A conversation with Scott Strazzante about Common Ground

I first met Scott Strazzante about 7 years ago standing in the dirt of a horse track after a million-dollar race. I didn’t know much about him or his work then, but he seemed like a nice guy. We met up for a drink this week in Boston while he was in town to shoot the NHL championship series, and he’s still the same nice guy I remembered. I’d seen his work over the past few years and become a huge admirer of what he does. He’s a skilled sports photographer, having photographed a number of recent Super Bowls, Olympics, and other big events, but his dedication to community storytelling through his work for the Chicago Tribune is what really sets his work apart. His 3-season effort to document different high school sports teams is well worth a look (though the website is a bit dated; here’s a 12 image edit of the first season following a girl’s basketball team, and here’s a short edit of a season following a men’s basketball team.) And check out his favorite photos from 2012 and 2011.

He’s received countless awards in the NPPA Best of Photojournalism contest, Pictures of the Year International, and the Illinois Press Photographers’ Association annual awards. His street photography, now exclusively done with a phone, has drawn 18,000 followers to his instagram account, but it’s his 20-year-long project documenting farmland that was turned into a suburban housing subdivision that has really taken the photojournalism community by storm. The work is a series of diptychs comparing life on the land when it was farm in 90s to when it became home to a number of families in the Willow Walk subdivision in the 2000s. The image pairings are surprising and emotionally charged, and have been published in National Geographic and Mother Jones. Now, Strazzante wants to make a book of the work (edited by Mike Davis, designed by Deb Pang Davis, and foreword by David Guttenfelder) and has a kickstarter as a way to pre-sell the book and pay for its creation. I’ve reserved my copy of the book, and you should, too.

We recently had a short conversation by email about Common Ground’s history and future, which you can read below.

dvafoto: Could you give just a basic overview of how the project came about? If I remember, you did a story about the sale of the farmland and then had an assignment in the same area of the new subdivision? It was only later that you noticed similarities in the pictures.

Scott Strazzante: In 1994, while working at The Daily Southtown, a south suburban newspaper, I was assigned to photograph Harlow and Jean Cagwin, as part of a story on people who raised animals in Homer Township, a mostly undeveloped area near Lockport, Illinois.

After my two hour shoot, I asked Harlow and Jean if I could come back and photograph them from time to time. They agreed and over the next 5 years, I would occasionally stop by for a visit.

In 1998, I moved on to The Herald News in nearby Joliet. The Herald News was a fabulous photo paper and I was encouraged to find stories to work on. I mentioned that I knew a pair of senior citizen cattle farmers and started spending a lot more time documenting the Cagwin’s daily lives. I photographed on the farm until July, 2002, when, a year or so after selling their land to a subdivision developer, the Cagwin farmhouse was razed just minutes after Harlow and Jean removed their possessions.

Several years later, I started to look for a subdivision family to document, but, nothing ever came of that.

In March 2007, I gave a talk at a College of DuPage photo class. After showing my farm story, a woman raised her hand and mentioned that she lived in the subdivision that was built on the Cagwin farmland. That woman, Amanda Grabenhofer, invited me to come photograph at her house on Cinnamon Court in the Willow Walk subdivision. I was excited to find a family to document, but, I was at a loss at how I was going to tie the two halves of the story together. My first shoot was during an Easter egg hunt on the cul de sac that the Grabenhofers lived on.

On my second visit, I photographed Amanda’s son Ben wrestling with his cousin while trying to tie each other up with a jump rope. That image reminded me of a photo that I had made of Harlow Cagwin struggling to lasso a two day old calf that had escaped out into a field. I put the two images together as a diptych and decided to tell the story of this piece of land’s evolution through pairings.

So, I first starting photographing in Willow Walk in April, 2007 with no real idea of direction and within a year the project was featured in National Geographic, was honored with POYi’s Community Awareness Award and Best Feature Video in NPPA’s BOP contest. Pretty crazy stuff!

After MediaStorm debuted Common Ground at Look3 in 2008, I have continued to document the Grabenhofers and their neighbors. I have made roughly fifty new diptychs since then, so, it will be cool to get some of those out there in the book.

Twenty years on the same project is impressive. It seems like you didn’t set out to work on the project for 20 years, but it just sort of happened. How do you keep things organized? Old notes and slides/negatives must have been all over the place before you started the diptychs.

I have photographed the project over a twenty year span, but, that is a bit deceptive. I photographed in 1994, 1998-2002 and 2007-present., so, it is, more like, a 13 year project over 20 years. The farm story was shot all on film and I have kept all the negative sheets in one big binder. The subdivison, which is shot on digital, was on a hundred cds until I finally organized them on several hard drives when I got ready to work with MediaStorm.

I heard Eugene Richards talk once about how disappointed he was with himself that he’s been shooting in basically the same style for decades (this was before The Blue Room). Is it surprising, comforting, disturbing, etc., that your style has stayed consistent enough to marry 20-year-old pictures with much more recent images? I’m still very early in my photographic career, but I couldn’t imagine putting some of my pictures from year 1 or 2 next to pictures from this year. Or perhaps, did you have to shoot in a particular way to match the style of the old pictures?

As a newspaper shooter, my images have to be accessible to a wide range of people with a wide range of visual literacy. In general, I try to not get too “creative” with my daily work. However, my street photography is a little more out there and, therefore, appeals to a more limited group of people.

Also, as a newspaper photographer, one day you are a sports shooter, the next day you are doing a food shoot, a magazine style business portrait and covering a house fire. You have no choice, but, to be a photographic chameleon. I haven’t ever thought about it, but, I guess, my story-telling style hasn’t changed much over the years, except, I don’t tilt my frames anymore, like I did back in the late 90s and early 2000s.

The one regret I have with the story is that I did the majority of the farm story on Mondays, one of my off days. At the time I did the bulk of the work, I was a single father of two young children, so, I didn’t have the flexibility to be at the farm on holidays or Sundays or other days that might have added a bit more depth to the Cagwin photos and given me more material to match up with the Grabenhofer photos. However, as a farm couple raising a herd of Angus beef cattle, Harlow and Jean never had much free time to do much and when they did, they were exhausted from their work.

I don’t know all of your work, but I think this is the only time you’ve worked with diptychs. Once you embraced that method, did you end up shooting to fill out a diptych?

The vast majority of my successful diptychs have come about when I just shoot without looking to match farm photos. Only two of the pairings were planned before hand. One was the aerial comparison and the other was shooting out of a second floor bedroom window in the Grabenhofer home to match a photo I had from the second floor of the Cagwin farmhouse. The rest happen when something I shoot on Cinnamon Court reminds me of a farm photo or I make an image that I really like and I pore through my farm negs looking for a match. I don’t really put much thought into the project as a whole when I am shooting at the subdivision. I photograph there like I do when I shoot any other assignment.

Basically, I have worked this like three separate stories- the farm, the subdivision and the evolution of the land.

You’re a newspaper photographer, and I know many newspaper photographers don’t retain the copyright of their images made for the paper. You’ve been able to license (I presume) these pictures in National Geographic, MediaStorm, and now use them in the book. What sort of arrangement did you have with the Tribune? How did you negotiate that arrangement?

After the initial assignment, this has always been a personal project. I worked most of it on my off days. However, wanting it to be published, I have made the work available to my employers for free in exchange for copyright ownership. This agreement started at The Herald News in Joliet when I made this deal with the managing editor Lee Trigg. When I was being interviewed at the Chicago Tribune in 2001, I mentioned this project and made the same agreement with Bill Parker, the AME of Photo at the time. If I hadn’t made those agreements up front, I highly doubt that I would have been able to get published in Mother Jones, Nat Geo or do the video with MediaStorm.

For me, this is a once in a lifetime project and for the rest of my work, I have come to peace with not owning my images in exchange for health insurance and other benefits.
I still self-generate almost all my stories and I do a ton of street photography when I am both on and off work, so, it is quite murky on which of my iPhone images I own and which the paper own.

$42,500 is one of the largest photo-related kickstarters I’ve seen, especially for one that doesn’t involve the creation of new work or travel. Where will that money be going? Why not go the traditional book publishing route, especially since the project seems to have a good deal of institutional interest or support (Nat Geo, Tribune Co., etc.)?

The $42,500 number came about from some quick math I did in my head- 1000-1500 books at roughly $20 a copy, editing and design costs, mailing the books to backers, thank you post cards, prints for backers and then, of course, Kickstarter takes 5% off the top and there are credit card fees that are taken out by Amazon. In comparison to other Kickstarter photo campaigns, I think mine is a much better deal. Instead of just supporting new work, my supporters get a book for $50, so, I am, basically, just pre-selling the book.

I did try to get Common Ground in book form through a traditional publisher, but, no one would touch a photo book project without me coming up with about half the cash. I couldn’t swing that. I guess if I keep searching maybe I could have found one that would have, but, I am pretty busy and wasn’t able to devote much more time to the process.

If all works out and I sell all the books, I will make some money off of the project, but at this point, I have made roughly 15 thousand dollars on Common Ground over the decades and that includes photo contest prizes. I figured it out at one point and I calculated that I have made about $1.70 an hour working on this. I hope no one gets upset if I make a little bit of money off of my hard work.

How have the subjects of the pictures (or their descendants/families) responded to the work? I imagine everyone in the pictures has complex emotions about the economics and emotions of the change in use of the land. How do the kids in the subdivision relate to what the Cagwins’ loss of the land and their home?

Both the Cagwins and Grabenhofers and their families feel honored that their lives have been given a bit of immortality. Harlow died last August and Jean expressed to me how much it meant to him to have his life documented and published around the world.

At this point, I don’t believe that the subdivision kids make a connection between me photographing them and the project as a whole. Overall, it just seems to be a normal occurrence in suburban America that homes on built on farmland and few, including the kids, even think twice about it.

What other plans do you have for the work? Exhibitions? Partnering with agricultural/housing/development organizations? Other educational efforts?

Once the project is funded, I am hoping to set up exhibitions around the country to coincide with the book printing. I haven’t put much thought into partnering with organizations because I don’t want groups to use my book as some sort of anti-suburban propaganda. For me, this is an unbiased historical document and is not intended to support a cause. I would like to keep it that way.

I have always been thrilled that so many photo teachers show Common Ground in their classes. Being part of the education of young visual documentarians is a huge honor.

Any other projects you’re working on that you’d like to share?

I am always working on stories at the Chicago Tribune and this year is no different. I still love to tell focused stories that have a bit of universality to them. Currently, I am documenting a 68-year-old man who is teaching etiquette to young residents of his apartment building as a way to stop the cycle of violence in Chicagoland.

How can people see more of your work or connect with you?

Shooting from the Hip blog, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Common Ground: The Book Kickstarter campaign

2 Responses to “A conversation with Scott Strazzante about Common Ground”

  1. Kai-Huei Yau

    Great interview on an inspirational project. Having seen it develop on APAD and then grow through the various other outlets has been a privilege and I hope the book comes together.

  2. JSP Visual Week In Review | 06.29.13 | JerseyStyle Photography

    [...] * Another good interview – this one with Chicago Trib photojournalist Scott Strazzante on his Common Ground project. [...]

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