A View From the Other Side of the Lens: John J. Lopinot
Coming from a background in photojournalism, Critical Linkages Photographer John J. Lopinot now struggles with the same overarching issue many of LINC’s photographers face: how do you share a story now that the newspaper business is slowly fizzling out? John grew up in a small town in central Illinois, with a father who was a biologist and a very serious amateur photographer. The dark room in his home provided inspiration for continuous shooting on the numerous vacations the family took to National Parks.
John was given his first story to document on a trip he took with his father to Alabama in 1965 on a tour of fisheries. What they found was the civil rights movement, and a spark for documenting that carved a path for John’s life. As a photographer for his student newspaper at Southern Illinois University, John was surrounded by student protests against the Vietnam War. “My pictures started getting picked up by the Associated Press and United Press International; they were transmitted out to the world and picked up by Time Magazine and a number of newspapers.”
By following the path of photojournalism John completed a Masters at The University of Missouri, School of Journalism, and an informative internship at National Geographic. John then decided he wanted to be a free-lancer. “I went to the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. This was back when there still were authentic hobos. I ended up on the road for 2 weeks with the ‘Pennsylvania Kid,’ also known as Richard Wilson. It was hard to get him to take me with him. I road rails, slept in boxcars, under overpasses, and in empty boxes, and drank out of puddles. It was really quite an experience. I came back, wrote the story, and packaged the pictures. In 1975 a lot of every big newspaper in the country had a Sunday magazine. I sent copies to 30 different newspapers and almost every one bought and ran it.”
From there John took his talent to Florida where he was offered a job at the Palm Beach Post, a paper with an excellent reputation for photography. John stayed there as Chief Photographer for 30 years until retiring recently because of the down turn of the newspaper business. While at the post John explains, “I did everything: I covered seven super bowls, I covered news in Haiti seven times, I went to Cuba twice and shook hands with Fidel Castro, I’ve been to the Bahamas diving with 200 sharks, I rode a mule to bottom of the Grand Canyon. As a photojournalist you have to cover everything. But my interests were really in nature and outdoor underwater photography.” Luckily, as a supervisor, John was able to bring occasional environmentally focused stories to the paper.
“It’s a challenge for me and a challenge for every photographer. We all like to consider our photography as art, the challenge to all of us is how do we show and explain the problems. People don’t want to look at ugly things.”
Since retiring from the Palm Beach Post John continues his photography, and teaches photography workshops. However, he explains that it is “more difficult today, not having [the newspaper as a] venue” to show people what is going on in nature. “The thing about the ocean is that most people don’t go underwater and recognize what’s happening underneath the sea. Sewage outfalls, turtles wrapped in plastic, there are all kinds of things I see during a dive. It’s hard now that I don’t have that print base, to contribute work and make people aware of this. It’s a challenge for me and a challenge for every photographer. We all like to consider our photography as art, the challenge to all of us is how do we show and explain the problems. I shoot these on land too. There are great blue herons caught in a power lines. But who will want that photo? You can’t put that in a gallery and expect somebody to buy that as art. But they are killed by the thousands. Occasionally Audubon Magazine will run it, and you’ll see it in a National Park magazine, but there are very limited sources to show issues today. People don’t want to look at ugly things.”
So what can we do to expose both the “Beauty and the Beast”? John explains, “In many ways maybe we can use social media to create interest in the problems as well as the beauty.” And this is where photography comes in: “Photography is real. First of all, to be a photographer you have to be there and confront the subject. Therefore you are more intimately involved. A photographer is a witness.”
“I try to let my pictures speak for themselves.” John did exactly this while shooting his Critical Linkages assignment, the Fisheating Creek Ecosystem. Fisheating Creek is the last free-flowing river into Lake Okeechobee. It is a landscape altered by ranching and the Hoover Dike system. With all the change, there is still beauty to be found in the area. John found gorgeous plants and animals, representing “Florida’s wild and biological habitat.”
People who visited the Fisheating Creek Ecosystem prior to the changes may see the ‘beast’ through John’s pictures as well as the ‘beauty’ that those new to the area would find. Through his participation in projects like Critical Linkages and the many talks he gives in his area, John continues to search for ways to tell the important stories of nature.
To learn more about John’s work and his workshops, you can visit his website at: http://www.johnjlopinot.com/.