My father shot pictures for a newspaper, so you could say that photography, even photojournalism, is in my blood. But that would be too easy. In fact, growing up near Chicago in the 1980s, I didn’t care much for photography. Maybe it wasn’t photography itself I disliked, but my father’s job. I remember him working strange long hours, sometimes leaving home in the middle of the night. Don’t misunderstand: He was always there for me when it counted, and still is. It’s just that when I was a kid I didn’t get his crazy schedule.
As I got older I began to appreciate photography more. (And by then, Dad had moved on to another job at the paper.) I like to think I was maturing and realizing the power of the medium. Probably I was just realizing that taking pictures was a lot more interesting than what some of the other kids’ parents did.
When I got to college at the University of Notre Dame, I needed a job, so I applied to be a photographer on The Observer, the student newspaper. I figure I got the job because I listed a bunch of my dad’s old Nikon equipment as my own – without, of course, telling him.
I had taken pictures over the years, but had never really gotten into it. My dad did succumb to “lending” me his equipment (still have it in the basement), and I went through his crash course on f-stops, shutter speeds and lenses. Soon enough I was on the field photographing Notre Dame football. I thought I was pretty cool, and so was the job.
My first internship was at The Daily Herald, outside Chicago, the newspaper where my dad worked. He was in upper management now, and I felt I had something to prove. Determined not to ride his coattails or do mediocre work, I nearly killed myself, trying to get better. Luckily, I got to work in one of the satellite offices with Dave Tonge, a fantastic editor, photographer and teacher. He turned me loose on every kind of assignment — news, sports, portraiture — and encouraged me to come up with my own ideas. It was boot camp for me, and I loved it.
Back at Notre Dame after that internship, I thought about photography for the first time as something that could change the world outside the frame. One photograph in particular opened my eyes to this possibility. Tom Stoddart made a picture of a small child in Sudan crawling after a man who had just stolen his share from a food distributor. The photograph cuts off the man’s upper body, transforming him into a symbol of oppression. That searing picture spoke to me on a level that a verbal news report could not reach. This was news of a higher caliber.
When I returned to The Daily Herald the next summer, photography was no longer merely fun, a harmless hobby. It was much bigger than that, with more at stake. I also went through some life-changing experiences that summer.
I remember sitting in Subway eating lunch and reading the printout of my next assignment: to make a portrait of a young boy with a rare blood disorder. His name was Craig Colletti. He needed a bone marrow transplant to have a chance at survival. I remember thinking maybe if I made a really good picture, people would notice and some reader might become a matched marrow donor for this little guy.
Over the next few years I formed a lasting bond with Craig and his family. Craig had a joy for life that people who don’t face death at a young age may not fully understand. He was a teacher to me, as were his parents and family. Even the marrow transplant couldn’t save Craig’s life, and the disease eventually overwhelmed him. I will never forget being in that Minneapolis hospital room at the end, while Craig’s mom, Patty, held his little body. That moment helped me become the person and the photographer I am today. (To see the pictures, go to “To Be a Mom.”)
I was so immersed in documenting the Collettis’ story, I didn’t go back to school right away to finish my history degree. Instead, I took a year-long internship with Copley Newspapers in Aurora, Ill. At Copley, I worked with some of the best photographers, editors and designers in the country. Brian and Kathy Plonka, Scott Strazzante, Jon Lowenstein, Todd Heisler, Loup Langton, Melanie Burford, Mike Davis, Deb Pang-Davis, Michael Hamtil, David Grewe, Denny Simmons, Leigh Daughtridge, Matt Kyger, Lara Solt, Tom Wallace, Scott Lewis, Ken Harper, John Konstantaras, Steve Rosenberg. What an incredible group. We worked together, partied together and lived together. It was an immersing, insane, intense experience. No one could argue it was healthy, but it sure was fun and I learned so much there.
Plus, I met Francesca Grazia Genovese. She designed pages, cussed like a sailor and agreed to marry me.
The work at Copley was challenging and gratifying. I won some awards. I was Newspaper Photographer of the year in 1999 and runner-up in 2000. Photo District News named me one of 30 young photographers to keep an eye on. I got to go to the International Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan, France, and exhibit my photos at Visa pour l’Image. I was selected as a member of the World Press Photo Masterclass and spent a week in Rotterdam with some brilliant teachers and students.
In 2001, Fran and I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I became a staff photographer at The Oregonian. I won Newspaper Photographer of the Year again 2003.
In 2006, I left the photo department to help launch The Oregonian’s Online Team. I exchanged my still cameras for video and taught myself Final Cut Pro. It was a blast. I never had more fun in journalism, and I got to collaborate on some great work. I was part of an Oregonian team awarded a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of a family lost on a logging road in Oregon’s Coast Range in the dead of winter and the searchers’ desperate effort to find them before it was too late. The weirdest part for me was that I never left the building. My role was to take a whole bunch of raw material sent in from the field by Oregonian reporters and photographers and weave it into a compelling story in Final Cut.
The next year I worked on a project about Oregon’s unique Death with Dignity law. It became the story of Lovelle Svart, who had inoperable lung cancer, and her choice to end her life with a lethal drug prescribed by her doctor under Oregon’s law. I think it was the riskiest and the most interesting journalistic endeavor I’d ever been part of. We were telling Lovelle’s story in close to real time, and we witnessed the final moments of her life. (To see more of that story, go to “Living to the End.”)
After a few years on the Online Team, I returned to the photo department to help produce more multimedia stories. I became the Visuals Editor, in charge of the day-to-day photo and multimedia report, both online and in print.
In May of 2013 I became the Executive Editor of Blue Chalk Media. We are a storytelling company looking to find new models and outlets for journalism in new media. We are still getting started, but I will update you all as we progress.
Most importantly, I am just trying to be a good husband to Fran, a good father to my two beautiful children, and a good person to everyone else. Some days I do fine at that, other days it’s tough to measure up. But I hope that after I’m gone, if people speak of me it’s something along the lines of “he meant well and tried hard.”