Interview with Marcia Lanzer Nighswander, associate professor
at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication.
What is your professional background?
I graduated from Bowling
Green State University in 1973 with a major in photojournalism.
My foundation classes in photography were taught by Professor
James R. Gordon. He has retired from teaching at BGSU, but still
continues to educate all of us as the editor of the National
Press Photographer Association's monthly magazine, News Photographer.
Prof. Gordon opened my eyes and mind to the visual world around
me. Bowling Green had only had a few classes in photography, but
they gave me the tools and taught me what it takes to be a photojournalist.
After graduation I worked as the only staff photographer for
the Review Times in Fostoria, Ohio. It was a great place to start
a career. We only had one of anything. One sports reporter, one
general assignment reporter, one features writer and one unisex
bathroom. Linda Swaisgood, another recent college grad, was the
features writer. We had a wonderful time coming up with stories
and working together. We maintained that friendship throughout
The editor of the paper was "Doc" Bordner, a retired
army sergeant. The freedom he gave us all to do our jobs made
that newspaper a wonderful first job.
After about a year and a half in Fostoria I moved to The Beacon
Journal in Akron, Ohio. A Knight-Ridder Newspaper where legendary
S. Knight was a presence in the newsroom.
Bill Hunter, chief photographer, hired me as the first woman
on the staff of about 10 photographers. During my ten year
stint at The Beacon Journal I won the award of Ohio News
Photographer of the Year in the Ohio News Photographers
Association's annual contest. The year was 1977 and I was
the first woman to win the award.
In 1985 my husband, Larry,
and I both accepted jobs at
the Cincinnati Post. I was staff photographer and he was
the assistant managing editor for graphics and my direct
supervisor. I think we proved to skeptics that husbands
and wives can work together on the same staff.
Three years later Larry accepted a job offer with the National
Geographic Society and against my better judgment we moved
to Washington, D.C. I had never wanted to move to a city, but
I have learned that sometimes you might resist the directions
your life takes you. It all works out better than you could imagine.
Soon after arriving in Washington I was hired by the Associated
Press as a staff photographer. I worked at AP with industry
legends. Toby Massey was my first boss followed by Bob Daugherty,
who is now the director of AP's State Photo Center. I learned
how to shoot news from AP photographers that Toby called, "The
best of the best."
As I look back over my 22 years as a staff photographer at various
publications, I was always the only woman. All the men were supportive
coworkers, but I wonder what the workplace would have been like
with more diversity.
Since 1995 Larry and I are again working together again at Ohio
University. He replaced Chuck Scott as Director of the School
of Visual Communication. I was hired as an associate professor
placing Ed Pieratt. Did you always want to be a photojournalist?
I grew up in Hamler,
Ohio, a village of about 500 residents. In 1969 when I graduated
from high school, my options were to be either a secretary, nurse
or teacher. These were the only jobs readily open to women. I
knew I didn't want to be a teacher. My sister, Lynette, was going
to be a nurse. She would make a better nurse than I ever could.
My mom was a secretary so that sounded like a possibility. She
always encouraged my sister and I to do whatever we wanted in
life. My dad showed me by example to try to do everything to perfection.
My maternal grandfather always told us to go build bridges. I
didn't end up building bridges, but I think he would have been
happy with the career I chose.
Bowling Green State University had a secretarial program. My
second quarter I got a C in shorthand. The grade wasn't because
I didn't know shorthand, but because the professor had a rule
that the girls he taught had to wear skirts to class. I wore a
a skirt that was like baggy shorts and I thought he wouldn't be
able to tell it wasn't a traditional skirt. I was wrong. He lowered
my B to a C. I guess in hindsight I should thank him. I searched
through the university catalog looking for something more interesting
to study. I found photojournalism. It sounded like fun and it
certainly has been. I changed my major and my life.
I asked my parents years later what they thought when I changed
my major. My mom said she had wondered what I would be doing to
make a living. The good thing is she never asked me because at
that point I really didn't have any idea about the different directions
and locations photojournalism would take me.
How different is it being in the classroom compared to the
It is very different. At Associated Press I was surrounded by
of the best photographers and reporters in the business. My
work took me to places including The White House, Capital Hill,
the State Department to Europe, Asia and South America. On assignments
around the world I met, worked and competed with some very talented
photographers. I spent very little time in the newsroom.
|When we decided to move to Ohio University
to teach I knew it would be a change, but I didn't know how
much of a change it would be. I had never had a job where
I was in one place all day. I got claustrophobia. I had to
go for walks around town to see some different scenery. Once
I realized the problem I dealt with it, but it took quite
a while to get used to a more sedentary lifestyle.
Classrooms are full of young people. Some don't even know how
to load a camera. It was a challenge to go back to basics and
try to remember what it was like not to know anything about photography.
I had to learn how to verbalize the process of picture taking,
putting into words what makes a good picture. For years when I
was with other photographers and we saw an outstanding picture
we would have a shorthand way of talking and just KNEW the picture
was special. Now I am constantly refining my ability to explain
a subjective process.
What advice do you give young women coming into the field
It is the same advice I would give to anyone considering photojournalism
as a career. It is very important to get a good foundation in
photojournalism. Attending a good photojournalism program makes
the process easier. Can you have a career without a degree in
photography? Sure, but it will probably take you longer to get
where you want to go without the specialized curriculum.
Most importantly marry someone that understands your love of
the profession. They might not share the profession but they shouldn't
be threatened or jealous of the time it takes and the variety
of experiences you will have as a journalist. I have seen so many
marriages fail because newspaper photography is not a 9-5 job.
Larry and I celebrated our silver anniversary this year. I remember
when my parents had their 25th anniversary and I thought they
were old. I guess we are too.
We regularly comment to each other what wonderful lives we have
had together. He has always been supportive of whatever time or
money it takes to do whatever I want to do and I support him.
It's been fun. I remember at one time we were considering buying
a rug for the house and both of us said, "Well, $20.00 is
a lot for a rug. Let's think about it." The next sentence
was, "I want to buy a new $1,000 lens." Both of us immediately
thought that was a very good purchase. We had our priorities straight!
Do you consider yourself a mentor? teacher? photojournalist?
all of the above?
In some way we are all mentors and teachers besides being photojournalists.
How many times have photographers helped each other on assignments?
Given feedback on their work? Helped a friend get a job? Acted
as counselor? One of the things I like about the profession is
whenever I meet another professional photographer we were automatically
friends because of all the things we have in common. I confess
I still have a hard time writing educator in the profession line
of forms because I still think of myself as a photographer. Maybe
I'll just return to writing photographer.
What was you favorite assignment with the Associated Press?
There were so many over the seven years I worked in Washington
it is hard to choose. Many days I would pause and say to myself,
"I can't believe they are paying me to do this." It
was just so much fun, but that certainly wasn't the case every
day! In general it is really a rush to photograph the president
of the United States. I traveled all over the world and someone
else paid the bills and the overtime. It was physically hard work,
but the experience was amazing.
The most physically challenging assignment was a trip to the
Middle East for the peace signing in the desert between Jordan
and Israel. It was something like six countries in four days.
We traveled with President Clinton from Washington to Egypt, Israel,
Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. These were 20-24 hour
workdays. That left little or no time to sleep. Regardless of
the sleep deprivation we all commented what a great experience
it was because of the interesting countries we visited.
I shot my favorite picture at the presidential debate in Richmond
Virginia. It has all
three candidates, Bush, Clinton and Perot talking at the same
time. It reinforces the chaos that surrounds a political campaign.
The photo was part of the AP's Pulitzer Prize for Feature
Photography in 1993. I think it ran in USA Today recently.
A student in my class asked if he could get extra credit if
he had seen the picture published this summer. I said sure
I would give him an A.
Marcy Nighswander/ copyright AP
Do you miss the high pace of DC?
We have been in Athens for five years. When we go back to DC
it is fun to be in the city again, but I don't miss the traffic
and the stressful environment. In Athens Larry and I had to get
used to people we didn't know waving at us. Someone would drive
by and wave and we would look at each other and say, "Do
you know that guy?" We finally got used to that and wave
at everyone too. Every once in a while when there is a big story
in DC, I get a little jealous that I'm not there. Or I might see
people I used to work with in the "well" in a hearing
room and I miss the action. But, I know teaching was the right
decision at the right time in our lives. It is good I miss shooting
because if I didn't I might not be an enthusiastic about the profession
when I teach. When I meet people who want to teach because they
are professionally frustrated I really don't understand their
motivation. I wouldn't want someone teaching students that didn't
have the same excitement about photography as the students do.
Are you seeing more influence of women in our field?
Definitely. More women are rising through the ranks at publications
and taking charge of photo departments. More than half the students
in VisCom are women. I think that has changed steadily over the
Where do you see newspaper photography heading?
Newspaper's usage of photography has improved so much over the
years. When I started in the profession photographers could count
on one hand the newspapers that respected photography and saw
it as an important way to communicate information. Picture pages
were rare and feature stories where the photographer and reporter
worked to put a package together were even rarer.
I judged the National Press Photographers Association/University
of Missouri Pictures
of the Year Picture Editing categories last year. I was surprised
at the number of story and picture packages that were shot during
the year. It was very impressive but I still see room for improvement.
I saw newspapers move from the traditional picture page to presentation
of words and pictures working together to tell the story.
The bigger question is whether newspapers will be around in 20
years. Maybe not. The best publication of pictures might be on
the Web. Publishing is changing rapidly. It is important photographers
embrace the new technology and become a part of the group of people
that decide how their work is going to be used and displayed in
What advice would you give someone who wants to shoot for
the wires? Be sure the photographer understands the lows can
be pretty low, but the highs are as rewarding as the profession
can get. They may be standing on a sidewalk for hours waiting
to photograph someone and in one split second they get a picture
that is run on the front of newspapers around the world. It was
always exhilarating to see newspapers on a newsstand with only
the picture I shot as the lead. AP and other wire services are
making more room for essays and picture projects. I know AP has
been for years. Digital technology makes the quick transmission
of pictures much easier to get.
How important is an education in photojournalism in the newspaper
Most newspapers require a college degree. I hope it is important
or I'm wasting my time teaching. After teaching for five years
it is rewarding to hear from graduates. I get notes, and email,
from former students telling me of their latest projects and thanking
the VisCom faculty for their education. I guess I am making a
difference in their lives.
What would you still like to do with your career?
I never would have imagined I would
travel and do what I have done in my life. Seeing the things
I have seen and photographing the history I have witnessed.
Life has it's twists and turns and they all seem to be
for the better. I have never planned a certain path this
far so I'll just
see what opportunities might come up.
Photography is multifaceted field and I am still learning. I
have a Holga,
a simple plastic camera that shoots 120 film. I am using it to
photograph Washington, DC and the road by our house. That has
been challenging and fun because it forced me back into the darkroom.
A Nikon Coolpix 950 and an article enticed me to explore using
the digital camera to take infrared pictures. I have an Epson
2000P printer. So while I still cherish working in the darkroom
I am also exploring the range of new technology. Larry and I travel
to a National Park or two each summer to take landscape pictures.
After doing this for several years we are starting the get a pretty
So, I guess I am bouncing back and forth between old and new
technology, but no matter what the means of delivery it is still
thrill to have a life that continues to focus on photography.