Chad Ziemendorf: North Dakota photographer seeking clarity in his work
Chad Ziemendorf is a photographer in North Dakota, and he’s at a crossroads.
In the professional world of photography, it’s safe to say he’s done it all. Over a number of years now, he’s shot editorial, commercial, architectural and fine-art photography, and he’s worked in online journalism as well.
Today, his work is two-fold. He is a commercial photographer that is hired and travels for corporate work, and he also is developing a passion project called Intersection Journal, an online magazine that intimately documents the “way of life” in Western North Dakota.
He adores both of these paths, but he needs to make a choice.
“I believe there are real pictures and pretty pictures,” Chad says. “The real pictures change lives, and the pretty pictures sell a product. I have both feet firmly planted on both sides right now.
“I want to do something special for the community of North Dakota with Intersection Journal, but the pretty pictures are the ones where the biggest commissions come, which gives me the time to do Intersection Journal.”
So right now, he’s attempting to manage both while also maintaining a work/life balance. It can’t go on like this forever.
“I really enjoy the Journal,” he says. “But I also really enjoy doing corporate architecture in San Francisco, and I really enjoy capturing beautiful corporate portraits for industries.”
But that high-stake, corporate work is very time consuming and mentally exhausting. When duty calls, he must put all his creative and emotional energy into the assignment, leaving his personal passion project at home for later.
“If I had to do one thing, I don’t know what that one thing would be, because I enjoy it all!”
Many people know the feeling. But as anxious as uncertainty can make us feel, it is a good sign, isn’t it? That our work means so much to us that it creates multiple platforms in which to deliver? I’d take that over apathy any day.
And Chad would, too.
But there’s something else at work here, something else that keeps him up at night. Half the reason Chad can’t decide which professional path to pursue is because, just like him, photographers in general are experiencing a sort of resurrection when it comes to possibility. There was perhaps a time that it was difficult for a photographer to make a living of their own work, much like the burden artists still experience today, but if you ask Chad, it shouldn’t be a concern anymore.
“Most photographers are rooted in fear that their work isn’t good enough to make a living, but they don’t have to be,” Chad says. “Start with passion, and build a business around that.
“Start with passion, and build a business around that.”
“When you build a business around something that is authentically yours, you find a way to get it done because you love doing it. You don’t get burnt out, because it’s something that makes you come alive!
“You also get to have your voice. When have your own voice, you have your own style, and when you have your style, you get to charge a premium for that because you are the only one who can do it. Be true to you!”
And that’s how you make a living off of your passion.
‘Storytelling is the passion’
Still, Chad is seeking refinement.
His love for storytelling helps. If there’s anything that lures Chad to his commitment to Intersection Journal, it’s the entrepreneurial, documentary storytelling he gets to do for his community.
He loves the process.
“If storytelling is the passion, it’s just a matter of being fearless in finding your pursuit,” he says. “My favorite thing about storytelling is the never-ending quality of it,” he says. “Life is always happening, the story is never really done. And most stories can’t be done on deadline. You can’t force life to happen.”
It’s why he found working in media to be difficult work. He worked for the San Francisco Chronicle for a while, and it only helped him to realize what he wanted out of a future in photography.
“I try to at least be with my subject a minimum of three times, but when I worked for a newspaper, I got to be with my clients a maximum of 30 minutes, because I had to get on the road to the next assignment.”
With Intersection Journal, he’s still telling stories the way newspapers do every day, but there’s more time to allow reality to unravel in front of his camera.
For Chad, time is everything.
“Journalism is all about storytelling, reporting and documenting the world around us and being an interpreter of daily life and our culture so that other people can witness it as well,” he says. “Our job as a photojournalist is to be a window to the world as if somebody was standing there, watching this thing unfold. We must be completely transparent — not alter the scene, to just be capturing as it is in its very raw state.
“That job is to capture reality.”
At Intersection Journal, Chad is doing that, but he focuses more on the narrative, too.
“I’m looking for characters,” he says. “I’m looking for strong character narratives, someone you can witness life through. To tell the story of North Dakota is a way too lofty goal. But choosing the stories of individual people who live there, you can tell the stories from the inside out, one person at a time.”
As Chad seeks consistency with Intersection Journal, there’s at least refuge in the fact that he knows what it looks like. He knows exactly the type of product he wants to deliver, he just needs the time.
And maybe a small team would be nice, too.
“I’m happy to use the voice of other photographers,” he says. “My dream would be that Intersection Journal actually creates some jobs. There are some really talented storytellers out there who deserve to get paid a lot of money for their work and expertise.”
‘It takes 10 years’
There’s so much faith and investment in the vision — both in telling stories for North Dakota or as a corporate photographer for the rest of the world.
He’s got time.
“They say it takes 10 years to find yourself as a photographer,” Chad says, “because you go through these phases of absorbing, then imitation, then experimentation, and then you find your unique voice. Each phase has to happen on their own time. I’m not there yet.
“As a creative, I’m more in a hurry and more confused than ever.”
Perhaps. But if there’s anything we can glean from his vulnerability, it’s that he’s completely and madly in love with his work.
And that’s an incredibly fortunate place to be — a place all of us could learn from.
Angela Tewalt, OTA