You voted for your favorite 2019 Photos of the Year, and the winners were definitive.

  1. Alex Kormann’s capture of massive waves crashing on the shoreline as snow fell by the Split Rock Lighthouse in Two Harbors.
  2. Carlos Gonzalez’s action shot of Lizzo’s performance at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul
  3. Jeff Wheeler’s capture of a tender moment in the midst of chaos, as a couple danced between the lines of police and protesters during President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Target Center.

We spoke with each photographer to get the full story behind each photo. What was going on around them at the time? How did they get such a great shot? What does the photo mean to them personally? Here’s what each had to say.

Alex Kormann: Massive waves crashed on the shoreline by the Split Rock Lighthouse in Two Harbors as snow fell on Wednesday Nov. 27. 2019.

Set the scene for us. What were the conditions like that day?

The day I took this photo, it was the first real snowfall of the year. I stopped at a few state parks to see what I could shoot. They were all beautiful, but I kept going and eventually got to Split Rock Lighthouse. I had been there a few times before, but this time, the waves were huge and the water was a deep blue. Before I took the photo, I just stood there for a minute and watched.

At first, I was just shooting pictures of the waves by themselves — then I turned and thought it would be cool to get the wave and the lighthouse in the photo. I was probably there for close to an hour just snapping away at every big wave, trying not to get drenched with the water that was splashing high on the rocks. I ended up with hundreds of photos because I was really looking for that perfect wave — something I’ve wanted to shoot since I started photography as a hobby.

How do you manage to find opportunities for photos like this one?

I’m constantly looking out of my car window to discover photo spots. I’ll often pull over, get out and look around when I see something interesting. Don’t be afraid to pull over and take a look at things, and just spend five to 10 minutes checking things out. It’s easy to miss opportunities for photos when you’re laser-focused on where you’re going.

What’s the significance of this photo for you?

It’s rare that I take a photo and know it’s going to be a big deal. So of course, I didn’t realize how many people were going to like this photo. I didn’t even think it was that great. But once I posted it on Facebook, it got so much attention — everyone loved it. I got messages from people reminiscing and telling me stories of growing up on the North Shore. People from all over the country wanted to buy the print (which you can order online).

People are very connected to the lake and that lighthouse, so the photo really spoke to them. The reason I’m a photojournalist is because I want my work to speak to people — it makes me appreciate my own work more when I know that a photo brought joy to so many people, that I gave someone a short moment of nostalgia and brightened their day.

I want to say thanks to everyone for liking the photo so much. My email (alex.kormann@startribune.com) is always open if people have questions about it. I’m an open book!

Carlos Gonzalez: Lizzo performed at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul on Sunday, May 5, 2019.

What was it like, watching Lizzo perform?

There was definitely a good energy at this show. The crowd really anticipated Lizzo’s performance. Everyone there realized that she was blowing up, and this was a unique chance to see her perform in a more intimate setting at Palace Theatre.

Lizzo is very well loved here, and this was one of her first times coming back to Minnesota, so people were pretty excited to see her take the stage — the crowd was chanting for her to come out. And once she did, she just took the stage over. Instantly, I knew she had “it.” For someone like me who hadn’t seen her perform before, it was easy to see that she was a special talent. She could just work a room.

Was it particularly hard to get this shot?

For most musical acts, photographers get to be in there for two or three songs before they escort you out. I was scheduled to shoot within the first 3 songs, and that typically gives you less than 15 minutes to shoot. I wasn’t totally familiar with her act, and you never know what’s going to happen during performances. But later, I came to find out that she had a huge song (“Good as Hell”) in which she said she does her “hair toss”, and I happened to capture her whipping her hair in the photo. So, it worked out!

Jeff Wheeler: A couple danced between the lines of police and protesters as President Donald Trump held a campaign rally in Target Center on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019.

Can you describe what the protest was like?

The scene was loud. It was busy, and there was a lot of confrontation — a lot of trolling and poor behavior on behalf of both sides.

Tensions were high. Every once in a while you’d see people trying to “talk” to one another, but they’re not really trying to talk. That escalated into people just being provocateurs, and then to police intervention at some point.

People were burning a Trump flag. The police maced people. Someone had a homemade knife.

Were you scared?

Yes and no. I was light on my feet — I didn’t have all of my gear with me. I had a camera and two lenses, and was just sending pictures with my phone sans laptop. I was very mobile and nimble, and managed to avoid getting maced.

What was going on around you when you took this photo?

The police lined up. I wasn’t sure what prompted them to do that, but I think they may have been trying to protect people coming out of Target Center at the time. The protesters lined up opposite from them. And then, in the no man’s land in between, this couple started dancing for about a minute and a half. Here was this sweet moment of serenity, love and hope capping off this night of horrid behavior. I was drawn to that.

Do you know what prompted this couple to start dancing?

They thanked each other at the end, so I don’t know how well they knew each other or if they were even a couple. She was tearful afterwards. I regret not getting their names, but I got the impression that they were just choosing to de-escalate the situation and demonstrate peace and love.

There wasn’t shouting or anything during it — people were loving it. It kept things calm. I could even see a smile from underneath a police visor. It was a sweet moment. That’s the sort of thing I want to look for — dignity and tenderness in circumstances like those. I feel blessed that I was able to share that moment with other people.