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|| News Item: Posted 2009-12-28

Decade Collection: Anne Ryan
'I soon realized that Studs had taught me an important lesson about being a journalist.'

By Anne Ryan

Photo by Anne Ryan

Photo by Anne Ryan

ABOVE: Studs Terkel. BELOW: Stud Terkel with Pete Zich.
I was fortunate enough to meet and photograph author and historian Studs Terkel twice during my career, once in 1997 and again in 2007. The first time I photographed him I was a staff photographer for USA TODAY. Photo editor Alex Korab called me with the assignment remarking that she had just received a call to confirm the shoot from Studs himself, not a publicist or handler. Already this assignment seemed different from the average celebrity portrait. His was a name I’d heard since I was a child and I was about to meet him, one of the coolest things about being a photojournalist.

I drove to Studs’ house on the north side of Chicago and he answered the door. His wife Ida was there too. I was to shoot a portrait, then follow him to WFMT radio where he was in the process of moving his archive of taped interviews to the Chicago Historical Society. He was 85 then and his hearing was not good, but we were able to communicate well nonetheless. Studs told me never learned to drive, so he asked if I could drive him to the radio station.

Once we were in the car he asked me if we could stop at the pharmacy on the way to WFMT so he could pick up his prescription. I drove him there and waited in the parking lot while he picked up his medicine thinking about just how different our meeting had been from what I had expected. He was not slick or flashy, rather vulnerable. During the short drive to the radio station he continued to ask me all kinds of questions about my life and my family.

As we drove down Devon Ave. on the way back to his house, he pointed out his favorite Indian restaurant, "The Gandhi". The next thing I knew we were looking for a parking place, then having the Indian buffet for lunch. Several people came and asked for his autograph during lunch. He never turned anyone down. Afterward I drove him back home and he gave me an autographed copy of The Great Divide. By the afternoon I realized that even though I was the one there as a "journalist", he had gotten me to tell my whole life story.

I soon realized that Studs had taught me an important lesson about being a journalist. He put himself in my hands and made himself vulnerable. In his own way he made me feel comfortable telling him about my life. I guess that is why he was so successful telling the stories of the average person. Studs treated every person like a treasure. He had done the same thing with me that day with sincerity. It wasn’t a gimmick. From that point on I decided to incorporate his attitude into my own work as a journalist.

As a freelancer in late December 2007 my agency, Polaris Images, called me to photograph Studs again for The Guardian. He was 95 by then, so I knew his hearing would probably be even worse. I decided to write him a letter telling him what a profound effect he’d had on my career. He read it before the shoot and we had an instant connection again, even though he couldn’t hear me.

Luckily I had brought my son Pete Zich, then 16, as an assistant. Studs could hear Pete’s deep voice, but he couldn’t hear mine. As we set up for the portrait in his living room he sat in a chair reading magazines about politics and current events. When we were ready to shoot I relied on Pete’s voice to relay instructions to Studs. He was frail, so I could only photograph him in a chair.

At 95 he was even more vulnerable, but I could still see that spark of personality. The first time I photographed him he taught me about being a journalist. The second time he taught me about growing old gracefully.

Sadly, he died ten months later. I will always treasure those two days as some of the highlights of my career.

(Anne Ryan is a freelance photographer based in Chicago, IL. She is formerly a staff photographer with USA TODAY.)

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