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Stephen Katz

What brought you to The Virginian-Pilot?

I have worked for several papers, all the while keeping my eye on a small handful that I really respected - so when the position opened at The Pilot and then-DOP Alex Burrows contacted me, I jumped at the opportunity. The Pilot has a rich tradition of world-class photographers and a commitment to highlighting strong visual storytelling.

After earning a master’s degree in journalism, what inspired you to make the jump to photography?

While doing field research as an anthropology major in undergrad, I often used photography as a documentary tool. It was love at first click. So when I went to grad school for journalism, I thought I’d certainly be a writer or researcher who shot his own photos. Ironically, when I went on my first journalism job interview, the editor hired me for my photo portfolio and not my writing, even though I had never taken a class in photojournalism.

Do you ever write the stories that accompany your photographs?

I wrote much more frequently when I first started in the newspaper industry – mostly feature pieces. In fact, at one newspaper, I wrote a weekly column. The culture at most larger papers, however, keeps photographers and writers more securely cemented in their specific roles. I still write the occasional magazine piece that accompanies my images.

How do you juggle being a staff photographer at the Virginian-Pilot and traveling to shoot in far off locations like Africa and the Middle East?

Quite simply, I have very cool bosses who understand the need for, and importance of, the work that I am doing. I use all my vacation time, as well as accrued comp time, to travel.

Since I don’t charge any of the non-profits I work for, my editors at The Pilot understand that the work I am doing isn’t for personal gain, but because of a sincere desire to help those in need. They appreciate that and have been incredibly supportive, which I hope they realize makes me a more dedicated employee.

What do you love most about your job?

That’s easy – it’s all about the people. I love observing people, learning their stories and witnessing their lives. There is no greater thrill than getting a complete stranger to open up to you and share something of their soul with you. Well, perhaps the one exception would be landing a fat rainbow trout on light flyline on the Yellow Breeches Creek.

Do you think it takes a special kind of personality to be a successful photojournalist?

Absolutely! The single greatest tool a photojournalist has in his camera bag is his personality. I don’t care how talented you are technically; you’ll never make the poignant and personal images that capture people’s attention unless you can make your subject(s) comfortable with you toiling around them. Characteristics of most successful photojournalists I know include a heightened sensitivity toward the human condition, the ability to communicate – through words or body language – your intentions, a deep and natural curiosity about the world around you, humility, kindness, courage and the ability to put people at ease.

How do you typically go about finding your stories and making your contacts?

Equal helpings of lots of research and lots of dumb luck. My advice to others has always been, do your research – know all you can about the people and places you will encounter – and set realistic goals and targets for yourself. The people you photograph are often impressed and flattered if you know things about them. Then, when you arrive in-country, don’t be surprised if everything changes. A story you go to shoot about children with hydrocephalus in Mali can easily morph into a piece on river blindness. Don’t try to fit a round peg into a square hole. Go with the flow and let the story find its logical conclusion.

These days I am very fortunate to have built such a large body of work and a network of contacts, so that I am approached by more organizations than I can do work for. But when I started, good old-fashioned, nose-to-the-grindstone was how I found work. It is so important to pursue groups or issues you are truly interested in.

When young shooters ask me - ‘I have always wanted to go to Africa, how can I find a group to work with there?’ - it drives me crazy. If you just want to go to Africa - buy a ticket and go and have a wonderful trip. But if you are passionate about the access children have to clean water or the need for prosthetics in Sub-Saharan Africa, then research groups that work in those fields and make your case to them. More and more non-profits and NGO’s are realizing the power of strong imagery and the ways it can help their efforts. That is the basis for the non-profit (Weyo) my business partner Chris Tyree and I started two years ago.

In your photo essay “Living on New Street” you spent time photographing a community of lepers. Were you ever concerned for your personal health being in close proximity to subjects with leprosy?

That question is precisely why I wanted to shoot the piece. While lepers have been shunned for thousands of years, the disease - after as little as a couple weeks of treatment - is not contagious. Still, these people are seen as pariahs. While leprosy has declined dramatically around the world, there are pockets where incidents have risen.

I am drawn to stories that deal with the issue of morbidity rather than mortality. Clearly nobody wants to die, but in developing countries, where “handicap accessibility” is as foreign as space travel, living with a severe disability or a disfiguring disease can be a fate worse than death. Imagine for a moment being a blind person and living in the jungles of the Congo. Not to mention the enormous impact it has on a family that is already desperately squeaking out a base existence.

All that said, I get sick on nearly every other trip I go on – sometimes quite badly. I contracted malaria and have been hospitalized a couple of times. It’s the things I can’t see, like parasites and disease, which scare me far more than a fist or a gun. Too many Western doctors have no idea how to identify or treat some of the conditions you can come back with.

How long do you typically spend working on a story?

I have spent as little as an hour on a story, as was the case with the access I was granted at a mental hospital in Manila, or as much as 10 days, like the piece Chris and I worked on in Sudan about the Lost Boy doctors who returned home to help their fellow man. Time is often not a luxury I have when I am away. This has a negative impact on the quality and depth of the work I do - I recognize that.

The reality is that I am running from one story to another to accomplish as much for as many as I can. In a perfect world, I would spend a week or more on every piece I shoot, but if this was a perfect world I would be shooting photos of moose foraging in wildflower-strewn meadows.

What is the most challenging situation you’ve found yourself photographing in?

Nearly every project I have shot presented its fair share of challenges. Flexibility is key. A couple that leap to mind:

My first trip to Vietnam, working along the border of Cambodia. Freedom of the press is non-existent and I found myself playing cat-and-mouse with government officials. Being embedded with the U.S. Army in Iraq had its obvious safety issues and we had a couple of close calls.

During a trip to a remote island in the Philippines, one of the doctors who was part of the advance team died from Dengue fever and we didn’t know there was an outbreak there until the boat that brought us there had already left.

Spent seven days crossing the Thar Desert between India and Pakistan on camelback while suffering from a raging case of dysentery.

I found myself caught in the middle of a riot that broke out during a shoot at the docks in Port-au-Prince, Haiti the first time I worked there.

I look back now and see each experience as an adventure, but at the time, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated or afraid.

What do you think has been key to your success as a photojournalist?

What success I have realized, I credit to life experience - the coming together of several chapters in my life from which I took important lessons to heart.

When I was 16 years-old, I started my first non-profit in New York, from that I learned compassion for those less fortunate. My undergraduate degree in anthropology taught me how to observe and understand others. Working for three years in PR was a lesson in diplomacy and communication skills. And finally traveling and working in dozens of developing countries made me more resourceful and flexible.

Ninety percent of the images I make, I do for two primary reasons, to educate and to help. I believe strongly in the concepts of community journalism – whether you see your community as your neighborhood or your planet – and socially-conscious photography. It is critical to ingratiate yourself to those you hope will open their doors and their lives to you as a journalist, so I have a couple simple rules I like to follow.

Other than local water that hasn’t been treated, I eat and drink what the people around me do. To turn your nose up to food they kindly offer you is a great way to say ‘I think I’m better than you.’

I would never shake a persons hand or play a game with a child and then immediately reach for the hand sanitizer afterwards. If you can keep your hands out of your mouth and nose long enough, there is time to do that later. Again, it’s just wrong to make someone feel dirty. They pick up on these things. I always fall on the side of being self-deprecating.

Do you feel that your experience working as a photo editor and as a director of photography has affected you as a photographer?

The difference between my photography and work ethic before becoming a PE and DOP as compared to when I got back into shooting full-time is striking. To be successful as a PE or DOP you must be able to steer shooters in the right direction, encourage them, coach them and support them in the newsroom by making prudent, practical and compelling arguments for their work without being argumentative. Learning how to talk eloquently about images helps you to understand what makes a photograph powerful, which in turn teaches you how to create richer work and see beyond single images. Also, you invariably develop empathy then for those who later edit your work and represent you in the newsroom, which keeps in check any inclination to be a prima donna and endears you to those who act as your advocate.

Do you ever use a translator when you’re shooting stories abroad?

Depends on the project – or more accurately the budget. These days I use translators more and more – and they are a huge help in getting past certain nuances of culture and securing access to people and places. They can be wonderful resources further down the road if you plan on returning and need help making arrangements. I make an effort never to burn bridges.

But there was a time when I would simply rely on an elaborate Kabuki dance of charades and broad smiles. We often underestimate how much we communicate through our posture and presence. Body language speaks quite loudly in certain cultures. When wandering through barrios by myself, there are times I’ve aimed to make myself look as big and as mean as possible – still, I have been mugged, beaten and stabbed. And then there are the times when making yourself appear as mild and as thoughtful as you can gets you into places you might not expect.

How do you feel about working as a newspaper staff photographer as opposed to being a freelance photojournalist? Which do you personally prefer, and why?

There are aspects of both that I really enjoy, which is why I dance between the two.

Working for a newspaper affords you support (benefits, an identity, equipment, etc. …), camaraderie and a known outlet for your work. At a newspaper, often times you have a fairly specific assignment where you are asked to illustrate a story that is being told through someone else’s vision.

Freelance work, on the other hand, gives you a certain freedom to take risks and strike out on your own. There is a certain wanderlust to freelance documentary work. There are days you may simply hop a bus to a rural village and lose yourself in its mystery, while challenging yourself to find the story you hope to communicate.

Both are challenging and both have their detractions.

Can you tell us about any interesting characters you’ve met or relationships you’ve developed as a direct result of being a photojournalist?

There are simply too many to mention. I have truly led a blessed life. I have drank tea with North African Bedouins. Danced with Indonesian Shamans. Cried with foster mothers. Played dice with inmates after lockdown. Held hands with a single mother giving birth. Laughed with countless street children. Listened to the final breath of a woman dying of breast cancer. Hidden in the shadows with gang members.

Many of the people I photograph I never see again. Some I stay in touch with. Each one is burned in my memory and many will live forever in my heart.

What other individuals do you respect in photojournalism today, and why do they get your appreciation?

The shooters I have the most respect for are my colleagues at The Pilot, folks like Bill Tiernan, who day in and day out, year after year make outstanding images, taking common situations and finding the extraordinary moments. Shooters like my business partner Chris Tyree, who has the heart of a saint. Photographers like Mona Reeder at The Dallas Morning News and John Freidah at The Providence Journal who tell the stories that must be known and tell them in ways that honor their subjects. Bad-asses like David Guttenfelder, Mario Tama and Tyler Hicks who lay it all out on the line to tell the story. And of course, masters of their craft like Sebastiao Salgado and Eugene Richards whose work inspires me.

About the photographer

Stephen Katz

Stephen M. Katz was named Newspaper Photographer of the Year (POY) by Pictures of the Year International in March of 2008. He is currently a staff photographer for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, VA where he has worked since March of 2004.

Katz’s career as a photographer began at a small twice-weekly newspaper in Ashland, Virginia after graduating from Temple University with a Masters Degree in journalism. During the subsequent decade Katz worked for a chain of daily Media General newspapers in northern Virginia (where he was quickly promoted to Director of Photography), was Photo Editor of The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, VA and later worked as Senior Photographer at the Bangor (Maine) Daily News.

Katz’s work, shot throughout the United States and nearly 50 countries - including two war zones - has been published in several magazines and books and has been extensively exhibited. He has received numerous national and international photography awards, including top honors from the National Press Photographers Association’s (NPPA) Northern Short Course (named POY 2008), Southern Short Course (named POY 2007), The Associated Press and Society of Newspaper Design. In 2008, Katz placed third overall in NPPA’s international Best of Photojournalism competition.

Prior to focusing on photojournalism, Katz had a varied career - graduating from Dickinson College with a degree in Anthropology, taking a job as a social worker in Washington, DC and then working in public relations for several years. In addition to working for The Pilot, Katz regularly donates his time to shoot for non-profits and NGO's. He is also the co-director of and the Truth With A Camera workshop, which takes up-and-coming photographers to developing countries, pairs them with local NGO’s and coaches them how to tell their stories. Katz has taught photojournalism at Tidewater Community College and regularly speaks to groups and at conferences about shooting for good – the role of photography in the non-profit world.

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