I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Zuppa, Senior Staff Photographer at The Penny Hoarder. He is regularly on the go capturing original moments and aerial shots (as a licensed drone operator) that help tell inspiring personal stories about entrepreneurship and debt payoff, and contribute to editorial features on interesting ways to save and make more money as published by The Penny Hoarder. He encompasses 15+ years experience as a professional photographer and his work has been recognized in POYi, NPPA, National Headliner Awards, among other notable awards and publications.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
There’s no real defining moment for me. It was a slow progression. I took photography classes in high school and college, but I didn’t realize that photojournalism was a career. I was inspired by the famous Farm Administration Security (FSA) photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks. During the Great Depression, they photographed the impact of the Great Depression on American lives for the FSA. Their work wasn’t photojournalism, per se. It was funded by the U.S. government, so a contemporary journalist would call it propaganda. But their photographs were an accurate portrayal of crisis and it helped inspire policy change intended to help people. That’s the goal of good photojournalism: to inspire change for the good. Many of those photographers also worked for the great photojournalism magazines like Life magazine later in their careers.
So maybe that was the defining moment — when I first saw those powerful images.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I visited Guantanamo Bay to photograph a profile about the place. It was a bizarre experience. The military keeps a tight control over when and where pictures are taken and they censor journalists pretty badly. It was one of the most restrictive places I’ve ever worked. Officials granted access to photograph morning prayer. I had to get up at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. to be escorted to the guard tower that overlooked the prison yard where prayer took place. The military didn’t want the inmates to know I was photographing prayer, so I was required to stay hidden in the tower until prayer began. It was so bizarre.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As an intern at the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, I was photographing a story about a scientist who studies fire ants. He was collecting samples. I wanted to capture a lower, more interesting angle, so I laid on the ground. When I stood up, the guy looked at me and I saw horror on his face. My stomach and pants were blanketed with fire ants. We used the photo, but it was a (literally) painful reminder to look where I lie down when going for a lower angle.
Or this one: This really isn’t a funny story, but it was very important to my career. I had just been offered my dream job at the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, after interning there for a year. Right after my job offer, I was assigned to photograph a very emotional story about a man who found a handwritten message left in a Pepsi bottle. The bottle was discovered 19 years after it had been tossed randomly off a pier by a seven-year-old boy. The note read: “To whoever finds this letter please write me a letter and let me know. Roger J. Clay.” The note listed the kid’s address. The boy died in an accident years later as a young adult. The Times told the story about the note, the boy who wrote the note, and the man who found the note. I photographed the man meeting Roger’s mother for the first time at a restaurant (Unfortunately, the story link doesn’t exist anymore.). It was an emotional scene because the mother was still grieving from Roger’s death. It was also an extremely difficult situation to photograph because I was using an early version of digital cameras that produced poor quality stills, the scene was backlit against a door, and the man towered over Roger’s mom and me; I’m barely 5’6”. So when the man and Roger’s mom embraced, they were in terrible light and her face was buried in his chest. I scrambled to find an angle that wasn’t backlit. I wasn’t ready with my flash and I didn’t think in advance about the height difference. So alas, I made a very bad picture of the hug. Right after getting hired!
I had a Journalism School professor who discouraged using flash. He thought that photography should be captured in natural light. I get his point. But I think the better lesson is to teach young photographers how to use a flash well. If I know I’m going to need a flash, I always have it ready. Just in case.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The Penny Hoarder is a digital publication driven by its mission to help people save and make more money. The company also cares about great visual storytelling. In an era when publications have cut back their investments in visual storytelling (even wiping out entire photo/video departments), The Penny Hoarder has created a very talented photo team. That makes good business sense. We are a visually savvy society. One study found that photos are the first thing readers see and react to, and readers can tell the difference between images taken by amateurs and professionals. Publications that wiped out their departments are losing readers and money. The Penny Hoarder is doing very well!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
When I was starting out I was told: It’s a marathon, not a race. There’s a lot of ups and downs in this profession, so it’s important to pace yourself. That’s hard to do as creatives. Here are three quick tips:
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There’s been a lot of people along the way who have helped me out, but one person sticks out in my mind. While in journalism school at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I wasn’t very confident in my ability as a photographer. I was taking a class from Rita Reed, who worked as a photojournalist. She’s now retired but she did some amazing, groundbreaking work at newspapers. She pulled me aside and gave me the encouragement I needed. She offered to help any way possible, which included landing me a prestigious internship. We all need a mentor or two like that in our lives.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
I’m working on a multimedia story about the oldest drive-in movie theater in Florida. There’s still a good number of drive-in theaters in the U.S. (several hundred), and they are an affordable place for middle class families to go see a movie. It costs about $14 (excluding food) for a family of four to see a movie, compared to about $50 for a brick and mortar movie theater. This type of story is perfect for The Penny Hoarder’s audience.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
One of the most rewarding stories I photographed and produced a video was about the plight Florida’s freshwater springs face. Florida has the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the world. They are a treasure and important tourist draw. But they are facing some real issues with toxic algae outbreaks from pollution and declining water flow from the aquifer being over pumped. The story helped draw attention to the issue.
Can you share “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Take Stunning Photos”. Please an example for each.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would not say I’m a person of great influence:) Far from it. I think one of the best photography ideas is already being done: Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton. It shows that everyone has an important story tell.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@chris.zuppa for Instagram
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Originally published at medium.com