As a photojournalist, I’m used to walking around a neighborhood in a kind of uniform: the unassuming blue backpack, the camera straps that look like bandoliers, the matte black camera bodies with (occasionally gargantuan) lenses. Sometimes I’ll add protective gear like a helmet or gas mask to the ensemble. You try not to stand out—but, like it or not, it’s a look.

Still, it took some time to get used to the spectacle of other photojournalists—teams of them, in fact—trawling my neighborhood in south Minneapolis. Of course, I knew why they were there: The killing of George Floyd and the trial of Derek Chauvin made Minneapolis into a stage for examining racism and policing in America.

I got a chance to meet some of these visiting journalists: One day, I might find myself giving a French camera crew directions to my favorite coffee shop; a week later, I caught a screening of F9 at the Riverview Theater with an Associated Press photographer.

And then the verdict came in. Within a week or two, the press corps returned their rental cars at the airport and flew off to the next assignment. Meanwhile, I got back to what Sahan Journal does as a local news organization: that is, provide deep, daily reporting from within our Minnesota communities.

Over the last 12 months, I had the opportunity to document and share many highs and lows of Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color: the voices of neighbors living at George Floyd Square; the joy of the Hmong community as they celebrated the first Hmong American Olympic gold medalist; and COVID-19’s impact in communities across the state.

Below are some of the most memorable stories I helped photograph or film during 2021, as well as reflections from my perspective as a multimedia producer. 

Whether you are new to the Sahan Journal community this year (like me! I started work at Sahan in January) or a longtime reader, I want to express my gratitude for following our work. The reporting we do is sustained by your generosity, and if you feel inclined to make a year-end contribution, please click this link.

Thank you.

Emilio Gonzalez shortly before being discharged from Hennepin County Medical Center on February 1, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

One: The Survivor

Emilio Gonzalez spent 76 days in the hospital with severe COVID-19. In February, Sahan Journal reporter Joey Peters and I joined his family as he finally left Hennepin County Medical Center, in downtown Minneapolis. Gonzalez, an essential warehouse worker, lost 50 pounds during his illness.  He hadn’t seen his grandkids since checking into the hospital last November.

Read our story, “The Survivor,” here.

Before going home, Gonzalez, 65, fell during a physical-therapy session in the rehabilitation gym. As a photographer, it was important to show the grave reality of what a three-month stay in the hospital looks like. At the same time, I needed to respect the privacy of the family during a vulnerable moment.

Documenting Gonzalez’s release from HCMC was the first time I saw how a single case of COVID-19 impacted an entire family. 

Protesters stand with signs at a rally to show support for communities experiencing anti-Asian racism in Minneapolis, MN. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Two: Asian American protests

“In my history of protesting in Minneapolis, this is the first event that has ever been for Asian lives,” Anthea Yur said March 18, during a rally against anti-Asian violence. A few days earlier, a gunman had massacred eight people in three spas in the Atlanta area. Six of the dead were Asian women. 

Read the full story here.

YouTube video

Covering the response to the Atlanta spa shootings forced me to channel my emotions into reporting. Just hours before the Minneapolis rally started, I had talked with my sister over the phone. We were both struggling to wrap our heads around the act of racial violence that had unfolded two days earlier—targeting people who looked like her. 

Though my sister and I are both Korean American, our parents are white, and, at the time, they didn’t seem to acknowledge how the killings could have been racially motivated. It felt validating to see my sister’s thoughts, and my own, highlighted by the Asian American community at the rally.

Sharae, 4, raises her fist as people celebrate at George Floyd Square. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Three: Fred Hampton visits George Floyd Square, What the trial felt like for neighbors at 38th and Chicago, & Verdict Day at George Floyd Square

I’ve lived in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood for the past nine years. Before that, I attended nearby South High School, and I remember cutting through the third police precinct’s alley during cross country track practice.

As the national media spotlight focused on the activist community at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, I found myself in a unique position. I was photographing ground zero of an international movement calling for racial justice; I was also covering the story of my own neighbors. 

Living in such close proximity to George Floyd Square gave me the opportunity to document moments that few others witnessed, like the time Fred Hampton Jr.—son of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton Sr.—visited the memorial during an intense summer thunderstorm. 

The shot combined history and meteorology: Freezing a lightning bolt in a photo required a steady hand and lots of patience. I used longer shutter speeds to increase my chances of capturing a strike and I battled the storm’s winds to keep the camera still.

Butchy and Rachel Austin react to the Chauvin trial verdict at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

I also felt a duty to highlight the voices of my neighbors as I listened to their increasing frustration as they encountered pushy reporters and intrusive camera crews. How were they actually feeling as international media flocked to our small corner of Minneapolis on a daily basis? And how did the community react on the day of the verdict?

Read my neighbor’s feelings about the trial here and here. See the photos I took of Fred Hampton Jr.’s visit to the memorial here

Four: COVID Vax FAQ series

The most ambitious project I undertook at Sahan Journal this year? That would have to be producing 16 videos about the COVID vaccine, in five different languages. With the help of our health reporter, Joey Peters, and countless community partners, we scripted, scheduled, filmed, edited, and distributed these informational videos in Somali, Hmong, Spanish, Oromo, and English. 

One memorable behind-the-scenes moment came while filming the fourth series of videos, which we created specifically for kids. It coincided with the vaccine becoming available for 5- to 11-year-olds. After speaking with Hmong medical professionals, we decided to record most of the segment in English: While older generations widely speak Hmong, children often do not. 

During filming with Jessica Vang, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Hennepin Healthcare, we wanted to include a greeting and goodbye message in Hmong. To make sure her pronunciation was correct, Vang called her mother on speaker phone while she recited her lines. Vang nailed her delivery and provided a personal glimpse into the dynamics of how younger generations of immigrants hold on to their mother languages. 

You can watch our full series of COVID-19 vaccine FAQ videos here.

Valerie Shirley interprets Friday prayer at Masjid An-Nur in North Minneapolis on October 22, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Five: Welcome signs: Valerie Shirley helps Minnesota’s deaf Muslim community

One of my favorite videos from 2021 is the story of Valerie Shirley, the founder of Minnesota Deaf Muslim Community. We met on a Friday at the Masjid An-Nur mosque, in north Minneapolis, where Shirley was interpreting the Jummah service into sign language.

Her care and dedication to serve the deaf and hard-of-hearing community is clear in how she talks about her work.

“I use my life and my time to make the world a better place. Giving access to information and access to communication is so important,” Shirley said. “I want to be closer to God. I hope I’m getting blessings for the work that I do.”

YouTube video

In the video, I opted to film some of Shirley’s interpreting in slow motion, which showcases the expressiveness of her gestures and facial expressions. It was also important that the story be accessible to people in the communities she served. We included subtitles throughout the video, as she toggled between spoken English and American Sign Language.

Read more about Valerie Shirley’s work to serve Minnesota’s deaf Muslim community here.

Just before the medal ceremony, Sunisa’s sister Shyenne Lee was able to catch the new champion over Facetime. A cheering crowd circled around her as she held her phone up to show Sunisa the party. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Six: Sunisa Lee

In a year full of dark headlines for Asian Americans, I loved witnessing the Hmong community’s triumph and elation as Sunisa Lee stormed to her historic gold medal at the summer Olympics. A personal highlight: catching a photo of Shyenne Lee FaceTiming with her older sister, Sunisa, before the medal ceremony.

Read more about what happened when Lee became the first Hmong American to win Olympic gold here.

Thousands of Muslim Minnesotas observe morning prayers on the first day of Eid al-Adha on July 20, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Seven: Eid al-Adha at Huntington Bank Stadium

As the sun rose through a smoke-tinged haze just at 7:30 a.m., you could feel the energy filling Huntington Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus. To mark the first day of Eid al-Adha, thousands of Muslim Minnesotans gathered on the playing field to pray. 

Last year’s public gathering had been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, families and friends greeted each other with handshakes and hugs. Many were dressed in flowing thobes and ornate head coverings and children grasped miniature prayer rugs in one hand and their parent’s hands in the other.

I loved photographing the joy in this act of community worship. After climbing the highest bleachers, I used my ultra-wide angle lens (16mm, which is nearly a “fish-eye”) to capture the stadium’s entire bowl. 

View the full gallery here.

Ben Hovland was a multimedia producer for Sahan Journal.