Awesome Foundation Grant Award Winner: Benjamin Ockert

Written by: Brandi Malarkey

One man, one bike, one camera.

In his last year of a physics and computer science degree, Benjamin Ockert is a man of spreadsheets and numbers. With the aid of a high-resolution, 54- inch square map from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) depicting bicycle trails, Ben is calculating what would be needed for a month-long photographic bicycle tour beginning on his doorstep in Fargo and traversing the surrounding communities like Duluth, St. Paul, Bemidji, Rochester, Park Rapids, St. Cloud, Sauk Center, and Detroit Lakes.

“It’s pretty well mapped out,” Ben said of his trip scheduled for June of 2024. “I’ve planned it out very carefully… but I know that at a certain point I am going to have to let go of that.”

While it can be plotted in numbers—55 miles per day, 600-plus miles of trail, 40 rolls of film—the trip itself is an expression of new love. Love for art, cycling, and love of his local community.

“I worked the night shift for six years while pursuing my degree and that really took most of my time,” Ben said. “That changed this spring and I was looking for something fun, something new I could learn, and something where I could use my hands.”

His search led Ben to two very different part-time jobs while finishing the last of his degree: With NDSU’s Memorial Union Gallery and The Great Northern Bicycle Company located in Fargo.

“Art is one of those things that I do to get away from numbers and equations and things like that,” said Ben, who has only been doing photography for about three years. One of the main goals of his bicycle tour is to photograph many of the breathtaking locations along his route, to engage with the local communities, and to capture their stories and offerings through the images he will take on the camera he restored himself.

“It’s a Bronica EC camera from the 70s so it’s not digital. I did a lot of restoration to it. It’s very basic, there’s no metering. It’s very manual and very heavy. It will be half the weight of what I am carrying on the trip,” said Ben. “I really like the mechanical aspect of these cameras and there is a beautiful aspect of capturing an image right now, and knowing I probably won’t see it for a month. You have to have faith that you did what you could to make it as beautiful as you could.”

Ben has been coordinating with Fargo Photoworks to acquire film for his 50-year-old camera. Each roll of film only sports 12 photos each, which works out to about one dollar per image.

At The Great Northern Bicycle Company, Ben’s interest in cycling changed from a functional means of transportation to a fun pastime.

“It’s been quite a learning process working at the store here and getting involved with the community. It’s exciting to engage with the community. Between community events and working on the various bikes of Fargo, you really get to know the bikes and the people that ride them,” Ben said.

Ben is taking his new sense of discovery, combining it with his interest in capturing images, and is launching his photographic bike tour as a combination graduation gift/trip to himself and passionate rebuttal of the often-heard phrase, “There is not much to do around here.”

“I want to outline that these trails and paths are very well built and truly designed for people, just to go out on weekends and ride around for the most part. Some sections are much more functionally meant for just traveling, but the Heartland Trail, for example, is a great path from Park Rapids up to Walker. There’s a city almost every six miles. You can stop and get ice cream. You can stop and get food. There are restrooms. I want to get across that biking and getting onto these trails is very doable and very accessible. And full of breathtaking scenery and historic infrastructure.”

To assist Ben with costs for his unique community project, the Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation named him the recipient of their $1,000 November 2023 grant.

Ben has also been communicating with NDSU’s Memorial Union Gallery as well as several local galleries in surrounding areas about the possibility of hosting a show to highlight the local beauty through his captured images.

“I want to build communication and community. Encourage people to experience routes near Fargo. There’s a lot out there to adventure and it’s just waiting out there for you to go check it out.”

The Cass-Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation awards a $1,000 gift each month for awesome ideas of all sorts. Grant recipients do not need to be associated with a nonprofit. Applications can be made at chapters/cassclay

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