Not many Americans share my last name — a few dozen, if that — and yet it sometimes feels like I can’t go anywhere without bumping into someone for whom the name Gehrz rings a bell. That’s partly because it’s a distinctive name: people can’t spell Gehrz (no, it’s not Gerhz, Gehrtz, or Gertz) or pronounce it (“gairts,” not “gerts” or “gerz”), but they recognize it. But that’s in larger part because several of my relatives have brought considerable distinction to the name:
- “Gehrz? Any relation to the mayor?”
- “Gehrz? You aren’t related to the physicist at the University of Minnesota, are you? The one who worked on the Hubble?” (And recently starred in a series on The Science of Hockey, by the way.)
- “Gehrz? You’re not Dick Gehrz’s son, are you?” (This one comes from doctors and other health care professionals: it seems like my dad trained or worked with half the pediatricians in the metro area.)
- And, most common: “Gehrz? Like the photographer at the Star Tribune?”
Yep, that’s my uncle Jim — who’s been at the Strib since 2004, after previously working at its St. Paul competitor (the Pioneer Press) and Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel, and is probably one of the best photojournalists alive.
He’s certainly one of the most highly honored. This all came to mind yesterday, when the Minnesota News Photographers Association (MNPA) named Jim their 2011 Photographer of the Year — after bestowing the same honor in 2010, 2009, and 2008, and several times before then, the first coming back in 1985 when he was getting started in the small town of Worthington. (He also took 1st place this year for Feature Photograph and News Picture Story, and has previously been honored for everything from sports to spot reporting.) The MNPA award came a couple weeks after he and several Star Trib colleagues won a regional Edward R. Murrow award for multimedia journalism: earned, in part, because of these photos Jim contributed to “Lost Warriors,” a series on military suicides.
Chronicling the effects of America’s post-9/11 military conflicts has become a central theme in Jim’s career, and has earned him national and international acclaim. In 2005, he was named the Newspaper Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), in part on the strength of a series documenting the road to recovery for one Minnesota soldier:
Asked if there was one moment in his winning portfolio that was special for him, he said, “Yes, Jessica’s story.” Jessica Clements, 27, was one of more than 10,000 American soldiers injured in Iraq. She was a model and massage therapist before becoming a soldier. Clements was critically injured when a roadside bomb exploded beneath the truck she was riding in, sending shrapnel into the right side of her brain. She was given less than a 2 percent chance to live. Gehrz followed her recovery through surgery and rehabilitation at the Minnesota Veterans Medical Center.
“The moment that moved me the most was when I shot Jessica in the hospital, right before she went into surgery, and she was kissing her fiancé goodbye during a quiet moment. We almost got arrested by the naval police. They didn’t want any photographs taken in the hospital. We’re walking up to her room, literally 10 feet away, and the public relations person says, ‘You know there are no pictures allowed, right?’ We’d gotten to that point with her, and I wasn’t going to be there without saying goodbye, so I put down my cameras and went in. She said, ‘Where’s your cameras?’ and I told her they weren’t allowing photographs. She said, ‘That’s not right.’ For those few minutes, for that instant, we really connected, and I took that picture.”
His photographs of Jessica Clements also helped earn Jim the National Journalism Award for Photojournalism from the Scripps Howard Foundation, made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Photography, and won him one of Germany’s highest awards for journalism(the Henri Nannen Prize) after a German magazine picked up the series.
The Scripps Howard award announcement called Jim “a story-teller with a camera,” and that fits Jim’s understanding of his vocation. He tried to describe his “niche” as a photojournalist in a 2005 essay:
What has become clear to me over the years is that my strongest asset is to find wonder and eloquence in the everyday aspects of life. I seem to have found my way by seeking out those simple treasures. Unless these are frozen in time by the still, photographic moment, readers often take them for granted or fail to appreciate them even when they witness them in their own daily routines. While not necessarily monumental in scope, these moments are genuinely meaningful and instantly connect with the readers. Of course our job as photojournalists entails recording all walks of life, positive and less so, and I do the best I can to document both. Whenever I get a chance I like to balance the scales by contributing everyday moments that celebrate life.