I wouldn’t be where I am – both in my growth as a person and in my skills as a photographer without a very key group of people.
Obviously, most people have their parents to thank. And of course, my mom played a big role encouraging me to pursue my passion – whatever that was, for however long it existed. But what teenage boy actually listens to their mom? Certainly not this one.
During the Lancaster Festival in Lancaster, Ohio, I nervously walked up to Ken Ritchie, a staff photographer for the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette at the time who took me under his wing and introduced me to the other staffer, Bill Cannon. After that meeting, I spent as much time as possible at the newspaper downtown learning about composition, cropping, toning, and probably the most important aspects, ethics and people skills. Eventually, I would freelance for the newspaper covering sports from time to time. Both photographers would move onto greener pastures during my junior year in high school. However, during my band’s (I was the lead singer in a rock band with my best friend’s until they all graduated and I was left behind to finish school) final performance – ironically as the headlining band for the Lancaster Festival – it was also one of Bill’s final assignments before heading to Upstate New York. So, one of my favorite photos is that of myself signing on stage in downtown Lancaster, taken by one of my first mentor’s. I still have a couple laminated and digital versions of the newspaper article to this day.
Throughout college, I had a few teacher’s who were pretty important pieces to my successes as well – Katyna and Barry Lavery, Scott Spangler, and Jon Lisbon all were really helpful and pushed me through the homework and assignments. Actually, if it weren’t for Katyna, I probably would not be where I am today. She introduced me to the NPPA Northern Short Course workshop that happened to take place in Rochester, New York that year. I had absolutely no money as a student without even a part-time job so she and her husband Barry were willing to have me tag along on the drive to Rochester. I ended up getting a scholarship for the workshop and slept at my aunt and uncle’s place not too far from downtown. It was at the workshop, after waiting over an hour and a half, that I got the chance to speak to Al Bello, a staff sports photographer for Getty Images, following his speech. It was this opportunity that gave me the chance to apply for the Getty Images internship in New York City (I applied, didn’t get accepted, and was asked to reapply a year later, when I finally was accepted. Lesson learned here? Persistence – a lesson taught to me by my first set of mentors, Ken and Bill). Al Bello became an immediate mentor, and although I am lucky enough to say that we are a part of the same Getty Images team, is still and will always be a huge influence on me and my work.
Fast forward following my graduation from college at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, I was a passionate, driven freelance sports photographer living in Pittsburgh. I needed another push, photographically, and still had plenty to learn in life. After becoming frustrated with how slow the winter months can be on a freelance sports photographer with only so many sports teams in one city, I reached out to my friend Justin Merriman, who highly recommend that I swing by the studio he shared with Jeff Swensen, a fellow Getty freelancer (on the news side of things), who might be able to offer some advice. Jeff and I had worked on an assignment for the New York Times together, but had never really talked much since then. Come to find out, Jeff was exactly the fresh opinion and kick in the ass that I needed. Although hard to read at first, Jeff treated me like his own son – I felt like I had known the guy for years.
Soon after, I was invited to a party at the studio – ‘Chrishondrosmas’, a benefit for the late Chris Hondros who was killed in Libya while on assignment for Getty Images and who was a roommate of Jeff’s during graduate school at Ohio University. It was there that I realized how beloved Jeff was among his friends and how much they respected him. That night, although slightly intoxicated, Jeff asked if I would be a part of the studio. From then on, I spent a lot of time at 33 Terminal Way. Some days editing and doing work. Other days, just to kill time and sip coffee with whoever decided to come in that day, as we also shared it with Stephanie Strasburg, a very talented photographer and all-around awesome person, and Mickey Miller, a chill dude who can do amazing things both with a website and a video camera!
Every day in the studio I think I learned something new. Even if it had absolutely nothing to do with photography, it seemed to be what I always needed to hear. With Chris’ passing still very much on everyone’s minds, I think in a way, he was also a mentor of mine. Many days, Jeff’s advice or evaluation of a situation I was in would start with, “You know, if Chris were here, he’d say…”. It spoke of how important their relationship was to each other and made me see the bigger picture in life. I was certainly a very literal thinker until I met this ‘dude’ Jeff, who made me value relationships and life a lot more.
Mentors just happen to come into your life naturally – at a time in your career when you need it most. Thanks, everyone for all of the sage advice and honesty. I hope to one day have the impact that you all had on me, on someone coming up who is figuring out their life and passion with a camera.
***A special thanks to everyone else who also made my time in Pittsburgh enjoyable and who were always helpful along the way including: Andy Russell, Jasmine Goldband, Michael Henninger, Rebecca Droke, Brian Henry, Pete Madia, Chris Horner, Chaz Palla, Pete Diana, Phil Pavely, Don Wright, Kevin Lorenzi, Evan Sanders, Ben Filio, Bill Wade, Jack Megaw, Barry Reeger, Lake Fong, Eric Schmadel, Guy Wathen, and Jason Bridge.