Who is this guy?

July 21st, 2010 | Photojournalism |

Michael Zamora is a staff photographer for the Corpus Christi Caller Times. In June he was asked to produce an audio slideshow on veteran and recently retired photographer George Gongora. Michael reflects on their first meeting and writes about the touching retrospective he produced.

Who is this guy?
That’s all I could think when I first met George Gongora. I was interviewing for a job at the Caller-Times and was asked to sit next to him and watch him work as I waited for the next editor interrogation.

I don’t remember what we talked about, just remember asking myself that question. For years I’d worked with photographers around my age. Suddenly I was next to a shooter from a completely different generation as he pounded the keys and fought with Photoshop. It was like watching my father trying to tone a photo, and my technologically challenged dad can’t tone a photo to save his life.

Who is this guy?
As I got to know George, I developed a respect for his work and his connection to the readers. He cast a shadow across the community that I felt from day one.

Everywhere I went I heard the same question: “Are you Gongora’s son?” I should have said yes. I would have gotten much better access those first few months.

After nearly 44 years of covering his hometown, photojournalist George Gongora retired from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in June. He left behind thousands of images and countless stories about how he got them.

The connection he had with the community didn’t go unnoticed by the editors at the Caller-Times. His final day was celebrated with a front-page story spanning his career as a trailblazer and relentless photographer who knew how important his role was to the readers.

Part of that package was an audio slideshow that I was tasked with creating. Daunting? Yes. The man had been working as a photojournalist longer than I’ve been alive. The plan wasn’t to cover his entire photographic career, but to pick a few photos with interesting stories and have George talk about them.

“This is embarrassing,” George said as I led him into an empty office for an interview. Honestly, it was awkward for me too.

George has always been a private man. He didn’t like it when people made a fuss over him. It was a sharp contrast to his community persona. He was a photographer who didn’t take no for an answer; a journalist who would often put himself in peril to get a shot. He crossed police lines, fell off bridges and helicopters, and ignored roadblocks, all to get the picture. He did it because he always considered what he did a public service.

But as the end of his career loomed, all George wanted to do was quietly slip out of the office on his last day, without any fanfare. Because of that, much of the planning for the story was done without his knowledge. Dozens of George’s photos and newspaper clippings had quietly been pulled from the archive in anticipation of his retirement.

By his second-to-last day on the job, though, the cat was out of the bag. George now found himself sitting at a table full of his photos with a microphone pointed at him. Visibly uncomfortable, George sat down as I started setting up to record.

“Where did you find this stuff? Unreal!” he said with a big grin. Any resistance he had quickly melted away as the memories washed over him.

His stories were almost unbelievable. When he started speaking in German in the middle of one of his stories, I once again found myself asking; “Who is this guy?”

I asked about how he felt about leaving the Caller-Times, expecting to get an answer about being ready to retire. Instead, he compared it to breaking up with the love of his life.

“Damn, it hurts,” he said. “Man, I miss it so much already.”
Those words stuck with me as I sat behind a computer that afternoon putting together the slideshow. I knew I couldn’t just throw down words over photos and call it a day. Fortunately all of the pieces for the story came together pretty quickly.

Unfortunately it all got handed to me the afternoon before the story was going to be published. I didn’t have a lot of time, but I was going to make the most of the time I had. His stories were pretty lengthy, but a lot of his tone and pace were important. I edited down each segment as much as I could without losing the flavor of each story. I enlisted the help of our archivist, who pulled some extra photos from George’s career to round out the slideshow.

I only used about half the stories he told, but I thought the ones that made it in were diverse and captivating. One of my favorites was the story of George’s favorite photo. It was the first time the newspaper ran a color photo, and George made sure it was a good one by shooting an eye-catching feature of a naked boy rushing to get into a kiddie pool. There’s no way I could get away with shooting something like that today, I thought. Unfortunately we couldn’t find a color print of the photo. All we could find was microfiche file.

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I got so wrapped up in the production I missed George’s going away party. I wanted to be there, but I couldn’t pull myself away from the editing the audio slideshow. By the time I was finished, the party was over. The time I spent on the audio slideshow was well worth it, though. More importantly, putting together the slideshow helped me finally answer that burning question: Who is this guy?

George Gongora is just an ordinary man with an extraordinary amount of passion. He has a passion for photography and a passion for his community. And George is definitely still on the community’s mind these days. After the story ran, people were constantly asking about him, and once again about my relation to him. But the question wasn’t “Are you Gongora’s son?” Instead, it was “Are you Gongora’s replacement?”

“No,” I answer. “There’s no replacing George Gongora.”

Michael Zamora has been a photojournalist for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times since August 2007. He was named the class 3A Star Photojournalist of the Year in 2009 and 2010 by the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors. The 2001 University of North Texas graduate has previously worked at The Morning News in Fayetteville, Ark., and the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle in Cheyenne, Wyo.

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