Times' Editorial: Republicans wrongly fired up over 4-H'er's fiery photo

Mike Christopherson

Some area Republicans got upset recently when a teenage 4-H’er submitted a photo she took of a Donald Trump/Mike Pence campaign yard sign, in flames, to the Pennington County Fair photography competition

The photo itself probably wouldn’t have received much attention beyond the competition judges and passers-by at the fair, had it not received a “Blue-Ribbon Award,” the second-highest rating a photo in the contest can receive. Someone took a photo of the photo with its affixed blue ribbon and shared it with a regional media outlet as well as the Pennington County Republicans. Of course, it made its way to social media, which, predictably ignited another fire.

The teen who took the photo and submitted it is, in fact, a teen. But she’s also 18 years old, an adult. That was enough wiggle room for the Pennington County Republicans to call the photo “offensive” and “absolutely not appropriate especially as a children’s submission.” The group also publicly tagged the photographer on Facebook and directed followers who were also offended to call the Pennington County Fair Board and the local 4-H club. When confronted by detractors who said it wasn’t right to publicly identify the 18 year old on such a potentially toxic and even threatening social media platform, the Pennington County Republicans shot back by noting the teen’s adult status. “If she wants to put out adults and hate-filled content in public then she will need to accept the public criticism that comes with that,” the group said. “In fact, even if she was a minor as the entry indicates (it indicated she was 17 at the time), public acts that are hateful can and should earn public criticism, regardless of who perpetrates them.”

Geez, who’s a snowflake now? And while we’re at it, who’s a hypocrite?

This is the party of Trump, after all – populated by supporters who, leading up to the 2016 presidential election and after Trump prevailed, responded to despondent never-Trumpers by shouting “F*** your feelings!” far and wide. This is also crimson red Trump country; he gets about 66% of the vote in this neck of the woods. Given that lofty level of passionate support, to convey any political stance in a public setting around these parts that amounts to anything less than genuflecting in worship at the Trump altar is to put yourself in harm’s way. One can assume this teen photographer had at least an inkling of what she was getting into when she submitted that particular photo, so, hopefully, those close to her are circling the wagons as she navigates her way through the backlash.

The Pennington County Board withered from the heat generated by the fiery photo and the firestorm it sparked. “The Pennington County Fair Association does not support the exhibit’s content or appropriateness,” their statement read.

So brave of them to take such a safe, vanilla stance…

As for why the photo was judged so highly, the photo contest judging sheet indicates that the technical aspects of the photo itself – exposure, composition and mounting, etc. – are the judges’ primary consideration, not the content of the photo itself.

Bev Durgan, dean of University of Minnesota Extension, acknowledged the “mixed reactions” in the community to the photo, while also supporting the 4-H-er who took the photo by noting “her technical and artistic photography skills.”

Durgan had much more to say:

"Both that acknowledgement and support are necessary, especially in a time where polarization seems to be increasing, both in Minnesota and nationwide," she wrote. "We realize that personal interpretation of this photo will vary depending on people’s perspectives.

“4-H has always been a place for young people to explore, learn and think for themselves. 4-H’ers may express their positions on a variety of topics, including social and political issues,” Durgan continued. “We hope that all can agree that learning is at the core of 4-H. Beyond that, the matter is under consideration and it would not be in the best interests of 4-H to engage in a public discussion at this time."

Good for Durgan. And good for the photographer, too, because it’s a high-quality image that took guts to enter in what is normally a wholesome, folksy, family-friendly competition. The exposure level shows skill, it’s dark and ominous, and striking; one could even argue that it’s beautiful.

If all of these die-hard, ironclad Trump supporters can call what transpired at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 a “protest,” then never-Trumpers can call this young photographer’s photo an artistic achievement worthy of placement in the Smithsonian.