Beautifully ordinary: First year in 4-H results in major wins for young photographer

Photo by Rachel Hoogland

By Amber McIver-Traywick

The Surveyor

In her first year in 4-H, 16-year-old Rachel Hoogland took home not only grand champion for her class in photography at the Larimer County Fair, she also won overall grand champion and reserve grand champion in the open class. This exceptional first year for the Berthoud High School junior has been part of an inspirational come-back story in the teen’s life.

The mission statement for 4-H includes, “engaging youth to reach their fullest potential,” but sometimes potential is seemingly out of reach when every day is a struggle, living with a chronic illness. That has been the case for Hoogland for the past several years as she battles complications from Lyme’s disease.

Lyme’s disease is a debilitating illness caused by a bacteria transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected tick. Typical symptoms include fever, headaches, a rash, and extreme fatigue. Left untreated the disease can spread to the joints, causing severe pain, damage to the heart and the nervous system. Due to her illness Hoogland couldn’t attend school regularly, missing out on time with friends, and most extracurricular activities were out of the question when day-to-day life became difficult.

Hoogland’s mother Paula said seeing her daughter excel at photography and be able to participate in 4-H at her own pace was encouraging. “It was really exciting and a joy for me to see her succeed, because it’s been so hard to watch her not be able to be involved in a lot of things she would have normally been very involved in.”

She began taking pictures of flowers and sunsets, anything that caught her eye, several years ago, simply because she enjoyed doing it. After she received a DSLR Nikon camera as a gift her interest in the technical side of the art form was peeked, leading her to learn more.

Her brother Jacob decided to try his hand at 4H for the first time this year, raising a pig. The upkeep of an animal would simply be too overwhelming for Hoogland, but photography seemed like the perfect fit. “It was something I was already passionate about and I could work at my own pace, do what I love, and it wouldn’t affect my health,” she said of her decision to jump in to the Sagebrush Riders 4-H Club.

Her expectation for herself in her first year wasn’t particularly high, but her passion and natural eye for the art motivated her to try. Larimer County is home to the largest 4-H club program in the state of Colorado and competition is difficult in every arena.

After attending workshops throughout the year, learning more about photography and improving her skillset, the tough task of sifting through hundreds of photos to select the best ones for the Larimer County Fair was the final step. The decision to not only submit her work for her age group but also in the open class, where anyone in the county can enter in different categories, was done as she put it, “just for fun,” not thinking anything would come from it.

However, on the day of judging this first-timer would see just how talented she truly is. Rachel was unable to attend the judging, but Paula was there to see how things turned out. When the three major awards were given, Paula sent Rachel a text-messaged photo of her well-deserved ribbons. “I was really excited and kind of shocked,” she said of the impressive wins.

Paula didn’t seem quite as surprised, although still taken back and thrilled at her daughter’s accomplishment, “She captures real beauty in ordinary things that most people’s eyes wouldn’t catch…when she worked on it she put a lot of effort into perfecting it.”

Many of Hoogland’s photos are of ordinary objects, like her award-winning shot of her father’s worn and dirty work boots and wrenches sitting on a workbench. Her dad Jason joked with her prior to the competition about why she would use something as common as his work boots as her subject of choice, to which she replied she saw beauty in them. 

Despite the hardships she has faced, Hoogland seems to view her life through the same lens as the objects in her photos, finding something positive where others might not. Thankfully, her symptoms have shown signs of improvement over the summer. “I’m doing pretty good actually. I missed out on a lot the last couple of years, but I’m good,” she said.

Pending any conflicts with school, she said she hopes to participate in 4-H next year and is excited to do it again. When asked about the bar being set so high she said, “It’s really just a fun experience, whether I win or not I’ll keep doing it.”

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