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Photography students put career plans in focus after scoring medals at Skills Manitoba competition

May 31, 2016

KJ Rocan and Paul Vogt

After an intense day of shooting, editing and judging, two Red River College photography students brought home medals from last month’s Skills Manitoba Competition.

The event marked the end of a year’s worth of hard work for the students, who next week will graduate from RRC’s Professional Photography program. Both, however, came to the College with an entirely different career path in mind.

KJ Rocan and Colby Spence — who won gold and bronze medals, respectively — both planned to study Business Administration at RRC. Spence even completed the first year of the program, but after realizing they could combine their artistic pursuits with the fundamentals of business, both students switched their focus to Photography.

Rocan (shown above, with RRC President Paul Vogt), has been taking pictures since she was two, and was sold on the program after touring the College’s photography studio during an Open House event.

“We walked into the photography [lab], and it was like, ‘OK, well, I’m going here now,” she says.

Spence first heard about the program when RRC recruiters visited his high school. He’d been pursuing photography as a hobby for years — gaining an understanding of its principals and amassing a decent gear kit — so when it came time to choose a post-secondary path, he opted to see if he could further develop his skill set while making the pastime lucrative.

Both Spence and Rocan volunteered to take part in Skills Manitoba, a day-long Olympic-style competition that tests the skills of high school, post-secondary and apprenticeship students in 42 different trades- and technology-related categories.

The aim of the competition is to reward student achievement while strengthening connections with industry and other areas of the College. The event also ensures training programs are keeping step with employers’ needs; Colby and Spence say their abilities were put to the test under real-world conditions.

“We showed up at 8 a.m., we get our t-shirts, and they pull from a hat two out of nine topics and one mystery topic,” says Spence. “[We were told] ‘Photograph everything to the best of your ability, you have three hours … Come back to us and we’re going to do a final evaluation. OK, away you go!’”

Both Rocan and Spence drew inspiration from other students taking part in the competition. Rocan’s gold medal was earned for her portrait of a masonry worker and a photo of sparks flying from metal work. Spence earned his bronze for depicting aspects of RRC’s automotive and woodworking programs.

The competition itself was the culmination of a year’s worth of hands-on learning overseen by instructors with industry experience (among them Rodney Braun, who in 2014 was named Manitoba’s Photographer of the Year by the Professional Photographers of Canada). The judging process provided a valuable lesson on the subjectivity of art — the sort of insight that can’t always be learned in a classroom.

“[My instructor] said that no matter what you do, and no matter what you shoot, some people aren’t going to like it,” says Spence.

The competition also helped Rocan and Spence realize where their strengths lie, and which areas of the industry they’d like to specialize in.

Spence prefers photojournalism — in particular, sports and nature photography. He spent much of last year capturing images of the Winnipeg Jets and of snowboarders at Spring Hill, and plans to continue building his portfolio while working in another trade.

Rocan is pursuing fine art photography — diving headfirst into her new profession with an entrepreneur’s enthusiasm. She’s already sold a number of her photos through RRC’s end-of-year student showcase.

“I’m putting together a collection to sell at some craft shows; that’s kind of how you get yourself started … Other than that, it’s event photography. Anyone who wants to hire me, I’m in!”

Learn more about RRC’s Professional Photography program.