In The Ring Light: Scott Strazzante – by BP Miller

Recently I had a chance to sit down with photojournalist Scott Strazzante. Among his achievements over the years: A Pulitzer for his work with the Chicago Tribune in 2007, 10 time Illinois Photographer of the Year, and NPPA Photographer of the Year.

Strazzante

BP Miller: How did you get into photojournalism?

Scott Strazzante: Total fluke. I grew up a sports fan in Chicago, and the only photographic interest I had was Sport Illustrated magazine. I liked looking at sports, photographing, and that led me to bringing my camera to games. My dad was a tire dealer on the South Side, so when I went to college to be a business major, I had no idea I wanted to be a photographer. Then I saw a photo exhibit by a photographer from the Chicago Tribune named Paul Gero, and when I walked in that exhibit and saw his work, I immediately said, “This is what I want to do for a career.” I’d never once thought about making a career out of it, but just seeing his photography crystalized, that’s the path I wanted to take.

BP: So with that being said, did you think that you’d end up where you are now when you first started? Where did you see yourself, and did you end up there, or did you end up on a completely different trajectory?

SS: Yeah. It was always “I want to be a Sports Illustrated photographer”, that’s just where I wanted to be. I just wanted to shoot sports all the time, and even though I do shoot a lot of sports –I’ve shot the Olympics multiple times, a couple of Super Bowls, World Series, etc– I never quite made it to the magazines. I’ve been a newspaper photographer for 30 years now. I love covering my community, I love doing a little bit of travel. My dream was not met fully, but what I’m doing now is better than what I dreamed I wanted to do. Actually, my dream kind of became something that’s impossible now. Sports Illustrated no longer has staff photographers. So I could have at some point maybe freelanced for them, but I never would have become a staff photographer like I wanted when I first started out.

Strazzante

BP: So the dream changed a little bit, which is apt to happen. From where you started to where you are now, are there any regrets?

SS: Hmmmm. Well, I have no regrets because I felt like the path I took was the one that was perfect for me. It took forever for me to get to a level that I felt like I was successful. The first 10 to 12 years of my career, I wasn’t making many great photographs. I thought I was. I thought I was doing well, but when I look back… I just didn’t really have a clue. I guess maybe it would have been cool to realize earlier than I wanted to be a photographer because I think going to photojournalism school would have helped me maybe get my career on track faster. But on the other hand, I think my vision has been developed organically and not by someone telling what NOT to do. It just kind of happened at the pace that it was supposed to happen. I would be fun to go back in time and tweak a few things, but I have no complaints about where I’m at right now.

BP: So that’s something I didn’t know… you never went to school for this. You’re completely self taught the same way I am?

SS: Right.

Strazzante

BP: I’ve had this conversation with a couple of different people over the years. Do you think had you gone to school, that your style would have evolved like it has? I’m completely self taught, and break all the rules on a regular basis. But breaking those rules and doing what came naturally to me has also gotten me to where I’m at. So, do you think not going to school helped or hurt your career?

SS: I think it might possible that I wouldn’t even be a photographer. Early in my career, I was really shy and timid and I didn’t like sharing my work. I didn’t like being critiqued. I didn’t like people telling me my work was no good. I’ve always been someone that’s motivated more by a pat on the back than a kick in the ass. So I think had I gone to photojournalism school, I might not be a photographer. I might have gotten totally demoralized and just decided to do something else. I have a liberal arts education. I studied art history, psychology and sociology, and I think having that background has really helped me because as photojournalists, our greatest skills having nothing to do with photography. My education was studying the world press books and the pictures of the yearbooks that came out each year. You know, this is pre-internet, so I didn’t have access to too many images except what I’d see in the daily Chicago newspapers and the occasional magazine I’d pick up. But from a pure photojournalism standpoint, the day the POY book came, I would just sit down and go through it over and over and over again. I think that combined with studying my own photographs and trying to figure out why some worked and some didn’t… that was my education.

BP: Do you still do that? Are there photographers out there now that still influence you? Do you still look for inspiration in other places, or are you at that place in your career where you’ve become the influencer to others?

SS: I’m looking at just as much work now, and I think that’s just because there is more work out there to look at! Earlier in my career, when I would see someone win a major award, it wouldn’t inspire me. It would demoralize me because I’d be like “aw… someone else is better than me”. Even though I knew I wasn’t the best, I still strived to be the best. Whereas now, I feel like I can look at work and it doesn’t affect my personal feelings of myself as a photographer. I can look at it more as a celebration of photography. Of course, when I enter a contest and I lose… I still get pissed off (laughter.) I look at someone like Rob Finch who I work with. He won POY twice before he was 25. He was amazing from the start, whereas I took decades to get good. Marisha Camp does some really exciting work. There’s an art photographer named Stacy Leigh who is doing work with sex dolls… which is really fascinating. In the photojournalism world, I still love David Guttenfelder and Daniel Berehulak. I’m inspired by younger photographers like Carolyn Van Houten and Jabin Botsford, both from The Washington Post. Marcus Yam at the LA Times. Sol Neelman who does “Weird Sports” has a unique vision. I know him very well, so I know it’s taken him years to get the confidence to say “how I see the world is okay.” He shoots in a way that is different than most people, and that used to be a negative, and now it’s a positive.

Strazzante

BP: Do you think that photojournalism as it was and to an extent, how it is now, is dying? Or do you think that it’s kind of in a chrysalis and transitioning?

SS: I think it’ll never die. I think the reason for that is something Brian Storm once said. He said “photojournalism will never die because people will keep doing it for free.” The struggle now is to monetize it and it seems like a lot of people, they’re just making it or hanging on by their fingertips, but they just love the work so much, they keep doing it. People are getting grants, and shooting weddings so they can support their passion projects. It’s becoming a lot like society in general, where the separation between those who make money, and those who can’t is a big divide. It’s the 1% who are doing it vs. the 99% who are struggling every day. If you’re a good marketer AND a good photographer, you can definitely make a living at it, but it’s not going to be anything that you’re going to be able to vacation in the South of France with. Back in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s… before the internet was what it’s become, we weren’t exposed to these amazing photographers in Africa, or Scandinavia, or South America. Their work just wasn’t being shown like it is now, and it’s amazing! So yeah, I think it’s the golden age of photojournalism, and it’s going to get better and better, but only because people will do it for free or people will do it just because it’s their hobby or their passion. I don’t know if that’s a great thing, but back in the 80’s… the work was so one dimensional and one layer. Now the work is so complex and there’s these moments and non-moments. I’m glad my career has spanned from developing black and white film in a dark room to now shooting a photo on the streets of San Francisco, putting it on Instagram and have someone in Japan comment on it a minute later. It’s a crazy 30 year stretch where things have changed so much.

Strazzante

BP: Shameless plug time… you just released your second book, which is titled “Shooting From The Hip” – now I’ll let our readers know I’ve seen how you make these pictures firsthand, and it is so ninja-esque that I had to watch you do it again. It’s a dance of your eyes, feet and camera in a way I’ve never seen before. Tell us a little about how this came about.

SS: Ok, so it’s a multitude of factors. The shooting from the hip thing came from newspapers. You tend to photograph children a lot, and one of the things I don’t like in my own photography is camera awareness. I don’t like photographing events and having someone stare at the camera. When you photograph kids and adults, you’ll lift the camera up and they’ll just look at it, ham it up, or whatever. So for ages in my career, I’ve just been shooting without the camera to my face just to NOT get that stare at the camera thing because now while they may be looking up at me, they’re not looking at the camera. Being a newspaper photographer and a photographer in general, I came to realize that whenever there’s a camera in the room, people act differently. They put on a show, or they’ll be shy or timid. I realize I wasn’t shooting reality anymore, but shooting people they way they think they want to be seen, or the way they think I want them to act. When I first started, I was using my big 35mm professional camera, and I would shoot from the hip when as I’d walk through the streets of Chicago with this big clunker. But because I didn’t have it to my face, no one realized they were being photographed. I was capturing moments that I felt were pure and real most of the time. I did that for about a year and a half, but my success rate was really small because in addition to the big camera framing, I was also trying to focus and expose properly. They’d be bad exposures, or horribly out of focus. If I made one photo out of a hundred that I liked… that was a really good ratio.
When the iPhone came out, I didn’t get one immediately because the Tribune was using Blackberry’s, but then in 2012 I went with my daughter to visit George Washington University and she had just gotten an iPhone. So I borrowed hers while we were there and downloaded the Hipstamatic app because Damon Winter from the New York Times had just won an award photographing something in either Iraq or Afghanistan with the same app and it was very controversial. There were outcries that photojournalism was dead, and people were saying this was the worst thing ever.
I started shooting with a “black and white” film and I loved it. There was just something about the feel of it that was totally different. It was kind of a compressed wide angle and the depth of field was much greater. I normally shoot at f2.8 or lower for everything, so because I was just pushing a button and allowing it to set all the things for me, it tended to be a lot greater depth of field. It just became this thing on the side that was so different. With my newspaper work, I’m very careful with compositions; I ask permission to photograph people; I spend a long time building relationships and getting people to trust me. Where as with street photography, I’m just walking down the street stealing souls, not asking permission. I just love street photography. One of the photographers I was influenced by before I even wanted to be a photographer was Garry Winogrand.
IPhones have gotten better, the quality of Hipstamatic images are getting better, but I just love the serendipity of it. I love just composing, I love just composing a little by memory and just the things that come into my images that I didn’t realize were there. It just for me is a little bit of that wonderment of shooting film. You would take a photo, think it might be good but then have to wait to develop the film. Here, I see a moment and I photograph it. During a one-hour photo walk I might make 300 images, and then I’ll sit and look through the 300 and go “oh, I knew this was going to be a good one” or “oh, I thought this was going to be a good one but it’s not” or “I didn’t think this was going to be very good, but it turned out really good!”

Strazzante

BP: Did you ever get busted doing this?

SS: I would say in the five or ten years I’ve been doing it, I’ve had maybe ten people ask me if I just took their photograph. Once I explain what I’m doing, and I smile and show them the photograph they’re fine with it. But there had been two instances where people have gotten violent with me. Once walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago I was photographing a cab turning a corner with a redhead in the back of the cab. The light was beautiful, just this beautiful golden light and this guy says “I see what you’re doing!” I said “Excuse me?” and he says “I see what you’re doing, you’re taking a photograph and your camera’s not at your eye”, so he thought I was doing something wrong. We got into a bit of a verbal spat and he ended up pushing me into Michigan Avenue. Luckily, there was no traffic, and I just yelled at him as he walked around.
In San Francisco, there’s many people with cameras and so many tourists that I really don’t get noticed, but I was walking down the street, had my camera in position to take a photo, and this young girl came towards me and said “don’t take my photo” and I said “I didn’t take your photo”. Before I could do anything else, she grabbed my phone and threw it down the street, then her friend kicked it down the street. I guess it’s kind of the karma that builds up.

Strazzante

BP: If you had the chance to have another profession, what would it be?

SS: I think I might be a social worker or psychologist. I remember in college in my psych class we studied a group of autistic children and I found that fascinating. So I might study autism, what causes it, etc. I’ve done several photo stories on autistic children and I find it amazingly interesting. It just seems to be more and more prevalent as time goes on.

Strazzante

BP: Congrats on your recent engagement! Has she seen firsthand your “shooting from the hip” style and do you think you’ll continue to do it when you happen to be away on vacation or anything, or if she puts the nix on it, would that be it?

SS: Thanks! No, it’s amazing, she’s the exact opposite. We got engaged down in Mexico at a place called Sayulita and it’s this really visual place. It’s a fishing village/hipster surfing town. We were there for five days and we pretty much walked all the time. She had no problem with me taking photographs with my iPhone in one hand, and her hand in the other, she enjoyed watching me see the world. By the end of the trip, she could kind of see things that she knew I was going to photograph. So it was really cool how she was totally supportive of it. It was never “we’re on vacation, put down the camera.” I have been with people in the past who thought that my photography was like a competition. Like, if I was doing photography, it somehow meant I felt less about them. It was never true, but with Kim, she totally understands and supports it.

Strazzante

BP: So we’re at the end, and I have one more question. There’s not really a right or wrong answer. Chicago or San Francisco?

SS: UGH! San Francisco is a strange city. We had an intern [at the San Francisco Chronicle], Nikki Boliaux, really great kid. She was our summer intern last year and she actually got mugged. Someone tried to steal her camera and dragged her down the street from the side of her car. Luckily, she wasn’t injured, but shortly after that she posted this on Twitter “I love the idea of San Francisco, but I hate everything about it.” I thought that was really apt because San Francisco has this reputation as being liberal and accepting of all cultures and diverse. All those things are great, except in reality it’s a dirty, dirty city. It has its beauty, but there’s a lot of mental illness and a lot of people on the streets and it’s a struggle. Every day is a struggle.
It’s incredibly visual and I love being a photographer there, but I wouldn’t want to live there. I’ve lived a cushy life up in Marin County. It’s gorgeous and just has this incredible natural beauty. I’m not affluent, but there’s a lot of affluence up there. I kind of parachute into San Francisco and Oakland on assignments. But the East Bay, Oakland, Berkeley and those cities… I love them.
I love Chicago and I’ll always love Chicago. It’s an amazing place. If you’ve never visited there, you have to go for the architecture, and beauty, and the amazing food. But I just can’t handle another Midwest Winter. I’m totally over that.

Strazzante

© 2017 - www.chorusphotography.com BP Miller is an award-winning photographer/photojournalist and co-founder of Chorus Photography based in Philadelphia & San Francisco. His work has been published in several national publications, including The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While he works regularly with various businesses, national and international celebrities, politicians, and dignitaries; he is also the Regional Chair (Mid-Atlantic) for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), and can be found speaking across the country about non-profit photography as well as photojournalists’ rights.

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