This week we talked with Roanoke Times photojournalist and triathlete, Heather Rousseau.

Rousseau talks with us about how she first got interested in photography, what photojournalism gives her on a personal level, the art and craft involved in news photography, competing in triathlons and her most memorable photos.

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Heather Rousseau I have been a visual journalist for The Roanoke Times for almost five years. One of the reasons I applied for the job is I thought Roanoke would be a fantastic place to mountain bike and play outside. I love the small-town feel coupled with the culture and the city’s history. It’s a great place to be a journalist, and we have a wonderful and close staff. We have three staff photographers, one in the bureau. We edit each other’s work and online galleries and like to make time to work on projects together or independently.

Before working here, I was chief photographer at The Herald in Jasper, Indiana, and also at The Aspen Daily News in Colorado. After almost 10 years as a photojournalist, I went to graduate school to study multimedia. During my undergrad degree, I was still shooting film. I never thought I’d be a videographer too, but it turns out that I love both.

My husband and I recently had a son; he is five-months old. I would be proud to stay in the field and show him the importance of visual storytelling.

When did you realize that you wanted to pursue photojournalism as a career? What about it appealed to you?

It was my senior year in the fine art photography program at College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. I became very involved in photographing The Detroit Mounted Police and a program through a local church offering community services for adults with developmental disabilities. I was more passionate about sharing these stories than anything I had worked on my entire college education. My professor actually told me I would probably be interested in pursuing photojournalism.

I think what appealed most to me at first was basically getting a glimpse into new worlds; learning what life is like for other people and of course making connections with people. I began to realize that by sharing stories, not only did I have a better understanding about the people I was spending time with, but that I could maybe (hopefully) help others to have a better understanding as well.

When you photograph, what does a photo have to have to grab you as a visual journalist?

Every situation is a little different, but first what grabs me is a moment. That’s what I look for: the emotion of a scene, moments between people or a quite moment of an individual. I want to help the viewer feel what’s it like to be there or to maybe relate to or have compassion for a subject. Light is another important element that can make or break an image aesthetically, but also convey a mood of a situation. I also look for elements in a scene that can help with the composition or have a graphic appeal while helping to add another layer of information. All this is much easier said than done. 

In the gallery below are some of Rousseau’s most memorable photos she has taken over the years for the Roanoke Times. 

What’s been one photo of yours that stuck with you, for better or worse? What about the photo itself makes it memorable to you?

That’s really hard to answer. Memories from situations and of people who I’ve met come to mind over any image. I wish I kept a journal over the years of my experiences as a photojournalist. It’s not too late for me to start, but I would recommend to anyone beginning this career to start a journal. We cover so much, meet so many amazing people and end up being in so many interesting situations. It’s hard to remember everything well.

The photo that keeps coming back to me I took over 10 years ago while working on a project about a way of life as it relates to energy and the environment. This is a subject I am most interested in.  The image is of a young girl pushing her younger sibling in a stroller on the grass outside her home. The large Oxbow coal mine, where her father worked, towering behind. It was in Somerset, Colorado where less than 200 homes nestled in a valley at the base of one of the country’s most productive coal mines.

I was looking at how Colorado’s push toward a clean energy economy was affecting the small town, but I ended up going deeper and learning so much more about a culture and appreciating a way of life that was vastly different from my own. Even though I was a stranger to the small town, the locals were welcoming, warm and open to sharing their lives with me. The mine has since closed, I’ve tried to call the bar where all the locals gathered and some people, I spent time with but there was no answer. I hope I can go back someday and see what it’s like now.

Where do you fall in the photojournalism as art, photojournalism as trade “debate”?

You have to be technically proficient and learn a certain skill set, but it’s an art.

You’re looking through a lens and choosing a small portion of the scene, you’re creating a composition, you’re choosing a few images from an entire situation to publish. You’re communicating with people and anticipating.

That’s the fine line with photojournalism. It’s an art where you have to be very cognizant that you’re honest and truthful to the situation.

What does photojournalism afford to you on a personal level?

I feel lucky to be working in the field of photojournalism. I learn something new and have new experiences on a regular basis. I also love being on the move. I can’t imagine being stuck at a desk all day.

I value all the people I meet and relationships I’ve formed throughout my career. I think this helps give me a better outlook on life.

“I feel lucky to be working in the field of photojournalism. I learn something new and have new experiences on a regular basis.”

On an off note, I wanted to ask you about your other occupation as a triathlete. How and when did you get started doing this? Have you found any parallels between triathlons and news photography?

It wasn’t until recently that I thought hey, I love to swim, bike and run–I may as well try a triathlon. I’ve only done a handful. I might be a little crazy to be training for a half Ironman Triathlon, but it takes place in my hometown of Traverse City, Michigan, where I grew up swimming, and that has been an inspiration for me.

I hadn’t thought about parallels between triathlons and news photography before, but since you asked, I can think of quite a few. They both require a lot of focus, and energy! Also, race day is such a unique event; every race is different with a lot to balance. There is always a big adrenalin rush and a lot of preparation before the start of the race. I would say all these things ring true for big planned photo shoots as well as breaking news.

What excites you about working at a newspaper?

There are so many moving parts and elements that come into play at a newspaper.

I value being a part of a team where we are all reliant on each other. The visual elements change depending on how and where they are used, and the context of the story. Though there’s not often time for our small photo staff to talk to page designers and the online team, I like to think about the edit and ordering of a gallery or how a collection of images will work on a page.

I also like that every day is different and we photograph a variety of subjects. Storytelling and working on long term projects is what I like best, but I also like that on any given day we may cover sports, have a portrait shoot, cover a community event or meet someone at their home.