Kansas photojournalists earn Hall of Fame awards by documenting countless moments
The People Pull event takes place at the Harvest Festival in Cuba, Kansas. This image by Jim Richardson comes from his project documenting life in the small town over years. (Jim Richardson)
Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.
The distinction of earning a spot in any hall of fame — whether for baseball, teaching or advertising — is longevity. Rather than awarding a single season, a one-time project or brilliant moment, induction to a hall of fame spotlights decades of excellence.
Halls of fame are about endurance.
Measuring a career, rather than a single moment, provides a bit of poetry when naming people to a photojournalism hall of fame. The “decisive moment,” as Henri Cartier-Bresson called it, makes an image beautiful, even transcendent.
But earning a spot in a hall of fame for photojournalism? That demands a career of “decisive moments.”
For decades, a photojournalist must track down stories, persuade reluctant subjects, find storytelling angles, cajole page designers and defend their work. And then start it all over again, by finding a new story.
Twelve photojournalists will be the inaugural class of the Kansas Photojournalism Hall of Fame awarded by the Kansas Press Association on Saturday, Nov. 19 in Topeka. As a photojournalism instructor, I have met a few of them, and I admire them all for the persistence that their careers have demanded.
As my first newspaper mentor, Ed Breen, told me, “The best thing and worst thing about publishing a newspaper is that you do it every day. Make a mistake? You can do better the next day. Do something fabulous? You’ve got to get up and do it again the next day.”
Many of the inductees not only spent formative years working as photojournalists for daily newspapers, they did it at a singular newspaper in a photo department defined by one photo editor: Rich Clarkson.
As the Kansas Press Association noted in its recent newsfeed item, seven of the 12 “worked at one time under the direction of Clarkson, who served for 25 years as Capital-Journal photo editor.” With his insistence on high standards and recruitment of top-flight talent, Clarkson created a “coaching tree” at the Topeka newspaper that rivals any “coaching tree” in athletic circles.
It’s fitting therefore that Clarkson is inducted along with his past photographers: Carl Davaz, Jeff Jacobsen, Chris Johns, Brian Lanker, Jim Richardson, Gary Settle and Bill Snead. In addition to those who Clarkson mentored, Sandra Milburn, Gordon Parks, Charlie Riedel and Pete Souza have also earned spots in the Hall of Fame.
Narrating the entire careers of these 12 photographers would fill this space for the next few months — if not a series of 12 books. While I can’t fully tell their stories here, I recommend that you read their biographies compiled by the Kansas Press Association or perhaps attend the banquet Nov. 19 at the Beacon in Topeka.
In addition to Clarkson, consider what they each have accomplished, just in these thumbnail accounts:
- Davaz, through his work in Montana, created a book, “Montana Wilderness: Discovering the Heritage,” the product of 15 months of visual reporting alongside two writers.
- Jeff Jacobsen’s work as photographer for KU Athletics provided Jayhawk fans with a running history of their teams, a collection of work that became a volume propped on my son’s bookcase.
- Chris Johns led the National Geographic magazine through some of its most accomplished years and photographed some of the publication’s enduring wildlife images.
- Lanker, whose photography career started in newspaper photojournalism, went on to publish vital books for any photojournalism library, including “I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America.”
- For 32 years as a photographer and photo editor for the Hutchinson News, Milburn created award-winning work, including two images of tornado damage that earned national recognition.
- Gordon Parks is an American hero: a creative genius who worked in photography and filmmaking, rising from Fort Scott to Hollywood in a segregated America that demanded he fight for every step as a Black man.
- Richardson has trotted the globe, documenting vital stories for National Geographic, including ones about food instability and ancient cultures.
- Riedel, a photographer for the Associated Press, has documented stories — natural disasters, international sports, Kansas everyday life — and continues his work today.
- Settle, a two-time Newspaper Photographer of the Year, worked for newspapers across the nation, allowing him to witness history for the New York Times, the Seattle Times and Chicago Daily News.
- Souza served as official White House photographer for presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama before attracting a gigantic Instagram audience with his historic images and incisive captions.
- Snead sprouted from Lawrence roots into a photographer and editor who worked in Topeka, Chicago, Washington and Vietnam.
The list of names on this first hall of fame class is impressive for a state of any size. That is especially true when you consider the names likely to be added in future years, such as W. Eugene Smith and Barbara Kinney.
For most people at the banquet, the applause will sound simply like hands coming together as a celebration.
For many of the photographers present, I imagine it will remind them of a different sound — the one that earned each of them the award: the sound of a camera shutter opening and closing thousands, if not millions, of times.
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