Scenes of a Visual Journalist

Mark Vancleave works to get the best photos and video possible to tell the stories people should see, even at the risk of his own safety.

Professional volunteer coach Mark Vancleave mentors ThreeSixty Journalism students in photographing their story subjects after conducting an interview on the St. Paul campus on July 16, 2018.
Professional volunteer coach Mark Vancleave mentors ThreeSixty Journalism students in photographing their story subjects after conducting an interview on the St. Paul campus on July 16, 2018.

Mark Vancleave thought his work was over for the night until he saw a five-story apartment building engulfed in flames against the midnight sky.

The fire became more and more intense as it began to spread to the surrounding buildings and houses. Neighbors rushed to get hoses and whatever else they could to fight the blaze.

Vancleave took a photo of the building through his shock. Quickly, he had to retreat as the heat became more intense.

Moments before he was capturing photos of someone’s car that had been set on fire. He documented these events, and many more, during the week following George Floyd’s death in late May and early June 2020.

Mark Vancleave helped the Minneapolis Star Tribune win the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Reporting in 2021 its their coverage of George Floyd’s death and the aftermath of it. A video of the murder was taken by a bystander and what soon followed was protests and social unrest as the National Guard was eventually mobilized in St. Paul and Minneapolis. The local outrage spread to an international level and reporters like Vancleave had to move quickly to cover the events as they happened.

Being in an environment like that was a risk, but it’s risk that the reporters and photojournalist were willing to take.

“Even when we asked them to turn around and go home, they didn’t,” Star Tribune Editor Suki Dardarian said.

Dardarian, the senior managing editor and vice president of the Star Tribune, had the responsibility of checking up and working with reporters and visual journalists as they worked in the field. Reporters got assaulted, injured and caught in scary situations with protesters and police.

“Reporters and photographers were ordered to the ground and told to spread their arms and legs, and some were photographed and tracked,” Dardarian said. “It was scary.”

Vancleave, despite the threats, stayed on the street late into the night with colleagues.

“In any situation we feel might be unsafe or dangerous, we often times pair up,” Vancleave said.

Vancleave also tries to look out for others when out there on the field.

“He’s always looking out for his teammates,” Star Tribune photojournalist Aaron Lavinsky said. “He’s always looking out for our safety. Texting. Calling. He’s just a great guy.”

To stay safe, Vancleave decides where he must position himself. He watches the crowd, identifies potential dangers, and moves to safer and calmer areas with colleagues. And of course, he said it’s best to avoid getting in between protesters and police when they are exchanging projectiles. Vancleave saw protesters and journalists both get injuries from rubber bullets and other “less lethal” projectiles.

The next spring, in April 2021, he covered protests against the death of Daunte Wright, and he got caught in a standoff between police and protesters.

Vancleave was shot by police with non-lethal projectiles. Landing him in the hospital.

One of his fingers broke. He would have to take months away from his work.

Coming home after a chaotic night working in the field and trying to relax and sleep after leaving an environment like that isn’t easy. It also weighs on your mental health, too, he said.

“Having a support network of friends and colleagues, who we can gather with was really helpful,” Vancleave said.

After nights of covering the social unrest happening in Minneapolis in 2020, Vancleave and a network of other journalist from different outlets would go grab a drink or gather in people’s backyards to roast marshmallows. He also exercised, sometimes with trips to the Boundary Waters, for his physical and mental health.

“I really got into mountain biking that summer,” Vancleave said. “Having an outdoor aerobic activity was really helpful for managing stress.”

But just like Vancleave covers breaking news stories about social injustice, he can cover it anywhere. Even on a college football field.

When Vancleave was a student journalist at the University of Minnesota, he covered a Gophers football game in January 2011 against the New Mexico State Aggies. With seconds remaining in the game, Minnesota’s head coach Jerry Kill collapsed on the turf.

The coaching staff surrounded Kill. The stadium was silent.

Jerry Kill had suffered a seizure.

Soon the medical crew arrived to get him onto a stretcher and take him to the hospital. What started as a football story transformed into a life-and-death story about the coach. Vancleave had a small window to get a picture and capture a delicate moment.

“Ultimately, sometimes what we do in photojournalism comes down to luck,” he said. “And the skill involved is just like trying to make sure that we’re putting ourselves in the best position possible.”

Much like reacting to a burning apartment building, Vancleave saw the medical crew take Jerry Kill through the tunnel, made a decision quickly that would either allow him to get the photo he wanted or leave him empty-handed.

He went to the left side of the tunnel and as the stretcher holding Jerry Kill approached, the medical crew surrounding him from all angles.

He had an opening to get the shot he wanted.

He got it.

This story is part of a series produced at ThreeSixty’s 2023 Winter News Team, spotlighting local journalists. Read more stories here.