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American Journalism Review
Prize-Winning Photographs of the Heartland  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   May 1996

Prize-Winning Photographs of the Heartland   

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     


Torsten Kjellstrand was abruptly awoken from a nap by his wife late one February afternoon. He fumbled for the receiver, figuring it was just another call from someone in the newsroom.

The voice on the other end was indeed familiar, and a polite exchange followed. In his sleepy haze, Kjellstrand was relayed a message that made him think he was dreaming--a panel of America's leading photojournalists and editors had voted unanimously to name him newspaper photographer of the year, one of the industry's most coveted honors.

"At first I thought it was a joke," says Kjellstrand. "I didn't even fantasize about this--not with the kind of assignments I do."

In his second year on the job at the 12,700-circulation Jasper Herald in Jasper, Indiana, Kjellstrand accomplished something that previously had been unimaginable in the world of photojournalism. But Kjellstrand didn't just make photojournalism history by winning the award for his paper--the smallest ever to win a prize in the prestigious competition. He also sent a powerful message to small-town photographers everywhere that there is room for them at the top.

It has been 18 years since a small-town photographer has been recognized in the annual Pictures of the Year contest. The judges of this year's contest, sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association and the University of Missouri School of Journalism, chose Kjellstrand's portfolio over that of Carol Guzy, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner from the Washington Post. In fact, the Post has had something of a monopoly on the award in recent years, with Guzy winning the award twice, in 1990 and 1993, Lucian Perkins winning it in 1994 and Michael Williamson taking it in 1995. Photographers from the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Hartford Courant and the late Pittsburgh Press also have won.

For years, small-town photographers felt they had little chance of winning against the globetrotting photojournalists who publish in America's most eminent newspapers. But this year, the 53rd year of the contest, Kjellstrand changed all that.

Kjellstrand's portfolio offered no shots of refugees fleeing scorched Bosnian or Chechen villages, no gripping images of the Oklahoma City bombing or the Million Man March. Instead, the Carleton College graduate entered photo-graphs taken within a 25-mile radius of Jasper, a community of 10,000 set amid hardwood forests some 50 miles from the Kentucky border. His camera captured the fierce competitiveness of high school cheerleaders, scenes from a 4-H county fair and the quaint lifestyle of two brothers, Irvin and Carl, who spent 80 years on the family farm together--subjects he describes as just ordinary Americans leading ordinary lives.

Judges described his portfolio as classic documentary photography and lavishly praised it for showing everyday life with respect, dignity and subtle humor, according to contest director Bill Kuykendall, who heads the University of Missouri School of Journalism's photo sequence.

Kjellstrand's selection was a cause of some relief for the sponsors of the contest. In recent years it has come under fire for catering to photographers who cover major international and national events, causing much debate over whether or not domestic photos have an equal chance of winning as well as over whether or not the winning photographs really reflect the kinds of photography being produced on a daily basis at newspapers across the country.

The community newspaper where Kjellstrand works employs only 16 full time editorial staffers and operates out of a two-story brick building that used to be a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Kjellstrand, one of only two staff photographers at the Jasper Herald, describes the paper's photo lab as circa 1970s, with prints still being developed tray-to-tray in a closet-size processing room. Color photographs are a rarity.

But Kjellstrand says the supportive work environment at his paper makes all the difference. "We are allowed to be creative and take risks without being punished if we fail. No one here works scared," he says. "It's a shame this doesn't happen more often in newsrooms today."

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