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A look back on ‘Day in the Life’ project from 25 years ago

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Former publisher Tim L. Waltner reflects on partnership with SDSU

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    This is the cover of the 40-page publication distributed 25 years ago this spring.

In the early 1990s, I became increasingly interested in mounting a special photography project in the Freeman community. 

I’d seen “a day in the life” photo essays in books and magazines. I was intrigued by these seemingly random collections of photos of people and places that marked time in a unique way — focusing not on a singular subject or event, but the larger “moment in time.” This eclectic mix of images offered refreshing and revealing perspectives that, to resort to a cliché, “are greater than the sum of its parts.”

I’d been involved with the Courier for more than a dozen years and shot thousands of photographs — everything from basketball games to construction projects to theater productions to landscapes to kids on the playground — all as part of the weekly chronicling of the community. Collectively, these images created an ongoing mosaic of the community. But I really liked the idea of capturing all of that in a singular “day in the life” of Freeman. 

I knew a project like that was bigger than what I could do on my own. And that’s when I reached out to Frank Klock.

Frank taught photography at South Dakota State University. While I had never enrolled as a student at SDSU, the journalism department had become an important resource for me. With no formal journalism training — my only credentials were being part of the student publications at the Freeman Academy and Freeman Junior College — I took advantage of the close working relationship between the South Dakota Newspaper Association and the SDSU Journalism Department. I valued Frank’s knowledge, skills and experience and he was approachable and generous in helping me as a photojournalist. I enjoyed our time together at training sessions and workshops and informal conversations at conferences and conventions. 

It was at one of those gatherings, in July 1993, that I broached the subject of “a day in the life of Freeman” with Frank. That’s all it took to launch a cooperative effort between the Freeman Courier and the SDSU Journalism Department.

Frank and I pitched the idea to Dr. Richard W. Lee, chair of the department — another important resource and friend of mine at SDSU — who quickly gave an enthusiastic “yes” and we were off and running. Frank’s students liked the idea and began strategizing on what and how they would approach the project creatively.

Back here in Freeman, we put together the nuts and bolts of the project, including how we would produce and pay for creating, printing and distributing a special “day in the life” section that would be part of the Freeman Courier.

We decided to follow a format that we’d used with two other special sections for the Courier — the Freeman1979 centennial and the 1989 South Dakota centennial — in which local businesses and organizations sponsored the section with personalized historical themed ads. These sponsorships not only helped make these publications possible, they also created a valuable historical record of the local businesses and organizations, something we continue to use as a research tool. 

When we shared our idea for “a day in the life,” the community quickly responded positively. We offered a variety of levels of participation and were gratified by the participation of 110 sponsors.

Frank and I chose a random day, Wednesday, April 20, 1994, as our “day in the life.” Frank and his 13 students arrived Tuesday night for a pre-shoot orientation; they spent the night at Fensel’s Motel so they could hit the ground, cameras in hand, before the sun came up Wednesday morning. Because the Courier office was at that time located in the small triangle-shaped building immediately north of Glenn Roth’s law office and way too small for a project headquarters, we used the council chambers at Freeman City Hall as our gathering place. 

I didn’t give the students any specific instructions or assignments other than to explore and get good shots. While Frank helped give some guidance, the students simply ventured out into the community to record on film — yes, this was before digital — and recorded hundreds of photos of people and places inside and outside city limits.  

Joining the SDSU students were four local high school students, Wendy Hofer, Renee Schaeffer, Jeremy Waltner and Misty Waltner.

After a very long Wednesday, Klock and his students returned to Brookings with lot of film to process — 120 rolls of 24-exposure black and white film. There, in the next couple of weeks, the SDSU photography and design students, under the leadership of their professors Klock and Lyle Olsen, selected, edited and assembled the photos along with the 110 Freeman businesses/organization sponsorships and created “Images of Freeman” which included 95 black and white photos recorded by the students.

The final product wasn’t exactly the “24-hour-day in the life” project I first envisioned; the timeline runs from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. But we were very, very pleased. It was a wonderful way to look at our community with dozens of memorable photographs of people, places and activities captured and preserved in 14 hours of a single day. The 40-page publication was included as a special section in the May 11 issue of the Courier

Some of Frank’s students went on to become photojournalists. Some chose other careers. Among those who stayed in the field was Frank Robertson, who recorded some of my favorite images in “Day in the Life.”

And that brings us to 2019. Watch for more in the weeks to come.