Photo Journal: Chris Capozziello - A Brother's Love

  • CHRIS CAPOZZIELLO: A BROTHER'S LOVE

August 26, 2013

By Jim Colton

A brother’s love…there is nothing like it. 

Growing up, I had an older brother…although at times that fact could be debated…he didn’t always act like the elder. And as with any household, there was the sibling rivalry, the one-upmanship, bragging rights as well as the occasional fight. Who hasn’t had them with a sibling? But at the end of the day, there was a bond like no other.

My brother, Jay Colton, passed away three years ago. I miss him every day. He was a talented photographer and respected photo editor, and we both wound up on the same photojournalism path albeit via different routes. Having both parents in the business, I blame it on our DNA.

As brothers we shared rooms, clothes, ideas, philosophies as well as likes and dislikes on everything from music to food. He loved Uni (Raw sea urchin)…I can’t stand the stuff! He beat me at chess…I beat him at tennis. But we both had a love for photography and a passion for editing. He was a champion for many aspiring photojournalists and always gave back to the industry. Jay passed away while doing portfolio reviews at a workshop in Brazil. A champion...right to the end.

Chris CapozzielloChris Capozziello has a brother…a twin. His name is Nick. They too, shared rooms, clothes, ideas and philosophies. But Nick has cerebral palsy. It gave Chris reason to question; “Why does this happen to anyone?” “Why did it happen to Nick and not me?” This curiosity inspired Chris to document his brother’s ailment and is now the subject of a book he is trying to finance via Kickstarter. The title is “The Distance Between Us.” (See link below) 

It hasn’t been easy. According to Capozziello, “There’s risk that this in the end might hurt my brother. Recently I read the book to my family for the first time from cover to cover and Nick didn’t make it past page 25. He began to tear up, and then couldn’t stop crying. That’s something I wonder about quite a bit. Photojournalists want to show life honestly and in all of its realness. But, how do the people whose lives are being shared feel about a wider audience scrutinizing their lives? Are they scared? Ashamed? Embarrassed? Excited? Ambivalent?”

The images are intimate…and deeply personal. But they bring the viewer into a world that they normally wouldn’t see…and gain a greater understanding and appreciation not only for its debilitating effects but also the pure joy and humanity of how a family is dealing with it...together.

Capozziello grew up in Milford, Connecticut. His work has been recognized by World Press Photo, the Alexia Foundation and the National Headliner Awards. His clients have included The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, TIME, Newsweek, LeMonde, and the London Times Sunday Magazine. He has had exhibitions in solo and group shows throughout the United States and Europe. In 2012, Capozziello was the recipient of one of six National Press Photographers Association’s short grants which support community photo stories. 

This week, Photo Journal has a conversation with the deeply passionate and talented Chris Capozziello.

Jim Colton: When did you first realize that photography was going to be your calling? Did you have an “AHA” moment, or was it something more subtle?

Chris Capozziello: I’m not sure I can quantify any sort of singular moment when I realized I wanted to be a photographer; it was more of a process of finding my way to this point. There was a period in time that I look back on now when I began to find out the kind of photographer I wanted to be. During my junior year of undergrad at R.I.T., I had come down with a strange kidney problem and while the doctors were trying to figure out what was happening, I was very ill and decided to stay at school despite my inability to complete the work. I attended classes and while taking incompletes, I spent a great deal of time in the library, pouring over photography books. It was then that I felt a strong pull toward long form storytelling. The intimacy that could be achieved with a story in pictures was something that grabbed me, and I, or it, have not let go yet. Photography is like music and most of us have a taste in music. Yours may be different than mine. During that time, I developed a taste. 

Prior to this, I felt sort of aimless with where I might be going with a camera.

JC: The first time we met was in Amsterdam where “A Diary of Healing,” your story on Mary Ann Wasil Nilan who was suffering from breast cancer was recognized by World Press. Many of the judges and attendees of the award ceremony were both stunned and delighted that she was present during the awards. How is she doing? Can you give us an update on her situation?

CC: Mary Ann unfortunately had a recurrence and is currently going through chemotherapy again. However, she probably wouldn't put it in an ‘unfortunate’ light. Mary Ann is has always encouraged women to meet their problems head on and has been somewhat of a cheerleader, “turning lemons into lemonade” is what she would say. Since World Press, she started a non-profit organization; The Get in Touch Foundation (See link below) where she motivates women to be more aware of their bodies. I was on the board of directors for three years serving alongside her. Through her own struggles now, she’s still running the non-profit in Milford, Connecticut, and has been reaching the global community with her cause. 

JC: As long as I’ve known you, you have been an independent freelancer and didn’t hook up with photo agencies or wire services. What has that been like and how do you promote yourself and your work? And can you tell us a little about the organization AEVUM of which you are a founder member?

CC: The World Press Award really helped me to get started in freelance. I was introduced to a number of editors because of that and slowly, work started coming in. Prior to that, I was a barista at Starbucks for a few years after undergrad while I was working on Mary Ann’s story among others. 

I’ve decided to stay freelance in order to retain my own copyright, and more so, to have the freedom with time to work on my own stories. I sometimes question those decisions to not sign on with an agency (Although Contrasto in Italy represented some of my stories in the past). If I had signed on with someone as staff, life would be easier financially, but I don’t think I would be working on the stories that I’m doing now…and I don’t think I would be happy. Even as things are difficult financially, I wouldn’t change my decisions.

When you and I first met, I was 25, and feeling like I was on the edge of an industry wondering how to make my way in. Now, 7 years later, I’m still at it. When every January arrives, I sigh with some relief that I’ve made it another year and then wonder if I’ll make it through another. That’s all very humbling, and in some ways helps me to push on.

AEVUM came about right after World Press. A friend of mine met another photographer and they both started thinking aloud about how things were so difficult for us all and how that could be changed. Out of that conversation, the two of them called on colleagues who they knew well and who they thought might be a good fit for collaboration. When I came into the mix, I only knew one of the photographers and now I’m very close with the others. There is strength in numbers, but these things, as we’ve seen over the years, come and go. It’s difficult for a group of people to continue forward in a similar direction with a focus in mind. We edit together, promote one another and we have the interests of the group at the forefront. AEVUM is like family; we celebrate our accomplishments both personal and with our careers, we’ve grown to know one another beyond our pictures, and now many of our members are married and we’ve all come together to celebrate that in one way or another. 

I’ve always felt a bit awkward about marketing, but it’s something I’ve had to get over. Marketing, for me, isn’t about tooting any sort of horn in order to have everyone looking at me. It has become a way of sharing the things I’m doing and the current work I’m producing. Many times, the texts I use with my stories are adapted from blog posts I’ve previously written. I feel in many ways the blogging I did on my brother’s story shaped where the text is in the book. Contests are also a helpful way in keeping active and marketing my work, so that the community knows I’m still active even in the midst of a long term project that they may or may not know I’m working on. 

JC: A few of the stories on your website have accompanying multimedia videos. In our “new age” of photojournalism, do you see yourself doing more of these because you “have to?” 

CC: No. I’m a little skeptical when it comes to changes like this. Early on, when many industry professionals said that video and multimedia production was the future of photojournalism and that the still image was going away, it turned me off. I have no crystal ball to look into the future with, but back then, I felt that if the still image was going away, then I would too. 

What I respect about multimedia is that it allows us --the photographer-- authorship of our work. When I hand an editor my still images, they can reshape and mold the story, hitting different notes and emphasizing different points with their sequencing, size, and placement in a publication. A publication may want to highlight aspects of one of my projects or even an assignment that I think is less important to the story arc. With multimedia, photographers can enter more deeply into the conversation of what the story is, making us more of a journalist, and not just a photographer. So, I'm not more interested now in multimedia than I was ten years ago because I have to, but because it offers us more tools to tell our story. But, I’m a still photographer at heart, and can’t seem to get that out of my blood.

I created the multimedia piece for Mary Ann’s story in response to a job offer. They wanted to see if I could handle my self with audio, video and still images. I had not put anything together at that point and decided to give it a go with the help of a friend who showed me how to use final cut, and then left me to my own devices. 

With my brother’s story, I was asked, along with 99 other photographers, to show a short multimedia story at the LOOKbetween Festival three years ago. At that time, I wanted to show something new and started questioning whether or not it was time to explain that the pictures I had been showing some editors over the years were actually of my twin brother Nick. It was an uneasy decision, but now, I’m glad I made it. 

 

Shortly after LOOKbetween, I met Brian Storm, and he and his team have been extremely supportive, now working for three years on a longer form narrative of “The Distance Between Us.” Sometime next year MediaStorm will be releasing it. Stay tuned for that.

JC: With web based and social media becoming more and more prevalent, are you finding it harder to get your stories published in print? Are those magazines and newspapers still calling for assignments? And what changes have you had to make to satisfy the demand for internet based content or alternative publishing?

CC: It is definitely more difficult to get my stories published in print. Lately, some international magazines have reached out to publish my stories, but what I’ve found in the U.S. is that editors for magazine blogs are calling, wanting the content. Recently, some of those blogs have started paying for content, but what I’ve found is those licensing fees are equivalent to a day rate. For my first non-commissioned project that was published in TIME back in 2005, I was paid far more than a day rate for its publication. That payment did not come close to covering what I had spent on telling the story, but it put enough money in my pocket to help me continue on with my other work. 

What many of us are being asked these days in giving our work for far less money is an unfortunate response to our consumption of images and news. But, each photographer has to make up their own mind as to what is best for them. It’s hard to say no to a popular blog with a large readership, but publishing even in that context for free can take away from an opportunity to publish for pay elsewhere. I’m continually learning how to handle these situations and how I respond next year may be different than now. I wish there were easy answers, but as with other aspects of life, it’s more complex than most of us like.

JC: Some of your stories have gotten exposure through exhibitions and presentations. Do you find this to be an essential component in the new photojournalist’s tool bag? What other elements are essential for the photojournalist in today’s market?

CC: I have exhibitions of two of my stories and am currently building an exhibition of my brother’s. It’s always wonderful to share the work, but exhibitions are extremely expensive to make…and storing them is also an expense. 

There’s a part of me that feels if I’m not getting the work out to the largest audience possible, then I’m failing in a way. The exhibition is not the end. It’s become a part of what I do, but from year to year, I may have only one solo exhibition and a number of group shows too. 

The reason that exhibitions are important for me is that it shows a track record, an involvement in the industry, and a commitment to the work. I feel when I’m showing the work, I’m honoring the people who have let me in to make pictures, and in some ways being of service to the audience as well. At least I hope for that. 

For marketing, I think it’s first most important to know who you are and what you want out of the work you’re doing. I’m not interested in becoming something I’m not, and I know that for me, working on these longer form stories is what makes my heart pound a little faster. Part of marketing is letting people know what you’re up to via social media and taking part in the photography community by putting your work out there for competitions, group and solo shows etc. 

JC: I’ve always felt that your stories have had a very deep and personal resonance. What do you look for in a story before you dive in? What excites you about the process of spending an inordinate number of hours and days photographing a story through its fruition?

CC: The first thing that draws me to a story or an issue is the questions I have. I may have unhealthy questions as with my brother’s story: 

‘Why does this happen to anyone?’

‘Why did it happen to Nick and not me?’

These questions may be understandable but now, all these years later I realize that they’re unhealthy. What possible reason would bring comfort and bring answers as to why Nick suffers on a daily basis while I do not? I wouldn’t be able to share our story if I hadn’t moved past those questions, and really, I recognized early on that I needed to move past them, but didn’t feel I was able to. The photographs were a part of that process and so were the conversations with so many people. 

I’m working on a heroin story now. At first I had questions as to why this young woman, who grew up with a loving and caring family around her had gotten so mixed up in something so dark. After spending time with her and her family (Both together and separate) I found out that her pastor, from the age of 4 – 9 molested her. Her family found out much later and could not sue him civilly or criminally. Monica, the young woman, does not want to pursue charges. She only wants to move on with her life and get better. Meanwhile, the pastor continues to lead a church without ever having faced a judge or jury. 

Much like any journalist, one question leads to another and another and so on. We may not get answers, but we may gain insight…and this can be very beautiful. That’s why I keep poking and prodding with a camera – I hope to understand something today that I didn’t yesterday and hopefully add to the ongoing conversation. 

JC: Your very long-term project “The Distance Between Us” the story of your brother’s struggles with Cerebral Palsy, is gaining some momentum including a book that is about to come out. Can you tell our readers a little about the story and where the project stands at this point?

CC: On the heels of the book being published, this serves as punctuation for this story, at least for now. It is one that I never set out to tell. Long before you and I met, I had started making pictures of Nick. That came during a time when I was trying to understand the photographer I was becoming. Over the years, I started to realize that a growing pile of contact sheets and an archive of images I had not looked at beyond the moment I made them were becoming insurmountable. I think I was preoccupied with my other stories and didn’t want to see that there was something to talk about and share with my own life. 

When you and I met, I had his story in the back of my portfolio book with two other “Work-In-Progress” projects. Nick’s was titled “Living with Cerebral Palsy.” But even then, I knew that wasn’t the point – to talk about what it’s like to live with this disability. 

It took quite some time and I’m only here at this point because some very close friends and colleagues asked me questions about it, and gently lead me to a place where I could talk about my grief and my anger about it being him, and not me, who suffers. 

You see, for me, these stories are not about me, even though I see a part of myself in each of them. I didn’t want to make my brother’s suffering about myself and was afraid of what it would do to him and my family to be so open. It’s also a little unnerving to talk about my anger, but, in the end, if I’m walking into the lives of others, asking them questions and making them uncomfortable with the presence of my camera, then maybe it’s fair to do the same to myself. In this case, there’s something to be gained in sharing, not just for me, but for others as well. At least I hope there is. 

There is risk in all of this. There’s risk in failing and having said much without saying anything at all. There’s risk that this in the end might hurt my brother. Recently I read the book to my family for the first time from cover to cover and Nick didn’t make it past page 25. He began to tear up, and then couldn’t stop crying. He left the room and afterward said he has to live with this every day and that sometimes, it’s hard for him to hear me talk about it. 

With each incarnation of our story, I feel I need to introduce it to him carefully and slowly. I always ask him about what might be happening next, but sometimes when he sees what I’m showing people, it’s upsetting at the first look. 

That’s something I wonder about quite a bit. Photojournalists want to show life honestly and in all of its realness. But, how do the people whose lives are being shared feel about a wider audience scrutinizing their lives? Are they scared? Ashamed? Embarrassed? Excited? Ambivalent?

In telling our story, there are no doubt aspects left out, for only our family to know. We are after all, editors with a camera in hand. We edit in or out with our cameras by what we allow people to see within the four edges of our photographs. Then we edit what people get to see by what photographs we share. We shape our stories and present parts of them. 

JC: Our industry is undergoing enormous changes. Newspaper reporters are being asked to shoot pictures with their iPhones as their entire photography departments are let go, citizen journalism is on the rise, professional photography is on the decline. How do you stay focused and upbeat about our future? Are you optimistic about what lies ahead?

CC: I think that in some realms of journalism, like with smaller community newspapers, there is a real threat to the photojournalist. We’ve all grown up with cameras and some think that anyone can make a picture. That is true, but how effective are they communicating through pictures? The idea of putting a camera in a reporter’s hand is like telling the photographer to also pick up a pen and write a full story. Some of us can do that and do it well, but the people making these decisions to cut entire staffs are disregarding the craft of photography in the interest of saving money. I understand that, but I do not agree with it. 

It saddens me, and I know it saddens all photographers to see our colleagues losing their jobs. The only way I’m able to keep going without losing focus is by keeping my head down, focusing on the stories, and doing all that I can to keep in touch with editors so they know I’m still here, available for work.

JC: Do you have any last thoughts you would like to share with our readers or advice for the next generation of story tellers?

CC: I think the most important thing for young photographers is to find out who they want to be, and find out what that really looks like. Reaching out to others who do the things you’re drawn to can be invaluable. 

I’ve had a number of conversations with younger photographers lately about their perception of our industry versus the reality of it. They, like all of us, look at what’s being rewarded on a yearly basis. It’s not exactly a clear picture of what we all do day to day, but often those awards show us the personal sacrifices that many of us do in order to tell the stories we find most important. 

It’s also important for us to relay to the next generation how difficult it might be for them. I’m not convinced that it’s ever been easy to freelance in this business. I think every generation has their own set of hills to climb, and today, we have ours. Freelancing is rewarding, difficult, and humbling all at once. One minute the phone is off the hook with editors calling for assignments, and the next, you’re alone with a dull wind and passing tumbleweed. It’s just how it is. 

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Do you have a story you think is a good candidate for Photo Journal? Email your suggestion to: jimcolton@aol.com