At the dawn of the 20th Century, rural educators sought to incorporate practical, hands-on learning into public school curriculums. Relying on public and private resources, the innovators created a rural educational mainstay, commonly known today as 4H.
Whether it’s learning the "how-tos" of responsible livestock management or discovering technological breakthroughs in rural science and engineering, millions of 4-Hers have gained essential knowledge and experience from the nationwide educational network.
In Iowa, one longtime photographer is helping young 4H students discover rural America through the lens of a camera. And as Jeannie Campbell explains, the lessons learned from still images can last a lifetime.
Tim Florer has a passion, a passion for photography that he developed rather late in life.
Tim Florer, Photographer: “Some people in their mid-life crisis buy a sports car. My wife bought me a camera. It worked out real well that way, and I started shooting first in color and then I got interested in black and white.”
Since he started taking pictures 15 years ago, Florer has published three books. His latest book “Reflections Along the White Pole Road,” published by Successful Farming, retraces the route of the 1912 highway that ran across Iowa from the mighty Mississippi river to the muddy Missouri.
His first and second books, “Rural Iowa Ruins” and “Against the Current” are collaborations that marry Florer’s photographs of a disappearing rural landscape, with oral histories gathered by high school students.
Tim Florer, Photographer: “I take old buildings, old corn cribs and barn. The story is still there about people even though they're not in the image itself and -- and we're losing so many of these buildings it's important to record these now before they're all gone.”
Florer’s book “Rural Ruins” was the seed that grew to become Camera Corps. Using 4-H students, Florer formed Camera Corps in 2004 to record the Iowa State Fair’s Sesquicentennial.
Tim Florer, Photographer: “And we put together a plan where we had 100 kids at the state fair that year and we gave them an assignment of what to go out and shoot, And, then they would ask questions of people. Why are you at the fair? What's, the best thing you like about the state fair? And then we took all those images, all that information, and donated it to the state archives. So, the kids like the idea that they can come back 50 years from now, take their grandkids to the archives and go here's what we did 50 years ago.”
Building on it’s state fair success, Camera Corps expanded and selected new projects to photograph. Subjects have ranged from a small town’s 4th of July celebration, to conservation projects. While the projects are always changing, the focus of Camera Corps remains the same.
Tim Florer, Photographer: “It boils down to the fact we try to get them to look at the world differently whether it's pure in photography technique or just take a moment and focus in on something other than what you're doing in a normal every day life and it's opened up a lot of ideas for them.”
Another Camera Corps constant is it’s always composed of 4-H members. Mitchell Hoyer is with the Iowa State Extension Service. As coordinator of the Iowa 4-H youth development program, he helps select the roughly 20 students each year who participate in Camera Corps. Mitch Hoyer, 4-H Youth Development: “Photography is one of the largest 4-H project areas in the state of Iowa. We have well over twelve and a half thousand kids enrolled in photography ever year. And so one of the things the Camera Corps does is allow us to provide an opportunity to challenge them to grow their photography skills and take a step beyond what they might otherwise think of doing within the 4-H program.”
A mere interest in photography is not enough to become a member of Camera Corps. A 4-H member has to have received a Blue Ribbon in photography at the Iowa State Fair, and be willing to make a nearly yearlong commitment.
Shawn Crooks, New Hampton, Iowa: “Because there's four times that we have go and take pictures and they say like try to get the same places so you can see like the change in the seasons.”
Jessica Roder, Merrill, Iowa: “I learned to be more patient with things because in different seasons there were different types of animals and you had to be patient with animals and wait until they come out.”
Besides the opportunity to learn more about photography and the world they live in, an added incentive to participating in Camera Corps is the chance of getting published. For 3 of the 7 years that Camera Corps has existed, Nationwide Agribusiness has featured Corps pictures in their annual calendar.
Jackie Tatum, Nationwide Agribusiness: “We had worked with Tim Florer on some projects in the past and he brought the idea of highlighting and showcasing some of the Camera Corp 4-H participants photos in one of our calendars and we thought, you know this would be a good idea.”
For the 2007 calendar, Nationwide Agribusiness used photographs taken by 2005 and 2006 Camera Corp participants. The theme of the calendar was “Rural Life” and included photo’s taken by 4-H members from Wyoming and Iowa.
The title of the 2008 calendar was “Rural Exposure.” Pictures for the calendar were selected from 4-H photographers from Iowa, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri and Kansas.
The 2010 calendar’s is titled “Invigorating the Economy: 1930’s and 1940’s.” The pictures are of WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps projects, that were created or built in Iowa during the great depression. The calendar includes photographs of post office murals and state park projects that were designed to support the arts and stimulate the economy.
Jackie Tatum, Nationwide Agribusiness: “I think it's a win-- win. It's a great organization. The kids enjoy, you know, shooting the photography and our customers and agents enjoy the calendar.”
A lot of lives have been touched as a result of Tim Florer’d decision to answer his midlife crisis by focusing on photography. But according to Florer, he’s the one reaping the biggest rewards from Camera Corps.
Tim Florer, Photographer: “I get ten times back what I put into it. There's no doubt about it. We have had some our first participants go on and have the photography as their major in college. Which is really rewarding when they come back and say without you're program we would not have done that. So, we've touch a life someplace. So, yeah, it's been really worth it. ”
For Market to Market, I’m Jeannie Campbell.