Member Spotlight: Dave Hrbacek, Photographer/Reporter at The Catholic Spirit, Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis

'I have a sacred trust with my photo and interview subjects, meaning I have a duty to tell their stories in words and pictures in a way that is compelling, inspiring, informative and authentic'

By Dianne Towalski
The Catholic Journalist

Tell us about your background and how you came to work in Catholic media:

I grew up in the Twin Cities and have spent my whole life here. I enjoy the change of seasons and the opportunities to do things in the outdoors, like hunting, fishing, hiking and nature photography. I went to the University of Minnesota and got a degree in journalism in 1986. Interestingly, our editor-in-chief here at The Catholic Spirit, Joe Ruff, also got a journalism degree at the U of M, and we graduated at the same time, although we didn’t know each other while in school.

After I graduated, I landed a job as a sports editor and writer at a suburban newspaper in the Twin Cities called Sun Publications. I loved sports writing, and it was very fun covering high school sports. I also got started in photography. Just a month into the job, my boss asked me if I would like to try taking pictures. I eagerly said yes, and within a few weeks I bought my first camera, a Pentax K1000. Everything was manual, and the light meter was a needle I could see through the viewfinder.

Talk about old school! On top of that, we hand loaded our own black and white film, which was Kodak Tri-X 400. I shot hundreds of rolls of black and white film, and loved it. During that time, I started thinking about getting a job as a photographer someday.

After seven years, I transferred to the advertising department and worked there 2 ½ years before getting laid off in February 1996. It was a rough period in my life, as I had lost my wife, Jennifer, to cancer, just nine months earlier, in May 1995, and had two little boys to care for.

A friend of mine had a sister who worked for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and she told him they had an opening for a staff photographer at The Catholic Spirit. They had used a freelancer for the previous 10 years, and decided they wanted to hire a photographer. I interviewed both with Bob Zyskowski, who had a long and distinguished career in the Catholic press and was editor of The Catholic Spirit at that time, and with the associate publisher, Dennis Heaney. I hit it off with both of them and got the job.

It has been a rich and rewarding 26 years at The Catholic Spirit, which in 2012 became part of the archdiocese after being independent for 90 years. We have wonderful and strong support from Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who cares deeply about our local Church and wants to communicate and spread the faith among our print and online readers. Photo: Dave Hrbacek on assignment in 2018 at St. Thomas More Church in St. Paul. (Don Doll, SJ)

As a writer, you spend a lot of time with your subjects, why is that important?

Very early on, Bob impressed upon me the importance of my role in being an ambassador for our newspaper and the archdiocese. It is something I am very passionate about and take very seriously. I have always felt that, as a writer and photographer, I have a sacred trust with my photo and interview subjects, meaning I have a duty to tell their stories in words and pictures in a way that is compelling, inspiring, informative and authentic.

Part of that task, for me, involves having meaningful interactions with people wherever I go, especially during interviews. It builds trust and rapport, which helps elicit articulate and deep responses to my questions and queries. Beyond that, it builds relationships that carry forward far into the future. The longer I do this work, the more I benefit from and appreciate all of the relationships I have built over the years. That is its own reward, and I am very grateful to reap this kind of fruit from my work.

When it comes to photos, one of my trademarks has been to spend plenty of time at an event. I often come early and stay until the end, or sometimes even after it ends. Time after time, I will get some of my best shots at the very end, which reinforces my practice of staying.

I’ll never forget one experience that taught me this lesson the hard way. During my first year at The Catholic Spirit, when I was still shooting black-and-white film, I was at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis to photograph the blessing of animals to celebrate the feast day of St. Francis of Asissi in October. I went inside the church and got some nice shots of people bringing their animals forward. I got photos of dogs, cats, and even a horse. I shot all the rolls of film I had, then walked out of the church. I went down the steps and reached the sidewalk next to a busy street in front of the church. As I waited for a friend to get the car and pick me up, I noticed a woman walking down the sidewalk with a llama. She turned and made a move to start going up the stairs of the church.

But, the llama would have none of it. The struggle soon turned into a tug of war between the woman and the animal. She pulled and strained forward, and the llama planted its hooves and pulled the opposite way. The grimaces on both of their faces, and the strained body language, would have made for great pictures. But, my camera was packed away in my bag, and I was out of film.

Lesson learned. Sometimes, failure is life’s greatest teacher. Thankfully, I switched to digital in 2000, and always have plenty of memory cards. And now, I am never in a hurry to leave an assignment! Photo: Kayden Peltier does some exploring with help from his parents, Kyle and Nicolle, who were helping him find ways to play while wearing a metal halo to keep his head in place. He was hit by an SUV in north Minneapolis by a driver who was fleeing police. (Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit)

What are your favorite types of assignments?

One thing I absolutely love is going to our Catholic schools. It just never gets old, and the variety of ages, activities and facial expressions is simply wonderful. These shoots are high-energy, intense assignments, and I am often tired at the end, especially now as I get older. But, they also are exhilarating, and I almost always walk away from a school thinking, “This is why I do this work!”

I just love photographing students at Catholic schools, from pre-K all the way through high school. There are unique qualities in each age group, but I do especially enjoy photographing the younger ones, as they express so much awe and wonder, and often pay little or no attention to the camera, which makes for great candids. As my editors have learned over the years, just send me to a Catholic school with a camera, and I’ll be happy!

I also like shooting sports, which I do on occasion. It brings back great memories of when I was a sportswriter, and there is always great action to capture. I have been fortunate enough to take photos at high school state championship games, a few college games and even a Minnesota Vikings game. Getting a sideline photo pass was so cool. That was my one and only time being able to be on a sideline for an NFL game. I also got to shoot a professional bullriders event, which was bursting with action. I remember being near the gate where the riders and bulls come out. One time, the bull was banging around so intensely I thought the metal gates were going to come down. It was intense and exhilarating! Photo: Archbishop Bernard Hebda greets students after the Mass of the Holy Spirit at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Archbishop Bernard Hebda celebrated the Mass, along with Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens. (Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit)

What has been the most meaningful story you have worked on?

I have done many feature stories about people, and documented both joyful and tragic events in their lives. The most memorable of these stories was published in 2011. I interviewed a couple whose daughter committed suicide. I sat down with them for three hours, hearing all the details about their journey with a teenage daughter who was suffering from a mental illness. They wanted to share their story to help others learn and, hopefully, help their children who might be going through the same thing.

Near the end, I asked them if they would be open to sharing the exact circumstances of her death. I knew they were reluctant to talk about exactly what happened, but I felt this would help their effort to reach people and help families dealing with mental health issues.

Turns out the details were clearly etched in the mom’s memory, and they came out during the final part of our conversation. It was the first time I had ever heard the full story of such a tragedy. I knew this story would be different than others I had written for The Catholic Spirit at this point.

What is the photograph you worked hardest to get?

One photo has become one of my favorites simply because of how hard it was to get. During the pandemic, many things changed, and having to photograph people wearing masks became the new reality. There was one time it actually worked to my advantage.

Every October, the archdiocese puts on something called the Children’s Rosary Pilgrimage. The normal format is for schools to send students to our Cathedral, where a bishop or archbishop leads the praying of the rosary. I always get great shots of the kids and their rosaries.

In 2020, the event took place at one particular parish, with only children from that parish school participating. It was then livestreamed so that all of the other schools could watch.

Needless to say, the church was nowhere near filled that day, plus the kids were spaced far apart to adhere to social distancing guidelines. It was a challenging scenario, for sure, but there was an additional challenge I discovered before the event began.

On my drive to the church, I talked to one of the organizers, who informed me I would only be able to photograph a small group of students up front in the sanctuary, and not any of the children in the pews.

I then had to call my editor to let her know. After that, I was able to find the principal of the school before the event started, and he gave me permission to shoot.

I had to jump through those initial hurdles, then try and get meaningful photos of kids spaced far apart. Thankfully, Bishop Andrew Cozzens did a fabulous job of engaging the students, and I spotted a young African-American student who was especially focused. She also had a very colorful mask, which made the picture. Photo: Third-grader Anabel Mutune of Transfiguration Catholic School in Oakdale prays during the Children’s Rosary Pilgrimage at Transfiguration church. (Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit)

Why do you think Catholic media is important?

I think what we do has great value because so often our story as a Church is not told in the secular media, or is not told in a way that is truthful and inspiring. So, I go into many of my assignments knowing that the story I am covering in words and/or pictures might not be told anywhere else.Also, I have a chance to tell stories from a Catholic perspective. We are not just trying to entertain, we are trying to inform, educate, inspire and evangelize. Our hope is that people will take a serious look at our paper and allow what we publish to penetrate their minds and hearts. There are so many false and destructive narratives out in the culture, and we have a privileged opportunity to bring beauty, truth and goodness to the world. I am so glad to be part of that mission!

This article originally appeared in the November 2022 edition of The Catholic Journalist.