Learning To Swim

03n EXPLORERS 1 092204Munster Police Explorer Bryan Buck (left), 18, of St. John, Ind., works on an activity with Jeff Cook, 21, of Munster, Ind., during the Munster Police Explorers meeting held at the Munster Police Station, Wednesday, September 22, 2004. Cook is the chief of the Munster Police Explorers, and has been with the group for four years.

Before I knew it, I was completely out of breath, chasing a criminal with officers between houses as a police helicopter hovered loudly overhead. I had to hop three chain link fences before I caught up with them, my cameras flailing wildly at my sides. A snarling K9 unit dripped saliva onto the grass just near the criminal as officers pinned him down with their knees and applied the cuffs. Flashlights darted around the yard and flared my lens with beautiful blue and purple hues. As I framed the criminal’s face in my viewfinder, he smiled at me through bloody teeth and muttered, “Your deadline is in a few minutes, make sure to file this one first.”

This is, at least, how I imagined my first editorial assignment ever for The Post-Tribune was going to go with The Munster Police Explorers back in 2004. The group gave students with an interest in law enforcement the chance to shadow officers in real-world scenarios. The assignment seemed ripe with visual possibilities, and I was excited to show up early and begin documenting the evening’s activities! I could only imagine what I’d be photographing. Explorers brushing up on marksmanship with service revolvers at the range? Fingerprinting hardened criminals in lock-down? Practicing evasive driving maneuvers?

03n EXPLORERS 2 092204As it turns out, on the day I was assigned to photograph the group, they were embarking on exciting… classroom training. That’s right. My first assignment ever for The Post-Tribune was a group of about 7 people sitting before an officer in a fluorescent lit, vanilla-box room in the police department, doing activities on paper. I was crestfallen. How would I show my personal vision here? My penchant for capturing bold, saturated colors? Peak-action? Graphic compositions? How was I supposed to do this with subjects sitting blankly at desks? I did what I could and came away with a completed assignment, but saying I struggled with it is putting it lightly. Still, that work paved the way for what would become ten years of fantastic experiences around the world.

“How did you get started in photography?,” is something I’m often asked when people view my work for the first time. It should come as no surprise that I’ve always had a camera of some sort at my disposal. My first was a blue Fisher Price 110 format camera that used disposable flash sticks that plugged into the top of it. I still remember the acrid, electrical smell those flash sticks produced as they operated.

When I trace the part of my career that encompasses editorial freelance photography, I can go back to 8th grade and shooting rolls of T-Max in my dad’s Canon AE-1 for the school yearbook. But it’s a group of Lake Michigan surfers who I really should thank for kicking things into gear exactly ten years ago.

After shooting a morning surf session on September 8, 2004, I called one of our local publications, The Post-Tribune, to see if they’d be interested in running any of my images as a weather feature. While surfing in Lake Michigan is actually quite common, the number of surfers that were out that morning in nice light was unique to me, and I felt it would be something the paper would like to feature. Andy Lavalley, the photo editor at the time, explained that the paper rarely ran photographs without an accompanying story, but invited me to meet with him and show him some more of my work.

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The scene of my first-ever freelance editorial photo assignment on Wednesday, September 22, 2004, for The Post-Tribune. Even today, this situation would be a challenge for me visually.

I got together a print portfolio I had that I was pretty darned proud of at the time (which I look back on now with embarrassment at the majority of) and met with Andy at the Post-Tribune’s offices in Merrillville, Indiana. Andy took pity on my book and offered me a contract to start freelancing on the spot, and my first assignment came shortly thereafter on September 22, 2004.

From meager beginnings with those police explorers to local church activities to a lady who adopts and shelters Yorkie puppies, I got to photograph progressively more important assignments for The Post-Tribune as I gained the trust of the photo editors and staff photographers there. Some highlights include the many times I’ve flown with and photographed aerobatic groups while covering the Gary South Shore Air Show, to covering Barack Obama’s campaign stop in Highland’s Wicker Park just a week before his historic election as president of the United States.


Lima Lima Flight Team pilot John Rippinger performs a maneuver while keeping a close eye on other T-34 aircraft in formation over Lake Michigan during a demonstration flight near Gary, Ind., Friday, July 13, 2007.

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Then U.S. presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama smiles while speaking during a campaign stop at Wicker Park in Highland, Ind., Friday, October 31, 2008.


The Post-Tribune, at that time, was a broadsheet publication that offered its stringers two to three assignments per day on a busy weekend. Photos were printed large and, usually, in color. The publication even ran a weekly photo page every Monday called “Crusin’ With the P-T,” where photographers (freelancers included) were encouraged to generate photo story ideas. I had two “cruiser pages” in the years that followed before the paper was down-sized to a tabloid, at which time this feature was unfortunately done away with.

07_pt10years_092314 “Cruiser pages” gave Post-Tribune staff and freelance photographers alike the chance to pitch photo stories and see them run with great play each Monday. This is one I did on a local MMA fight at the Hammond Civic Center in March, 2007. The owner of the lighting company who lit the event was a friend of mine, and allowed me to mount a remote camera above the ring in the lighting truss, resulting in my knock-down photo at the center of this layout. Cruiser pages were phased out when the Post-Tribune went to its current tabloid layout.

Still, even after its cuts, the Post-Tribune was a vibrant publication to be a part of. Photo editors like Andy, who remained on board until May of 2013, were very involved in coverage. It wasn’t uncommon to chat with Andy or another member of the photo staff following a weekend of assignments, discussing what they really liked, or what could have been better. Having this kind of feedback as I grew visually was invaluable, and something I really appreciated.

I’m not lost on the fact that I came into the newspaper world as history knows it during its late twilight years, and there’s a definitive change in the Post-Tribune that exists today, both in number of staff members and its physical size, with the one I grew with as a photographer. There are less stories run on a daily basis, there isn’t as much photo coverage of those stories, and not all of that photo coverage is up for grabs by photographers. Reporters, many times, are expected to step in and provide “good enough” (that’s not a quote from me, I assure you) images for publication. Despite all this, I continue to enjoy the opportunities I do receive to tell stories visually in my community through the pages of The Post-Tribune.

My work with The Post-Tribune over the past ten years challenged me as a visual artist to produce engaging content in some of the most challenging scenarios imaginable. These challenges led to me being a better storyteller in all of the visual disciplines in which I regularly work. The Post-Tribune was a boot-camp, in a way, training me for the larger events I would go on to cover for other publications, the most notable being the two Winter Olympics games that I’ve photographed for USA Today Sports Images.

I could be upset that The Post-Tribune isn’t the same place that it was when I started, but then I think back on the group of surfers that I shot that morning in 2004 that really started it off for me. Riding those waves, those surfers were not quite sure how long they’d last. They paddled on their boards each and every time a set came to shore, and rode those waves as long as they lasted (and had a great time in that moment).

The swell may have calmed, but I’m thankful I learned how to swim.

11_pt10years_092314Surfer Mike Aieta of Chicago, Ill., takes advantage of high waves on Lake Michigan along the Whiting, Ind., lakefront, Wednesday, September 8, 2004.

Posted in Photography, Photojournalism, Thoughts On Life by Guy Rhodes on September 23rd, 2014.

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