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Decorated photographer highlights East Grand Rapids wildlife

Steve Jessmore won a national award despite beginning bird photography during the pandemic. Now he's bringing nature into the East Grand Rapids library.

EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — It was back in 2020. It felt like each person was separated from the next, six feet at a time. People were trying to figure out what to do with all the extra hours spent away from others. Some baked bread. Some painted. Some watched Netflix. And then there was Steve Jessmore.

"About September, that was when my wife said 'you've got to find something to do.' She said 'every day is a gift from God. You've to make the best out of every day. It could be your last, and you've got too much talent to just not do something,'" Steve remembers.

So the longtime chief photographer and photo editor in Flint, Saginaw and Myrtle Beach, went outdoors.

"I was photographing bugs and all this stuff, and birds. And I got out early in the mornings, and the ducks started like buzzing me, and I can remember honestly saying 'game on.'"

Game on, indeed. It didn't take Steve long to master bird photography, and the people close to him were starting to take notice. They encouraged him to enter the Audubon Photography Awards, which Steve had previously never heard of. He entered four of his favorites.

"I got an email about a month later that said I had moved on to the semi finals with two of the four, and then I got a call from the Audubon photo editor, and she had told me I won first and the only honorable mentioned in the professional category," Steve said.

"At that moment, literally, I can remember getting cold sweats and just saying, 'How in the world could I do that? How could I do that the first year I've ever shot bird pictures?'"

Word of Steve's incredible skills quickly made it to the Friends of the East Grand Rapids Library.

"We kind of said let's see if he can do a talk at the library, but it was during COVID. We just couldn't make it work. So at that point, we said what if we just had him come out on the lake and take photos like he did when he won his national photography award?" said board member Kyle Watson.

The East Grand Rapids branch of the Kent District Library sits along Reeds Lake, with a view of the incredible natural resource. The idea of commissioning Steve was to bring nature into the library through a permanent display of his work.

"It was a great honor, honestly. It was something out of the blue that I don't want to say answered my prayers, but it just fit perfect for me to do some kind of documentary storytelling with wildlife for a purpose," Steve said.

Over the course of a year, he came out to Reeds Lake around 100 times to do wildlife shoots.

"I really fell in love with the place, and it was a wonderful way to start my mornings," Steve said.

"It's just so calm and so peaceful, and it's so close to home, and it's such a great resource for the people of the Grand Rapids area and beyond."

Now it's time to show off all of Steve's hard work. On Thursday, Nov. 17, the East Grand Rapids High School Performing Arts Center will host an event called "Birds Doing Stuff - 365 Days on the Lake." It runs from 7 to 8:15 p.m. and is free to attend.

"It's an event for the community to see what Steve's been up to over the last year in the lake. It's amazing the images that he's capturing. I come out here all the time. I'm like, "How does he see what what he sees?" Because I don't see it," Kyle said.

For anyone else who has the same problem, Steve says the best strategy for seeing what he sees is to be fully engaged with what you're doing when you're out on a walk.

"I have a no cell phone rule while I'm out on the the boardwalk are out shooting birds," Steve said.

"We're so easily distracted nowadays. I bet there's people that take walks out here that have the earbuds in and never hear the call of a warbler or the sometimes-annoying call of a Canada Goose, but it's all nature and it's around us. When you're looking at your phone, and you're taking calls or talking, I know when I do that I don't pay attention to what's around me."

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