Stephen Swofford and I met when we both worked at the Watertown Daily Times, a daily newspaper in Northern New York. He is an incredibly talented photojournalist, and we actually got to cover a few assignments together, from a car crash to the unveiling of a pet food bank. The 35-year-old is currently shooting news photography for the Pueblo Chieftain in Colorado.
He and I emailed back and forth on Thursday and Friday, and we talked about his early beginnings as a photographer, why he enjoys working in a newsroom as opposed to a studio, and how he got his camera broken and his head concussed during a protest he was photographing.
Elly Gibson: Before we really get started, do you prefer “photographer” or “photojournalist” or something else?
Stephen Swofford: I have a story about my title. I believe it was Louie Palu (a well-known conflict photojournalist) who said at a conference I was attending, “If you’re going to call yourself a photojournalist, you’d damn well better be the second part.” So I call myself a photojournalist partially as a reminder to myself to go out and earn the title every day.
EG: When we first met, we were working for the same newspaper. I specifically remember walking into the photographer’s office and seeing a giant picture of Steve Buscemi over your workspace. Are you just a huge Steve Buscemi fan or something?
SS: No, it was my birthday and, as a prank, the other photographers covered my desk with the giant photo (I think the logic was that we’re both Steves) and I was so touched and thought it was so funny I decided to keep the makeshift poster. Unfortunately, it fell apart before I left.
EG: What have you been up to since you left New York state? If I’m not mistaken, you’ve worked for a couple different newspapers, right?
SS: I had a tough choice to make between moving up to Potsdam or taking a new job in Virginia. I decided to go to Virginia because I felt I needed an experienced Photo Editor to help guide me and push me to improve my work, and boy was I right. I worked at the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Virginia, for a little over a year and in that time, the quality of my work skyrocketed entirely thanks to the guidance of my editor, Nikki Fox. Unfortunately, in April the family-owned paper was sold to a larger corporation who didn’t feel there was any value in a dedicated photo department (huge mistake, in my not-so-humble opinion) and they laid off Nikki and myself, keeping the third photographer we had on staff to help edit photos taken by the reporters. Luckily, I was only out of work for about three months before being hired at the Pueblo Chieftain in Colorado, only an hour and a half from my family.
EG: How did you get started with photography?
SS: I can’t remember how old I was, maybe 13, when my dad took me to buy my first camera, a Nikon F2 35mm film camera (I’m old, so digital wasn’t a thing yet), and two manual focus lenses, a 50mm, and a 105mm. I loved it, and I took a bunch of horrible “artistic” photos of nothing in particular. I took a lot of classes in high school on alternative processes where I learned to make cyanotypes and daguerreotypes and gum bichromates. It was the alternative processes that really sparked my interest and got me working on my photos, instead of just screwing around with a camera.
EG: What was your breakthrough moment — where you were like, “wow, I can do this professionally”?
SS: I was pre-vet in college, working at a vet clinic, and spending my days off wandering downtown Denver photographing random protests and street performers and whatnot, trying to push myself out of my shy little bubble. My girlfriend at the time was a journalism major and I kind of thought it was a waste of time since journalism was dying. So one day I’m waiting for her to leave a class and I step into the office of the head of photojournalism, Kenn Bisio. Mostly I was just kinda poking fun at him, “how does it feel to teach a dying art?” kinda stuff, he was a very approachable guy. An hour later I left his office a photojournalism major. So the joke’s on me. It had honestly never really occurred to me that what I was doing on my days off was journalism and once that clicked, I realized that if I could get paid to do that every day, and make a real change in the world, then that’s what I should be doing.
EG: Where do you find inspiration?
SS: I’m so lucky to have some really amazing friends. The photojournalism world is very small, but I somehow managed to surround myself with some truly inspiring people who motivate me to push harder and see better if for no other reason than to try and catch up with them. Barry Gutierrez, in particular, took me under his wing when I was struggling to find freelance work and was ready to throw in the towel. To this day he supports me, mentors me, and challenges me to push my work to the next level. Chancey Bush, at the Grand Junction Sentinel, does some truly inspiring work and she was a year or two behind me in school, so that’s a big push for me. People like Scott Strazzante at the SF Chronicle, and Aristide Economopoulos at The Star-Ledger, Taylor Irby, Adam Vogler, Nic Coury, Drew Nash, the list goes on and on, and of course Melissa Lyttle and the Geekfest community she founded and leads. If it weren’t for A Photo A Day, the group from which Geekfest grew, I probably wouldn’t be a photojournalist today. (Geekfest is an annual get-together for photojournalists around the country to come together, get to know one another, and to find inspiration in each other’s work.)
EG: Do you prefer to shoot portraits and the like where you can at least try to control the environment/lighting situation? Or would you rather shoot on assignment for a newspaper where things are a little less predictable?
SS: Honestly? I hate portraits. The subject is uncomfortable, I’m uncomfortable, nobody knows what to do with our hands or our faces. It’s awful. I’ve just roped myself into doing some 220 portraits of high school athletes to try and push myself out of my own comfort zone, but I’m pretty mad at myself about the whole thing. I really shine in so-called “social documentary” situations where I can just get close, physically and emotionally, to one or two subjects and dig in for hours, days, weeks, sometimes months to try and tell their story and shine a light. There’s another quote whose provenance I’ve forgotten, which is “What is most personal is most universal” so I try and illuminate some social issue by telling someone’s personal story. Last year I won an award from the Virginia Press Association for my story on a set of 5-year-old twins, one of whom has Down syndrome.
EG: Did you ever miss a shot? And do you regret it?
SS: There is not a day of my life I don’t miss a shot. It’s a well-kept secret that I’m actually a terrible photographer. I’m just very persistent. Earlier today I missed a perfect moment as I followed around a homeless couple for the day. The man got in a fist fight with someone, and there was a moment where he ducked under the guy’s fist and I hit the shutter, while focused on a building behind them. It doesn’t get frustrating until you see yourself making the same mistakes. New mistakes are easy to forgive.
EG: What photography project or assignment has been most rewarding or meaningful for you and why?
SS: Before working in staff positions, I was struggling to make a name as a freelance photojournalist, so I did a lot of international travel. One trip, in particular, took me to Nepal, to document the lives of the Sherpa communities along the trek to Mount Everest. Then the worst earthquake in Nepal’s history happened, and that changed my whole life. I’d never experienced, much less photographed, death and destruction on that scale. I already considered a lot of the people I’d met in my time there friends but, after the experiences following the earthquake, it became something much deeper. It’s hard to explain, but a very fundamental part of who I am changed on that trip.
EG: Have you ever been in danger or in a particularly hairy situation while shooting on assignment?
SS: Well everything tends to pale in the face of buildings almost falling on you in Nepal, but one of my first major assignments was covering the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The day before the convention there was a huge protest in Denver and I ended up right in the middle of it. I remember very little, but apparently, one of the AP [Associated Press] photographers was maced and I started helping him to the side of the protest when we were hit by a wayward police baton and we both fell to the curb. I got a concussion, hence the memory loss, and broke a few teeth for which I am still paying, both physically and financially, and I broke my camera and flash. Despite that, I kept shooting for another hour or two, which was a favorite war story in college among the people who witnessed it, but with the wisdom of age and hindsight, I sure wish one of them had pulled me aside and made sure I was alright.
EG: What’s your favorite part about what you do?
SS: The connections I make. I get cards and little gifts in the mail from time to time thanking me for my work and it really means the world to me. I’ve kept everything I’ve ever gotten. It feels good knowing you’ve done right by someone.
EG: What about challenges? What are the not-so-glamorous parts of being a photographer?
SS: Oh boy. Mostly the cold. I don’t like shooting with gloves on, it makes my job hard, but these cameras are all metal, so when you’re shooting a skijoring race at dawn in negative 20-degree weather, for example, there’s just no amount of “I love my job” that’ll get you through it with a smile. Or the people who spit on you because you’re “fake news” or because they don’t like the newspaper for which you work. Those are always fun moments. A month ago, give or take, I overheard on our police scanner that someone’s mom called the police on her son because he had a number of weapons and was making threats against himself and against “the media.” Well, we’re the only newspaper in town, and the major TV station rents a room in our building just off of the newsroom, so that was an exciting day.
EG: What are your plans for the future? Do you have any upcoming projects?
SS: I’d like to stay in Colorado so I can keep watching my nephews grow up, but since my layoff last year, I’ve learned to keep my plans general and short term. So I’d like to stay in photojournalism as long as I can afford to and as long as my body will let me. I’d like to work on making any paper I work for one of the strongest photo papers in the country, and I’d like to keep pushing myself to new heights. I’m really lucky that my editor trusts me and believes in the work I do so I get a staggering amount of freedom to work on long-term projects. I just spent the past two days shadowing a few homeless people to show what their lives look like, and that along with next week’s “point in time count” by a local nonprofit trying to assess the number of homeless in the area will combine to make a massive special edition early next month. I’m also working on a few projects such as one on the heroin epidemic in Pueblo, a series of artistic portraits of prep athletes, and some emotional portraits of people who have lost a family member to suicide, which is a subject very close to my heart. In Virginia, the photo department ran a biweekly full-page spread, so I learned a lot about planning, time-management, and editing projects, which I have worked hard to maintain at my new position.
EG: What’s the best advice you ever received from a fellow photographer?
SS: My photo instructor in college, Kenn Bisio, once said, “Photos can’t change the world, but they can show the world a reason to change.” I’ve always kept that in mind as I work. As Robert Capa once said, “If it’s not good enough, you’re not close enough.” I don’t know if he intended that to mean emotional as well as physical closeness, but that’s how I’ve always interpreted it, and the two quotes together have guided me and my work.
You can see more of Stephen’s work over on his website. You can follow him on Instagram @sswofford.