3 Questions with... David Joles of the Star Tribune

"I'm interested in underdogs. I like to tell stories about people who I think are being unfairly put down."

Editor’s note: Students in ThreeSixty Journalism’s Rookie Journalist Camp in June spent time writing a Q-and-A story about guest speakers who visited camp. Check ThreeSixtyJournalism.org for more of these profiles, as well as student blogs.

A photo of a romantic couple with disabilities. A young girl in a car with bullet holes. A gorilla in the African jungle. A woman visiting a gravesite during a snowstorm at Fort Snelling.

David Joles, a staff photographer at the Star Tribune, has a true passion for capturing moments like those in photos.

For his photography, Joles and other Star Tribune journalists became finalists for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the state’s healthcare system for disabled people.

Joles, who has previously worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram and the Hobbs, New Mexico Daily News-Sun, also has won numerous other state and national awards, including second place for newspaper photographer of the year in the 2004 Pictures of the Year competition. One of his more recent photos, of a woman visiting a gravesite during a snowstorm at Fort Snelling, went viral on social media earlier this year.

Joles, who lives in South Minneapolis and is married with two children, is grateful to have the opportunity to capture ordinary people who live extraordinary lives, according to his bio.

Q: If you had the opportunities to share your thoughts on people with disabilities with what you’ve learned based off your reporting and photographs, what would you say?

Joles: I went on a public television show after we did this (story about people living with disabilities) and they said to me, “So, what was your takeaway?” … I think what I learned more than anything is that people, whether they have a disability or not, but particularly I think if they have a disability, they want to be defined by what they can do, not by what why they can't do. I think that's the huge thing.

… Part of the reason I went into journalism was because I’m so bad at math. And it turned out well for me because I love what I (do), but I think I would’ve liked to maybe have been a doctor or something, but I could have never been a doctor because I wasn't good enough in math and I wasn't good enough in sciences, so I look at it like, yeah, we all have things that we don't do well, but you don't want to be defined by what you don't do well. You want to be defined by what you care about, what you're passionate about, what you work at. I think that was really the message that I would tell people, is that people with disabilities, they want you to give them a chance because there are things that they can do.

Q: When you capture these photographs, where do you look and what really grabs your attention?

Joles: I think I’m very observant and very curious, so I am constantly looking at people and analyzing them and noticing little details, and I might see someone that someone else doesn’t see and I might see something about them that gives me a clue as to something about their life. So then I want to investigate further, and if I feel like there is an injustice or something, or people just aren’t being treated fairly, I feel almost like an obligation to find out about it and try to expose it.

I think that’s kind of what pushes me to do some pictures and stories that are ... intimate almost to the point where for some people maybe they’re almost uncomfortable to look at. I'm interested in underdogs. I like to tell stories about people who I think are being unfairly put down.

Q: When you release your photos and just share them out to the world, do you have a message you want people to understand or something you want people to take from your photos?

Joles: No, not necessarily. I mean, I want photos to be storytelling, but I really don’t have any influence on what kind of story is going on in the photograph. In a long-term project, like the one we did on disabilities, sure, I want the message to reflect what we find in reporting the story. In visiting different places, what is the common theme? I want it to reflect that, but no, I really don’t (have a specific message I want conveyed).

If I’m moved by a situation or I find the situation interesting, I just want to put the photo out there and then people can kind of conclude what they want. I don’t want to have to tell someone what to think about it or what they should conclude. They should conclude what they want or what they see in it. It shouldn’t be me telling you, “This is what you should see.” You should see what you see. So I don’t really have a message that I try to – I more just put it out there for people to come to their own conclusion.

This transcript has been edited for length and content.

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