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Education Professor Takes on Professional Photography

Rasmussen poses next to his art exhibit, Ripples of Life, that was on display in the Bethel University Library recently.

On May 21, 2013, Professor of Education Jay Rasmussen and his son Conor ’17 (then 19) embarked on a 12,000-mile motorcycle trip from Roseville, Minnesota, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Rasmussen had always been an adventurer, but his documentation of the 71-day trip sparked a new appreciation for using photography as a storytelling tool—and propelled him into life as a professional artist.

When he returned from Argentina, Rasmussen—who has held a love of photography since his late teens—was hungry to learn more about the art form’s technical aspects. From composition to lighting to perspective, he consumed knowledge that would take him from novice hobbyist to accomplished professional photographer.  

“I feel most alive when I’m learning something,” says Rasmussen, who is also a self-taught musky guide—helping people to catch one of the most difficult species of freshwater fish in North America. “It’s really humbling for me to start off at a novice level on things [and to] continue to grow and develop.”

For Rasmussen, maintaining a posture of humility is part of his calling as a teacher, and he says the practice of consistently learning new things helps sustain him. “Teaching is a profession you can burn out in,” he says. “But I want to feel like I’m always growing as a teacher and a learner. Photography has really helped enhance that creativity.”

Professor of Art Michelle Westmark Wingard says she remembers discussing things like composition, color, and other image atheistic elements with Rasmussen early on in his exploration of photography. She remembers one photo in particular—Tortuga de Mexico, which is also Rasmussen’s personal favorite—captured his natural inclinations and gave her confidence in his abilities.

“A lot of what you’re doing when you’re learning [photography] is seeing elements of design in the natural world, and seeing how those things work together,” Westmark Wingard says, explaining how Rasmussen’s natural eye for images contributed to his growth and success over “such a short amount of time.” “I’ve been really happy [for him],” she says. “It’s exciting.”

Rasmussen says much of his success stems from immersing himself in nature. His seven summers working at an adventure camp in upstate New York and other travel excursions total more than two years spent living in a tent—and that’s not including this past January, when he lived out of his van for a month while capturing shots on three different Hawaiian Islands. “Those extended outdoor experiences helped develop my eye for what is worth shooting and what’s not,” he says.  

Those experiences are also significant to Rasmussen because of their spiritual value. “I do find God in nature, and the time that I spend outdoors has been renewing to me,” he says. Regardless of whether Rasmussen catches the perfect shot, he says his time spent waiting and observing never feels wasted. Not only does it allow him the chance to be still and observe God’s creation, but he says it’s part of his job as a photographer. “There’s three things that I think are critical to a good photographer: You’ve got to notice, you need to wonder, and you need to be persistent,” he says.

Rasmussen has been featured in art shows (17 in 2016), like the Edina Fall into the Arts Festival, Stillwater Fall Colors Fine Art and Jazz Festival, and Excelsior Art on the Lake. He has also experienced success from a financial perspective by selling many of his photographs online—including exclusive images printed on aluminum such as those recently displayed in his Ripples of Life exhibit in the Bethel University Library Feb. 6–10.

Though he is proud of these achievements, Rasmussen is most grateful for the travel opportunities his careers have afforded him. “When I was in college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” he says—especially because his career aptitude results revealed that his strongest interest was in being “an adventurer.”

“Teaching has allowed me to do that, and photography has allowed me to do that, too. I’m seeing that initial interest [in adventuring] really play out.”

Rasmussen has taught in China, Mexico, and many places throughout the U.S. He and his family have lived in Norway, traveled Europe, and built their own casita in Mexico. He has plans to shoot photos over Spring Break in Arizona’s Slot Canyons and is currently applying to participate in numerous prestigious art shows in 2017.

Learn more about Rasmussen and his photography by visiting his website

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