A priest draws closer to God one camera click at a time
As his vocation to the priesthood developed at St. Paul’s Seminary in St. Paul in the early 2000s, another passion took root in Father Paul Kammen’s mind, heart and eyes: photography.
“When I was in seminary, I bought a Canon Power Shot (camera) and started taking pictures in the area,” said Father Kammen, 44, who grew up in the Twin Cities . His pursuit of photography “got a little more serious” as he headed for ordination in 2007. He bought his first D-SLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera in 2005. While helping to Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul, he photographed flowers on the parish grounds and also went to the State Capitol for more photographic exploration.
His first parish assignment after ordination was to the Holy Name of Jesus in Medina. He hiked a network of nearby trails, including a loop in the Baker Park Preserve.
His daily time outdoors led him to a simple conclusion: “It’s beautiful.”
Today, people say the same about his nature photos, which can be viewed and purchased on his website: fatherpaul.smugmug.com. The images are a mix of landscapes and wildlife, with an almost equal balance between the two. He has traveled to many state and national parks including Yosemite in California, Yellowstone in Wyoming, Glacier in Montana and Banff in Alberta, Canada. He also takes many photos locally, focusing mainly on birds. This chase is near the peak of what he likes to capture with his camera.
“I love all birds, but I’m especially crazy about warblers and owls,” said Father Kammen, pastor of St. Joseph in Rosemount. “About two years ago I was a guest on a podcast called ‘Warbler Crazy’ with photographers from New Jersey where we talked about warblers and owls and eagles and raptors. I really like the owls in winter and warblers in May and June and early July.
Over 15 years of serious photography has helped him see and appreciate the spiritual side of capturing nature. At a time when people are spending more and more hours in front of screens, he is increasingly moving in the opposite direction, taking many free moments behind a camera’s viewfinder – and finding God in the process. .
“It’s a faith-building experience for me,” he said. “You see those things in nature that are just the amazing beauty of God.”
He can’t help but invest hours framing and recording images of this beauty.
“It recharges me and reminds me of the presence of God,” he said. “It gives me peace and fuels me for whatever lies ahead – gives me time to reflect and be alone with my thoughts.”
He is able to set aside the rigors of parish work at least once a year for extended trips, usually to a national park. This month he has planned a 14-day trip to Banff, one of his favorite places, and nearby Jasper National Park. He was invited by an experienced wildlife photographer and a professional tour guide to walk through the parks with him. Father Kammen’s web gallery of previous trips to Banff includes photos of iconic locations in the park, including a sunrise over Moraine Lake in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. To get shots like this, Father Kammen often arrives at a location half an hour or more before sunrise, which means dragging his camera gear around in near darkness.
He has learned the price to pay for quality images, and he is more than willing to pay it. This includes spending thousands of dollars on good equipment. He now owns two Nikon cameras with multiple lenses, ranging from an ultra-wide-angle to an 800-millimeter super-telephoto lens. For telephoto lenses, which can be heavy, it has a sturdy tripod.
The telephoto and tripod combination is his go-to setup for birds. This allows him to photograph them from a distance and get very tight shots in which the bird fills the frame. He has hundreds of images on his website of birds such as warblers, owls and eagles. He can find many of these birds locally, and one place he likes is the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington. He travels there and elsewhere with Father Tom Margevicius, worship director of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who is an expert birdwatcher. During these excursions, which date back about 10 years, Father Kammen discovered many different species of birds from this priest who taught him in the seminary. Not so long ago, he didn’t even know what a warbler was. Now he has a web gallery containing over 250 images of them.
When it comes to warblers, he uses the word “obsessed”. To describe what it looks like, he uses an anecdote about a particular warbler search shortly after he arrived in St. Joseph in 2015.
“There was a rare warbler seen for our part of the country – a prairie warbler,” said Father Kammen, who previously served as pastor at St. Joseph and St. Peter in Delano (now called St. Maximilian Kolbe) in 2011 to 2015. . “I drove over there (where he was spotted a few miles from the church), got to the pitch at six in the morning.”
He planned to find and photograph the warbler and get back to the church in time to celebrate the 8:30 a.m. Mass. Instead, he wandered the area looking for the prairie warbler and snuck up. is lost. He found someone with a car and asked to be taken to his own car. The person accepted and Father Kammen returned just in time to take a shower and celebrate mass.
“I didn’t have the warbler” that day, he said, noting that he later confessed his episode of humility in a homily during mass. “I had it in Florida once, but not here (in Minnesota).”
There are also the surprises that come with wildlife photography, like the time he was driving down a road in Glacier National Park in September 2016 with one of his ordination classmates, Father Mark Joppa, and came across a rare sight.
“We were just standing there looking at a field and we saw this grizzly (bear),” Father Kammen recalled. “This mother grizzly just came out of the brush.”
Although the bear was about 100 yards away, Father Kammen pulled out his telephoto lens and filled most of the frame with the bear, which briefly paused in a perfect pose. It was his first time photographing a grizzly bear, and one of those images is one of his favorites.
The experience points to an important lesson he learned during his years of landscape and wildlife photography.
“Always expect the unexpected,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to see when you go out and look for a bird. Some days you might get nothing and it could be very frustrating. Other times you may have given up, and then all of a sudden the bird you were looking for is there.
He’s happy when people buy his images, but said he doesn’t see the website as a way to make money. On the contrary, he likes to donate framed prints to parish festivals and other fundraising efforts, and he even offers one family photo shoot a year — outdoors, of course.
Whenever he can, he encourages people to get out and experience the beauty of the natural world, with or without a camera. It is there, he believes, that people will discover what is called in theology the “natural knowledge of God.”
“I really like Bishop Robert Barron (recently appointed head of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester), and he often talks about finding God in the mountain,” Father Kammen said. “It’s kind of what I identify with. I step away from meetings, phone calls and the hustle and bustle of church life, and go out with my camera – sometimes with another photographer friend – and enjoy it all and take in the vastness of it all that. And, I say, ‘Wow, there must be a God.’
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