Beast of the East: A Photo Essay by Jenny Thorsen

Photography has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. It started with my grandparents’ photo albums.

There was something about their oldest album which contained family pictures from the ancestral home in China to portraits of the two of them during their courtship and then from their marriage that intrigued me. Those early pictures ignited my imagination and evoked emotions that, as a young child, I couldn’t make sense of. But they fascinated me and I pulled those albums out every time we went to visit. So much so that my grandmother gave me the album containing the oldest photographs, a family heirloom that in her culture should have passed on to a male relative.

In sports/adventure photography, documenting an event seems to follow a different formula. As a runner, when I got proofs from a race, I always looked for certain things - do I look good? How’s my form? Do I look like I’m actually running in this picture? Was I even fast enough to get to the photographer before they left? I have a lot of pictures from the height of my racing days that checked all those boxes but in the end, were utterly forgettable. Conversely, I have a handful of pictures from trail races and ultramarathons where I look like I’m in a lot of pain or just filthy and gross, where I’m crawling or limping along, shoulders slumped, gaze downcast. And I remember exactly what I was thinking and feeling in those moments - that I was faking my smile because my hip felt like shit, or perhaps I felt like shit, but my smile was genuine because it was so uplifting to hear an encouraging word at that moment. Those are the images that remain seared into my mind.

That’s what I try to capture in my photography. Less of an emphasis on looking like a model, and more of an emphasis on capturing the race experience. Something that, when the runner looks back on it, brings back the emotions and physical sensations from that moment or experience. Something that, when future generations look back on it, evokes a sense of wonder and curiosity. It’s not easy, and I’m a harsh critic of my own work. But every now and then, magic happens. And if it’s something that young Jenny would have reached for in a photo album time and again, that’s when I know I nailed it.

Jenny Thorsen is a writer and photographer living in Chicago's western suburbs. She is a regular contributor to Ultrarunning Magazine, Silent Sports, and Eat Clean, Run Dirty.

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