It’s a warm summer evening, and AJ Dahm is strolling through the Kasota Prairie, halfway between Mankato and St. Peter. His trusty yellow lab, Jake, trots along at one side, while a Nikon camera rests on the other. A tripod is resting over his shoulder.

For weeks, Dahm has been visiting the prairie to take photographs, hunting for that perfect shot to capture the landscape’s beauty. He’s taken several shots already today, but no shot has seemed quite right. Now, the clouds are starting to darken over his head as a storm threatens to roll in over the horizon. Soon, small drops of rain start to splatter against his back and his tripod as he continues to look through his camera viewfinder, clicking his shutter-release button. If only the clouds would roll in just a little farther…

But no, they’re starting to roll in the opposite direction, away from him. I’m going to lose the photo, Dahm thinks to himself frantically. He grabs his equipment, running across the prairie as fast as he can, Jake at his heels. Sprinting around the prairie’s pond, he dashes past another couple strolling back toward their car. They watch him quizzically, but he hardly notices as he quickly sets up his equipment once again. He can’t lose the shot!

Time is of the essence, but Dahm forces himself to stay patient as he waits for the perfect shot. His patience comes from years of experience as a professional photographer—but the passion driving him started years before he was ever paid for his work. Now, Dahm utilizes both of those things at Mankato-based photography business SPX, as well as his own new company, Dahm Media.

If I were to win the lottery, I would still spend my days making photos and showing others the beauty and the stories that surround us every day. AJ Dahm

“Photography is my passion,” Dahm explained. “Photography may not be a big money-making business, but it is what I choose to do because I love it. If I were to win the lottery, I would still spend my days making photos and showing others the beauty and the stories that surround us every day.”

Photo by AJ Dahm - Dahm's son Cooper. This photo is among Dahm's favorites.
Photo by AJ Dahm – Dahm’s son Cooper. This photo is among Dahm’s favorites.

Darkroom Magic

Growing up in Early, Iowa, Dahm was introduced to the magic of photography from a young age since his mother worked as a freelance photographer. She would let Dahm play around with her camera, which sparked his own interest.

In high school, Dahm took a few photography classes, which intrigued him enough that he decided to study photography at Buena Vista University in Iowa. He already had a camera—a Pentax SLR that his mother had given him as a graduation present. He split his time between class, a part-time job at a small local newspaper and a part-time position as a photography professor’s assistant.

“I [worked] for my professor as his assistant and mixed up chemicals in the dark room,” Dahm explained. “I always sort of liked that. It was kind of magic in the darkroom… It took some work to get the photos, and it took some art to it. I used to enjoy seeing the image appear in the chemical. That was always somewhat of a magical moment.”

When Dahm graduated in 2008, he followed his girlfriend (now his wife) Lisa to Mankato, where she was transferring during her studies. Dahm found a job as a photographer at SPX Sports, where he stayed for eight years. He worked mostly as a sports photographer but did all other types of photography, such as portraits and events, as well.

One of Dahm’s “most stressful” photography stories comes out of those early days at SPX—when he was allowed to travel with the MSU-Mankato men’s basketball team to Massachusetts for the Final Four NCAA Division I Championships.

“That was new for me—trying to be a traveling photographer and get all your gear on airplanes and through security,” Dahm recalled. “I think I was in O’Hare Airport and they did the pat-me-down because of the lithium batteries [in my camera]. Trying to make the plane in time, and just the logistics of getting out to Massachusetts was interesting.”

Living Life to the Fullest

In 2016, Dahm and his wife left Minnesota so he could pursue a career at Flagship Publishing in Nebraska. Flagship Publishing printed several publications that spread across the Midwest, including Nebraska Life Magazine, Colorado Life Magazine, Utah Life Magazine, Nebraska Traveler and many others.

Dahm explained that the career shift stemmed from his desire to explore more photojournalism, a part of photography that had always interested him.

Photo by AJ Dahm - Wild Lupine Dream
Photo by AJ Dahm – Wild Lupine Dream

“[The move] was to grow my career and what I was doing,” he said. “I didn’t get to do a ton of [photojournalism] here. It was a good experience. I got to travel a lot and see a lot of new places.”

Between 2016 and 2018, Dahm traveled all over the Midwest while capturing photos for Flagship. While his territory was the entire state of Nebraska, he ventured to other neighboring states for some of Flagship’s other publications. Some notable experiences included riding in a race car, hitching a ride with an Army National Guard refueling airplane and traveling by air boat.

“They let me do a little of everything,” Dahm recalled. “There were all sorts of things that were all kinds of fun.”

Dahm also helped with photo editing duties with the editor of Utah Life Magazine, which gave him valuable experience that he still utilizes.

“I got to do a little of everything there, photo-wise,” he said. “It helps to have some different avenues to make a living. I do a little of all of it.”

A New Chapter

In 2018, Dahm’s wife was offered a promotion at Taylor Corporation, where she was working remotely at the time, so the two of them returned to Mankato—and Dahm returned to SPX Sports.

“It was a hard decision, because I really loved what I did [at Flagship], but it was a good thing for the family,” he said.

While the decision was a difficult one, Dahm has nothing but praise for SPX Sports and his time there.

“My favorite thing about working for SPX Sports is the people,” he said. “They have become family to me over the last ten years, and I get to see their families grow. Each day is unique, and I get to be part of many great events in our community. My work at SPX Sports has allowed me to take photos at air shows, marathons, concerts and many other exciting opportunities. They’ve given me the opportunity to grow as a photographer and meet people from all walks of life. I’ve been able to shoot everything from sports to architecture, portraits to commercial photography and everything in between.”

Meeting new people, storytelling and capturing the beauty of our region through photography is what makes me happy and is what I do best. AJ Dahm

Besides working full-time as a photographer and graphic installer for SPX Sports, Dahm continued searching for more opportunities to delve into photojournalism. He began freelancing as a both a photographer and a writer for local publications, but photo jobs are “few and far between” in the area, he said. So, he decided to go another route: starting his own company. He started Dahm Media in January of this year, offering photography and writing services, as well as fine art photography.

Like many other businesses, Dahm saw a steep decline in work earlier this year as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the state, but he was able to keep afloat thanks to his full-time work at SPX. He said his goal is ultimately to be self-sustaining and able to travel around doing photo shoots with a diverse range of clients.

“I think my biggest hope is that [Dahm Media] still allows me to do the things that I love to do,” he said. “And that other people are able to enjoy the work that I do with it. I love to go out and explore the greater Mankato area. Meeting new people, storytelling and capturing the beauty of our region through photography is what makes me happy and is what I do best. I love what I do. If I won the lottery, this is what I’d do. I wouldn’t change anything. I just have a passion for life and enjoy meeting people and telling stories. If you see me, come say hi.”

The Perfect Shot

Black and angry, the storm clouds roll over the water. Buffeted by a growing wind, Dahm peers through his viewfinder, finger poised on his shutter-release button. Wait for it…

Suddenly, the setting sun breaks through a sliver of horizon, lighting up the bottom of the clouds with brilliant pink hues. More pinkish-orange light spills onto the rippling water below. Dahm hits the button, and the shutter clicks. He doesn’t need to see the photo to know that he finally captured what he’s been looking for all week. It’s truly picture-perfect.

Photo by AJ Dahm - Storm Over Kasota Prairie
Photo by AJ Dahm – Storm Over Kasota Prairie

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  • Grace Brandt

    is the managing editor of MankatoLIFE. Throughout her 13-year career, she has written for more than two dozen publications. She lives in Mankato with her husband and two cats.