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|| News Item: Posted 2005-11-30

Sports Shooter Conversation: With Scott Strazzante
By G.J. McCarthy, Columbia Tribune

Photo by Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune

Photo by Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune

Making way for a new subdivision, Harlow Cagwin's farmhouse is leveled by crews. Cagwin, 80, can't bear to watch as the final act of his 76 years on the land unfolds in front of him.
G.J. McCarthy: First off, Scott, I just wanted to quickly thank you for taking part in this.

Scott Strazzante: My pleasure.

GM: During the presentation you gave after judging the College Photographer of the Year competition in November, you spoke at length about the respect photographers should have for their subjects. Could you elaborate about that again for us?

SS: Without the cooperation of the subject, we as documentary photographers have nothing, so it's our obligation to treat our subjects with the utmost respect and care.

GM: Is this a mentality you've had since beginning in photojournalism, or one that developed over time; and, if so, how?

SS: Early in my career and even now, I'm very timid around new people, so I've always been super sensitive about my first impression. Plus our reputation as members of the media isn't the best, so I try to dispel that myth whenever possible.

GM: You dispel that myth by your actions, you mean.

SS: Yes, I want to show people that I care and I'm not there to use them.

GM: Right. Now, your career is one I consider to be somewhat "non-traditional," insofar as where you started and where you've ended up. You're not one of the shooters who had all the top internships under his belt before heading into the job market --- you worked your way up from mid-sized community papers to a major, national paper. Do you think that experience has helped your ideas about subject interaction and such?

SS: Definitely. I was so naive early on that I didn't even know there was such a thing as an internship. Plus, I've done every bad assignment imaginable at least twice so I learned early on that it was up to me to find something of interest to photograph and not leave it to the editors and writers.

GM: Speaking of your early work, I'd like to talk a little about The Cagwins...

SS: Aaaah --- Jean and Harlow. I mentioned at CPOY that without the
Cagwins --- a pair of senior farmers on which I did a long-term story --- I wouldn't be asked to speak and judge. I met Jean and Harlow in 1994 as part of a smaller story and the coverage evolved into a personal project that spanned eight years and three different newspapers.

GM: So it goes without saying that, over almost 10 years, you developed some sort of personal relationship with them. How did that contribute to the final package? Would the piece have been different were you to have taken the more traditional "fly-on-the-wall" approach, and kept your engagement with them to a minimum?

Photo by Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune

Photo by Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune

Days after his cattle were trucked off to auction, farmer Harlow Cagwin naps in the bedroom of his farmhouse. After selling their land to a subdivision developer, Harlow and his wife Jean left their 118-acre farm in Lockport, Illinois in July, 2002.
SS: My interaction with Jean and Harlow from 1994-1999 was twofold --- part of the time I would go to the farm when I was bummed out by crappy assignments because I knew I could photograph something real; but the majority of the time was spent hanging out, chatting, eating Swedish delicacies made by Jean and just being a friend. By time the story changed later from a farming story to one of suburban sprawl, aging and the family farm as a disappearing way of life, I was part of the family and not just a photographer.

GM: So, the relationship that formed was obviously a part of the piece's success, correct?

SS: It was essential. Jean and Harlow allowed me to photograph some pretty intimate moments, and without the trust that had been established I'm not sure the Cagwins -- who were pretty guarded with their lives --- would have let me in at the end when things weren't so happy.

GM: Right. I guess my next question is, how much of yourself is in your documentary work? I mean, on the surface level, the whole idea of the medium is to document fully those things our readers don't have access to, right? But I know that your (and others') definition also includes a certain amount of interpretation; some call is voice, vision, etc. In that sense, how integral to your definition of successful (and meaningful) documentary work is the whole notion of forming these relationships and interpreting them visually? Are the two really inseparable?

SS: My experiences with the Cagwins were akin to a masters degree in documentary photography. I now can enter a situation and within 10 minutes sometimes be making intimate photos that took me five years to make on the farm. As for my voice ... everything I shoot is my point of view --- it's filtered through my life and experiences and is totally different than if another photographer was shooting in my place. Early in a story, I just kind of flounder sometimes, but when I decide what the story is and how I'm going to interpret it, telling pictures are much easier to make.

GM: It goes without saying, then, that an important element of good documentary photography is time --- time to assess the situation; to get to know your subject(s); to let him/her/them get to know you; and, of course, to find a direction for the story.

SS: Exactly. Great documentary photography is expensive and that's why a lot of papers aren't doing it. The more time I spend on a story, the better it gets --- exponentially. I made more great photos on the last two days of the Cagwin story then I did in the first six years.

Photo by Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune

Photo by Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune
GM: I think this is why a lot of people in our industry are concerned. Aside from the basic tragedy of layoffs, cutbacks in newsrooms across the country are going to mean less people doing more work, which means a lot less opportunity for storytelling, documentary work ... especially the kind that requires real time. Already, we've seen some of the more well known documentary papers (San Jose Mercury News, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, etc.) announce layoffs. What are your thoughts about this, and, in general, on the future of documentary photography at the newspaper level?

SS: I don't think that you have to move in with someone to tell their story -- you have to be efficient and you have to communicate with your subjects; an hour a week, if it's the right hour, is all you need. Most photo subjects think their lives are mundane so you have to be pretty specific when discussing with them what you are looking for. Also, it might take a good chunk of your personal time. I do a lot of stuff for free [on my days off] because, basically, I shoot for myself most of the time and not for the newspaper, although they reap the benefits of my time.

GM: Shifting gears a bit ... We've spent a bit of time here talking specifically about your views on documentary photography, and how they've formed over your career. Who are some photographers (past or present) that you look to for inspiration?

SS: My first influences weren't photographers but artists -- Monet and Caravaggio mostly. I loved their use of light and the quality of it. Once I became hooked by sports photography, it was all Walter Iooss, all the time. When I caught the documentary bug, I couldn't get enough Brian Plonka and Rob Finch, and, luckily, I got to work with them. Now, I'm inspired by college photographers and newbies to the business; I want my photography to continue to evolve so I keep an eye on the newcomers for inspiration.

Photo by Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune

Photo by Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune

Jean Cagwin comforts her husband Harlow after a long day of labor on their cattle farm. Joining the Cagwin's for dinner on this day is Johnny Zambrano, a local Joliet boy who helps with chores when Harlow gets behind on them.
GM: Great segue there with "college photographers and newbies"...

SS: Full circle, baby.

GM: [ha-ha] Speaking of them, what advice do you have for younger photographers or folks new to the working market, especially those interested in documentary photography? As staff sizes wane while graduate numbers increase, what could these photographers be doing now (or what could they do) to increase their chances of gaining employment in such a saturated market?

SS: It's kind of a tightrope act that young photographers have to walk -- they need to play the game a bit if they want to get hired. They need a more traditional portfolio sometimes to get hired, but once they get inside, it's then they need to gently push their agenda and make photographs with their point of view. In a portfolio, one needs to show why they're different, but also show that they can handle anything that's assigned to them. Also, do at least one real story, something very focused.

GM: Great advice. To wrap it up, what are your final thoughts on this discussion about documentary photography ... Are you optimistic? Where do you think it's headed? What are your plans?

SS: There will always be a need for documentary photography, no matter how the final product changes or the technology advances -- there is no better way to move someone than to use a combination of still photography and audio (an area I've yet to fully utilize). I'm very optimistic about the future and I plan to keep tweaking the things that I do. I've just started a high school sports photo column, and next I want to do a long-term documentary story that runs in serialized form in the paper as a weekly photo column ... something to keep newspapers relevant and interesting.

GM: Great. Well, thanks VERY much for taking the time to chat. Take it easy, Scott, and happy Turkey Day.

SS: Same to you.

(Scott Strazzante is a staff photographer with the Chicago Tribune. You can view his work on his member page: G.J. McCarthy is a staff photographer with the Columbia (Mo.) Tribune. You can check out his work at:

Related Links:
Strazzante's member page
McCarthy's member page

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