Judging the Minnesota State Fair: 4-H Photography

This last week in August is always a long one for me, as it is for all moms, caregivers, and especially teachers, I’m sure. Our district resumes school a full week before Labor Day every year, which means we live in this weird limbo land between summer’s end and back-to-school where routine still feels foreign, but looming, and necessary. I customarily celebrate this in-between-ness by being super easy on myself, knowing I won’t get a ton of work done this week while I’m setting Lola up for school year success. And that’s okay! Anyway, the real point of the last week in August is the Minnesota State Fair.

I never was a Fair fanatic. Growing up, I hated the heat and the crowds and the insistence that everything I like to eat be served up on a stick. Once when I was pregnant I thought it would be CHOICE to hit up the fair and tackle all my cravings at one time, in one place, so I went. But that day as my feet swelled in my crocks and the lines for the bathroom made me cranky, it became clear the only thing I truly craved was a long air conditioned sit-down in some kind of chaise lounge with a remote control and a box of pay-by-the-pound Chinese food. I’m not cut out to push my way through piles of people or wait in line for 2 hours to get to the cookies at Sweet Martha’s, and I think it’s important and saves a lot of time in life to simply Know Thyself.

Yet I’m coming up on my third year in a row as a JUDGE at the State Fair. How did this happen???


I’ve learned I can be persuaded to do pretty much anything if it’s about my passions for either photography, giving back, or helping people succeed. Combine all three of these things, and I’ll lead a marching band in the streets if that’s what it takes! Luckily, being a 4-H Conference Judge for Photography is a little more chill than that.

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What it *does* entail is sitting across the table from some talented, enthusiastic budding young photographers who have been selected as the best in their 4-H, admiring their work, and then judging their skills in a group setting that would leave some grownups squirming. It’s all very collaborative, celebrating the youth’s strengths and connecting over their project in a way that leaves youth feeling encouraged to take their learning to a higher level. I absolutely LOVE being a 4-H judge!

And the 4-H building is cool and old and gets some beautiful light…

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I love the State Fair now and I blame my friend Emily— she first got me into judging in 2015 as a way to give back within my industry & make some extra cash, despite my always forgetting to invoice afterwards and the only experience I have with 4-H being a dance party my cousins once held in a 4-H barn in Nebraska. But what is 4-H, you might ask? It’s “a global network of youth organizations whose mission is to engage youth to reach their fullest potential while advancing the field of youth development”, and you can read about Minnesota’s 4-H here. I was homeschooled most of my life in the outskirts of suburbia, so you’d think my parents would have been alllll over 4-H, but I didn’t learn about it until well into adulthood. And I think any parent would love the mission of 4-H to help kids build skills that last a lifetime — just look at the work currently on display in the 4-H building at the Fair for proof! It’s pretty powerful to see what young people can do when they are empowered by caring adults and programs that make a difference, and I’ve loved getting to know all the teens who come through my judging table over the years.


The best part? These kids who make it all the way to the Minnesota State Fair after championing their own county fairs are often asking for advice on how to study and continue pursuing photography when they grow up. For some it’s just a hobby, but for many you can tell this program has prompted a lifelong love of photography, and it’s truly amazing to witness that spark!

IMG_5120The hardest part? Not making it rain purple ribbons on all participants just for being there. THEY ARE ALL WORTH IT! And we have some tough competition to judge!

IMG_5121 1A budding young photographer from my judging table won the crème, a purple award solidifying her win across the board on top of the blue one I awarded her. I chose her photo because of its timeless quality and use of lines; it was wonderful to have my fellow judges agree.

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crappy iPhone photo, but my heart is always SO FULL after judging 4-H!

Post-judging I have an unspoken rule of closing down the fair, which means walking around trying to have some fun for ideally around $20 (hey I didn’t say we get paid much!). One year I forgot cash, and can I just tell you the misery of walking around hungrily looking at all the places one could eat if they had the foresight to bring cash?! Tonight I will bring money and I get to close it down with my sister in law (who I convinced to be a judge with me!) and a huge bucket of cookies that I will regret eating later because gluten – YOLO! Last year it was splendid to have Christian and Lola kill time while I judged so we could hang before and after at the fair – heat and crowds aside, there really isn’t anywhere I wouldn’t take these two!



Side note: My nephew Jaime Leonetti has a photo on display in the Education Building this year!


I repeat – people-watching pics are the best!


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and we found a Stouffer!


We’ll welcome the cooler temps and structure of September, but not before saying a big sayonara to summer at the place where it all comes together naturally, served up larger than life (and probably on a stick) at the Minnesota State Fair.

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And don’t forget to stop by the 4-H barn if you’ll be at the fair, and say hi to me while you’re there!

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