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updated: 5/5/2014 4:28 PM

The stories that matter: Photojournalist shares his favorites

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  • Just a few hours after Tracy Heilers told her husband Gary they were going to have a baby, she was still clutching the proof in her hands.

       Just a few hours after Tracy Heilers told her husband Gary they were going to have a baby, she was still clutching the proof in her hands.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • When May Chesak could convince a friend to go out to lunch, one of her favorite joints was McDonald's, where she always ordered a hamburger, fries and orange drink. Leanne Atwood, who worked with May at Heathstone Manor in Woodstock, shares a laugh over some of their favorite food.

       When May Chesak could convince a friend to go out to lunch, one of her favorite joints was McDonald's, where she always ordered a hamburger, fries and orange drink. Leanne Atwood, who worked with May at Heathstone Manor in Woodstock, shares a laugh over some of their favorite food.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Moments after meeting the woman who received her late-husband's kidney in a transplant, Anne Gulotta wanted to feel connected again to her husband Jay. Kidney recipient Julie Bieneman obliges when Anne asks "Where's Jay?"

       Moments after meeting the woman who received her late-husband's kidney in a transplant, Anne Gulotta wanted to feel connected again to her husband Jay. Kidney recipient Julie Bieneman obliges when Anne asks "Where's Jay?"
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Christopher Hankins

      Christopher Hankins

 
By Christopher Hankins
chankins@dailyherald.com

I fell in love with journalism when I discovered the power of pictures to tell stories.

And since I started working for the Daily Herald in 1996, I've told more than a few from behind the camera, and even some with a pen.

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But when I walk out of the office here in Elgin for the last time today, what will sadden me the most isn't missing out on pro sports events from the sidelines or the rush of adrenaline covering spot news assignments. My mind will be flooded with the countless subjects who have accepted me into their homes, often with great trepidation, to allow me to photograph them in a way that speaks to the heart of their personal story.

So many people have just gone about their lives while I watched through a camera. It's an unbelievable privilege to witness everything from a live home birth to even a funeral for somebody I never knew, and everything in between.

High school kids winning the state title in a downstate athletic tournament, senior center luncheon parties where everyone you meet is happy you're there to take pictures. That's the kind of stuff that's priceless to me.

On the very top of that list will be Tracy Heilers. Tracy and her husband Gary didn't know me from Adam when I met with them to discuss documenting their struggle with infertility. But they were open to sharing their story, and quickly allowed me to be present for some pretty intimate moments.

At times it was a struggle to keep making pictures when a word of encouragement would have been more polite. But they never once asked me to stop, and the resulting images and story that ended with the birth of their first son became the favorite images in my photojournalism portfolio. And, in the process, they have become great friends as well.

I will also never forget photographing the greeting between Anne Gulotta and Julie Bieneman after Julie received a donated kidney from Anne's late-husband Jay. When they met in person for the first time, Anne got to physically touch the part of Julie's side where part of her husband lived on.

Moments like that gave me a feeling behind the camera that has been unmatched anywhere else. The emotional power of the situation, the privilege of documenting it, and, most of all, being prepared for the picture and making it in just the right way.

My own photo editors throughout the years always stressed being prepared for moments to happen. And it's so true.

Great photojournalism is rarely luck. It's almost always a combination of knowing your subjects, what they're likely to do or not do, and being in a position to press the shutter when lighting, composition and their reaction meet at the same place. That art form is not something I plan to give up simply because I'm no longer in newspapers.

I will also think of veteran schoolteacher May Chesak, namesake of Chesak Elementary School in Huntley, who lived to see 100 years and still enjoyed being taken to McDonald's for lunch once in a while, ordering a hamburger, fries and orange drink each time.

Farmers were always great subjects -- they always offered a friendly wave when I wandered across their fields, cameras in tow. Chuck and Beulah Swanson were frequent subjects over the years, and their story of maintaining a family farm in the midst of suburban sprawl is one that our newspaper staff covered often.

And there are guys like Bill Rodriguez with the Elgin Public Works Department, whom I could usually find working on something interesting in Wing Park when I really needed a picture for the next day's paper.

Along with the drawer full of old press credentials from the events like the Super Bowl, Ryder Cup, U2 concerts, and presidential visits, I'll also be packing up thank-you notes from senior citizens who thought their picture in the paper turned out just great, or the kids from a local school who thought all my camera gear was really cool on career day.

Of course, there are things about newspaper photojournalism I won't miss.

Election nights and accident scenes were never on my list of favorite things to shoot. I've covered enough small town festivals and county fairs that I may never visit one again, even without a camera, as long as I live. But the good far outweighed the bad in this profession, one that has occupied a very large chunk of my life for those 17-plus years.

It will be hard to walk away from something so comfortable and familiar. But I've heard it said that those things are a sure sign it's time to move on, so I'm leaving the newspaper industry in the rear view.

It feels a bit like jumping from a cliff, not knowing how deep or cold the water is.

But I like an adventure, and I'm ready.

I'm ready for what's next.

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