to a discussion of what goes into taking care of the Memorial and what specifically will be done to prepare the grounds for Veterans Day. After a few minutes of talking to Zach I quickly realized there were going to be some very cool photos coming up this week and I made plans to meet Zach on Wednesday morning for part two what was rapidly becoming a story.

I still had to go back to the office to convince my boss to let me do this. Sometimes the needs of the newspaper are “right now” kind of needs. There just isn’t time to wait when there is a whole that must be filled. Other times, like when more than one newspaper is on a story, no one is willing to wait for fear of being “scooped.” But Scott liked the idea of following this for a bit. It makes a nice pre-Veterans Day story and so rather than simply turning in the above photos. I got to spend more time with this.

Spending more time is a luxury in the world of newspapers. Wednesday morning Zach is out at the Memorial power washing the statue. There are two photos from this day that I particularly like.

Day Two — Wednesday

Day Two — continued

This one is the shot I chose as main art for the whole collection. I liked the symmetry of the shot. I loved having a person up there to give the whole thing a sense of scale. And as Scott pointed out we never photograph the Memorial from this side. We always shoot it from the front, with the flag in the background. The other shot I really liked was this one. I will be curious to see the paper to see how well this photo prints. I love the back lighting. I love the way the spray creates a mist around Zach as he works. I love the moment — this is something most people don’t get to see. But it’s back lit. And those water droplets may not stand out very well once the presses get a hold of them. Right now there is no point stressing over this. It will either work, or it won’t, but I fought to keep this photo in the collection. I guess I’ll find out Sunday if that was the right choice.

After these photos with Zach I started thinking about the story I wanted to write. I’ve gone into my recent desire to write stories as well as photograph them, so I won’t reiterate all that. But I will say I am challenged by this and loving the challenge. What is the story I want to tell? Who do I need to talk to in order to tell that story? Zack gave me the number of his brother Nick and the number for Chuck Olson. Chuck is one of the two people most involved in the creation of the Veterans Memorial. Chuck gave me the number for retired Army Col. Jack Heller (the other person in that two-man team that really got the Memorial going) and just like that I had my sources. I also got a great tip from Jack on Wednesday when I interviewed him. Jack told me that Don Anderson would be installing newly engraved bricks along the Memorial Walkway this weekend. That would be too late for my photos (the deadline for Montana Life is Friday morning) but I thought it couldn’t hurt to give the man a call and see if there was anything I may be able to photograph.

Sweet serendipity once more! Yeah, Don is installing the bricks, but not this weekend, tomorrow afternoon. Don and Jack were going to be at the Memorial demonstrating one more aspect of what goes into taking care of the Memorial. It turns out that Anderson donates time every spring and fall to install new bricks before Memorial day and before Veterans day.

Perfect! Perfect! Perfect!

Day Three — Thursday

One of the things a photographer must always keep in mind is not just to tell the story, but to tell it using various kinds of photos. Sometimes I forget this a bit. I fall in love with the wide angle lens and though my shots are different they all have a similar feel because they were all shot from the same focal range. I am really happy with the variety of these photos. There are telephoto shots and wide shots. The differences keep a person moving through the images rather than thinking they’ve just seen the same shot again and again. Both of my Thursday shots were shot wide. This one above is more of a scene-setting shot. I still wanted the Memorial, but in the background. The story of this is the men working on the bricks. Before leaving I also took this image:

Day Three — Thursday

This is another wide angle shot, but it’s a close detail of the engraved bricks and some very serendipitous light.

Day Four — Friday

The final shot of the collection I got this morning. Zach and Nick working with one of the bronze plates. I cropped this photo rather square but that is because I wanted to bring attention to the gold lettering “We Will Never Forget.” This is the final shot I’ll be able to get before the weekend. I will more than likely be back at the Memorial next week for the Veterans Day ceremony. If I get a good shot from that I’ll upload it to my blog so everyone gets to see the Memorial all decked out.

The best part of working at a newspaper is stories like this one. Just driving down the road, minding my own business, and suddenly my curiosity is struck and I must go and explore. And then instead of finding a simple moment I find something that leads me to a whole collection. A series of images that just keeps getting better. And the more I shoot, the more fun I have. I get to follow a subject and play and see where it will lead. And also, I get to show people something that they would not otherwise see. I get to show them an aspect of the everyday that isn’t mundane, even if it is mostly overlooked. These are my favorite kinds of stories. It’s where I get to stand up and yell, PAY ATTENTION! The thing of it is, it’s not a message for other people, it’s the message I most need to hear myself. Don’t take life for granted. Pay attention. There are amazing things happening right in front of you. Open your eyes.

Lastly: here is the story I wrote for the paper…

By BRENDA AHEARN
The Daily Inter Lake

The Veteran’s Memorial in Depot Park in Kalispell is getting the premier treatment this week as preparations are made for this year’s Veteran’s Day ceremony.
The statue and walkway will be power washed. Moss will be cleaned out. New engraved bricks will be laid into the walkway. Marks left by vandals will be erased. The bricks and granite will be coated with sealant.
And a series of bronze plaques will be added to the front of the monument, covering and replacing the engraved names of Flathead County combat losses, which had begun to be erased by exposure to the elements.
The new Veterans Memorial (which replaced the “Doughboy” statue formerly on display outside the courthouse) has been a focal point since its dedication on July 4 in 2007.
“Drive by the statue in the summer,” Chuck Olson, one of the driving forces behind the memorial’s creation, said. “There are tourists who visit the statue every day. It’s there to honor all veterans, anyone who has served our nation. It’s there to honor those people who keep our country free.”
The memorial is the site for yearly ceremonies including Memorial Day, Flag Day, the Fourth of July and Veterans Day. This year’s Veterans Day ceremony will take place at the memorial at 11 a.m. on Thursday.
“The memorial gives the community a place they can meet and honor veterans,” retired Army Col. Jack Heller, another of the memorial’s first supporters, said. “It’s amazing to me how many people come down here to put up flowers for Memorial Day and Veterans Day.”
Upkeep of the statue is done by Zach and Nick Ginnaty of Snow Valley Floor Covering.
“We go by at least once a month to see how it’s doing,” Nick Ginnaty said. “In a busy month we’ll have between 20 and 30 hours of work put into it, but nobody wants to charge huge amounts of money to take care of something that beautiful.”
“When we’re down there working we always put a little of our own time into the memorial,” Zach Ginnaty said. “We want to donate, to give something back.”
No taxpayer dollars went into the creation of the memorial or into the care and upkeep of it.
“The whole valley got behind this project,” says Chuck Olson. Jack Heller said they recently received a donation that paid off the last of the statue.
What’s next for the memorial?
“There’s still more to do,” Olson said. “It’s only been four years. The next thing we want to add is a sound system for the various ceremonies that take place around the statue.”
For those who wish to donate to the memorial or honor a veteran,  engraved bricks are available. The price ranges from $110 to $210 depending on location.
Replicas of the memorial are available for $2,200. Straight donations can be made to the Veteran’s Memorial Fund, 241 S. Main Street, Kalispell, MT 59901.

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