Retired Star Tribune photographer Jim Gehrz is the latest featured in our ongoing series called Tell us Your Story, a salute to former journalists who have moved on to new adventures.
Like most of the reporters and photojournalists I’ve had the privilege to work with, journalism has always felt less like a job and more like a calling. Initially I was smitten by the discovery of buried treasure, captivated by the magical emergence of an image from the murky-orange depths of Dektol developer. It wasn’t until I realized that photography is a universal language that I came to fully appreciate the power of the moment, and my passion for telling stories was stirred forever.
Right after, “How many megapixels does your camera have?” the question asked most often during my photojournalism career has been, “Do you have a favorite story?” There have been too many to count! But honestly, what I love most is the journey – the wondrous discovery process of searching for the truth, following a story as it unfolds and finally finding that elusive thread that knits the narrative together.
One such journey involved a female soldier who was critically injured by a roadside bomb. Jessica Clements was a patient at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, trying to regain the strength to survive an operation. For several months I chronicled her recovery. It wasn’t until early morning at about 2 a.m., driving along a dark, unfamiliar Ohio turnpike to a family welcoming celebration for Jessica — that the more profound nature of her ordeal found me. I remember praying for my own son, then serving his first tour as a Navy Corpsman in Iraq. Praying for him to be granted the same cherished gift that Jessica and her family were about to receive. Jessica’s tale had always run much deeper than just recovery — hers was a story of hope and of a soldier’s desperate struggle to go home.
About a year later I learned of another Iraq War casualty, this time a military priest. Blinded in one eye, Father Tim Vakoc also suffered a devastating brain injury and had not spoken in the year since. For several weeks I photographed the priest’s recovery, but the entire time he seemed unaware of his surroundings. One afternoon a caregiver suggested I show a photograph of my son in his camouflage uniform to Fr. Tim. Surprisingly, he reached out from his bed, grabbed the picture and held it close for better look. It seemed as though Fr. Tim had been reserving every ounce of his strength over the past year to heal. Soon after, Tim began speech therapy. When I listened to a recording of his frail, unsure voice as he tried, almost inaudibly, to recite the Lord’s Prayer — I knew his real story had finally found me. Fr. Tim’s story was not just about physical recovery, it was about the resilience of the human spirit and one man’s quiet struggle to regain his voice.
When I look back at my 40 year career as a newspaper photojournalist, I don’t think most about covering Denver’s dramatic win over Green Bay in the Super Bowl XXXII, or having had a one-on-one photo session with the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. What I remember are the inspirational stories about the remarkable lives of everyday people, people like Fr. Tim.
I believe these kinds of stories are more important than ever. Newspapers aren’t dying, they’re changing. There are valid criticisms of the business to be sure, but the ideals of journalism have never been more important. Technology has allowed us to post photographs and video instantly and to produce ever more sophisticated multimedia stories that weren’t possible just a few years ago. Despite the challenges, the power of the decisive moment, that point when all of the elements align to form an instant of clarity — that endures. It’s more relevant than ever. I still believe that Journalism remains a great profession for an idealist.
Jim lives in St. Paul near family. He enjoys spending time with his three grandchildren, and is looking forward to the arrival of another granddaughter in July.
Some of Jim’s favorite photos: