Fargo photographer finds signs of life as he documents pandemic scenes in hard-hit North Dakota
Dan Koeck's pictures of the pandemic's impact on the region have appeared in national outlets and newspapers.
FARGO — During an unusually warm week earlier this fall, photographer Dan Koeck set out with his camera to prowl the streets of Fargo for a few shots of people — his forte.
On the cusp of a COVID-19 outbreak in North Dakota that would garner attention from around the country, of which he would document and publish photos in major news sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, Wired, CNN and more, Koeck came across a couple lounging outside their home in the Clara Barton neighborhood.
“It reflects a lot of what people are experiencing right now,” says Koeck.
Around the unassuming scene grows a crystalline spur into the collective body of his work. Posting to Instagram with a caption reading "signs of life," the couple tells their story through the lens of Koeck’s camera.
“They knew what I wanted, and they gave it to me. I captured who they were — or a part of it,” Koeck says about the unidentified couple.
Just weeks before, the photographer shot an intimate portrait appearing on the front page of the Los Angeles Times as part of an article written by Jaweed Kaleem about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Connecting online from across the country, the national correspondent for the LA Times reached out to Koeck wanting him specifically to photograph the subjects of his story centering around a viral tweet posted by Jesse Ugstad of Ottertail, Minn.
In the photo posted to Twitter by Ungstad, a white mom marches solo with an “I can’t breathe” sign, but under the surface a more complex story of race unfolds.
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With a single day to capture the essence of the story, Koeck’s last-minute shoot with the young Black man at the center of the Times article is typical of the constraints he often faces. Get in, make a connection with his subjects and shoot what he hopes will help introduce the reader to a larger story.
“I think of a photo as a thought, so everybody who sees one of my photos, I’ve planted a thought in their mind with that photo,” Koeck says.
From photos he captures just around the corner to abroad, Koeck’s photographs are like time capsules, coiled up and ready to unravel.
“I just feel like I have a gift and I can use it to benefit the future. When we look back and wonder what this time looked like, there will be photos,” Koeck says.
And in those moments of reflection will be people. People fighting through a pandemic, people lined up at testing sites, people hugging in long-awaited embraces.
While these scenes unfold around us at all times, it’s Koeck’s 30 years of experience that help him identify the conditions for a great photo, documenting the world through a diverse style he developed while working as a photojournalist.
It was his contacts in the journalism world that eventually led the New York Times to reach out to him in October to photograph testing sites as North Dakota became the center of the COVID-19 news cycle.
Soon his work documenting the pandemic in the region would circulate through national media outlets, appearing in newspapers such as the Washington Post, magazines such as Wired and the New Yorker, and even in a news segment televised on "60 Minutes."
In one of his photos, a light snow falls as people line up to be tested at an outdoor site, similar to scenes from across the country, with a unique frigidity.
“Well, that's the challenge, you know, it all tends to look alike,” Koeck says about documenting the pandemic, adding that, “It can be kind of a private battle” to find the right photos.
Even so, Koeck manages to capture intimate moments that feel close to home, like a group gathered outside Bethany Retirement Living as visitation restrictions forced families to chat with loved ones through tall fences at the perimeter of the facility.
“I've always got my camera with me, and one day I had time to just park there and observe,” Koeck says about that day this summer.
With his long-range lens in hand, Koeck approached the family, greeting a woman whom he assumed to be the daughter of a man in a wheelchair on the other side of the fence.
“She smiled at me when she saw me, and I explained who I was and asked if I could take pictures of the family together,” Koeck says.
Just a few days later, the nursing home ceased these types of visitations, with the threat of the virus too severe even for gatherings at an arm’s length through the fence.
As the fight to contain the spread of the virus wages on, Koeck works to capture photos that represent a complex time with pivotal moments in politics, racial equality and more.
“The thing I have to pour the most of my resources and energy into is taking pictures," he says. "If I can take the best pictures possible, everything else will follow after that.”
This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net.