Photos can make the ordinary seem interesting

November 4, 2013

Photography: The simple life

 By Jeremy Waltner
Through the Viewfinder

Like in so many other places across our land, come October and November, the rural tapestry that helps define the agricultural community of Freeman, SD, is stitched with combines, tractors, wagons, pickups and large grain trucks, their drivers methodically working the earth in a rite of passage that predates the locomotive—the harvest.

In Freeman, in terms of its scale and widespread impact, there may be no bigger story we write about.

Agriculture is our No. 1 industry and top employment opportunity, and although our town’s population is a modest 1,300, the larger community tops 6,000 when including rural residents.

On a recent Monday afternoon, in need of a cover photo for Wednesday’s edition, knowing full well the roar of combines was coming from all directions, I hit the gravel roads around Freeman to find my picture.

It didn’t take long, of course, for me to spot a big, green John Deere several miles ahead, inching along through golden—almost ivory—stalks, gobbling up ears of corn to be shelled and unloaded to a grain wagon and then transported to a nearby elevator.

Here was my picture. Now I had to make it.

I drove my Honda Accord down the gravel roads that led to the combine and came as close to the field as possible. By the time I arrived the huge machine was in the middle of the section coming toward me, so I put on my patience cap and waited. As the John Deere’s roar grew louder I framed up the picture in my mind; what could I do to make this everyday October scene interesting?

Method one was to stand on the roof of my car parked on the side of the road and put in the foreground grain wagons sitting idle on the edge of the field while using the approaching combine as my subject. It worked, but I wasn’t completely satisfied.

So I went inland.

Through the ditch, across the fence and onto the good soil I bolted, waiting for the huge machine to saddle up right next to me, which, of course, it eventually did. As it slowed to a stop the huge arm of the combine extended out and golden corn emptied into the parked wagons. A wide-angle lens helped me capture the moment that has happened thousands of times over, but in a way that is somehow different and pleasing to the eye.

The picture ran across five columns atop the Oct. 23 edition of the Freeman Courier. I probably wouldn’t have even needed a cutline.

The combine photo will not win any awards. In fact, most people won’t likely remember it much past our publication date. But it’s the kind of solid image delivered to our readers in a palpable way that is often missing from our newspapers.

Too often photographers settle for the shot that’s easy, failing to take the time to really study the situation and turn it in their favor. When I parked my Honda on the side of that gravel road and waited, I could have easily snapped a few frames from my standing position, returned to my car and headed back to the office. I didn’t have to put my 37-year-old body through the risk of pulling a muscle or twisting an ankle jumping down from the Accord’s rooftop, and I certainly didn’t have to scale the fence and make my way onto the field.

Frankly, I’m guessing many of you reading this—or your photographers—might have just settled for the easy shot and not taken the time to make something ordinary and turn it into something else, and then share that something else with others. That is, after all, our primary call as journalists, so let’s make it count.

Quality photojournalism happens when the photographer makes himself or herself aware of the situation and then uses it to his or her advantage. See grain carts in your line of vision? Use them to your advantage.

Quality photojournalism happens when you change your point of view; when you stand on your Accord, climb a tree, sit on your butt or lay flat on your stomach. It happens when you go to the trouble of walking through a ditch, climbing over a fence and waiting for the moment to happen, and then click, click, click away.

Quality photojournalism doesn’t have to be complicated. 

In fact, it can be quite simple. Just slow down, look around and think differently. 

You’ll be amazed at the results. © Jeremy Waltner 2013

Jeremy Waltner is news editor of the Freeman (SD) Courier and recently led a comprehensive photography workshop for members of the North Dakota Newspaper Association. You can reach him at

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