Stephan Savoia ‘75, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Associated Press, had his first published picture appear in SUNY Potsdam’s college newspaper, The Racquette, in 1974. “I know that’s where the printer’s ink got into my veins, that’s where I caught the bug,” he told a group of students last semester during a visit to campus. The small photo of a bus driver would prove to be the first of many images published all over the world as part of a 40-year career in photojournalism.
After graduating from SUNY Potsdam with a degree in sociology in 1975, he went on to get his master’s degree in journalism from the prestigious photojournalism program at the University of Missouri. “I’m very indebted to this institution (SUNY Potsdam), as [well as] Missouri. I would not have been able to enjoy my life and my life’s work without having come through those two experiences,” Savoia said.
Since then, he has gone on to document the lives of people all over the world—reaching over one billion people through his work with the AP. He has photographed the Olympics, the 25th anniversary of Woodstock, the Super Bowl, the aftermath of 9/11, Somalian refugees, the Boston Marathon and presidential campaigns as far back as Ronald Reagan’s second run for office. “I’ve covered politicians as varied as David Duke, who used to be the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, to Bernie Sanders,” he said.
Many people know Savoia’s work without even realizing it. In 2009, he covered Michael Jordan’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame—capturing an image of him crying that went viral. The “crying Jordan” meme is now used to mock losing sports teams by superimposing it over athletes or coaches who lose big games. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Savoia about the trend last year and he was not aware that the image had gone viral. Despite the social media craze surrounding the image, he said it’s far from the most popular or most important photograph he’s captured.
In 1992, he spent 13 months on the road with Bill Clinton during his presidential campaign, later winning a Pulitzer Prize, along with nine other AP photographers, for their collective coverage of the campaign. He received another Pulitzer for his coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Clinton’s subsequent impeachment hearing in 1999. “Bill Clinton doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry when he sees me coming,” Savoia joked.
One of his most widely circulated images was a photograph of Clinton and Boris Yeltsin sitting in wooden chairs overlooking the Hudson Valley in Hyde Park, New York during the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. The image provided a unique perspective of the two world leaders that Savoia transmitted around the world 10 minutes after he shot it. The next day he went to the newspaper stand at the U.N. and he saw his photograph on the front page of more than 100 papers from around the world.
After his extensive coverage of Clinton on the campaign trail, he was asked by two of Clinton’s staff members if he would be interested in potentially working as a White House photographer. He turned them down only to have Clinton reach out to him directly. Three weeks after the election, Clinton personally discussed the idea with him. Savoia told Clinton that he was very honored to be considered for the position, but that he’d rather be a news photographer. “I like being a journalist, I like being able to cover a lot of different stories, to do a lot of different things,” Savoia said while recently reflecting back on his career as a photojournalist.
His direct and affable personality has helped him gain respect from his subjects—both Democrats and Republicans in the political sphere. He wears a peace sign earring and is very vocal about his political leanings, but he always aims to be fair and honest in his coverage. “When I go out every day I try to do the best job I can. I’ve never promised anybody that I would be objective. I’ve in fact told subjects like John McCain and Bill Clinton that if a journalist comes up to you and says they’ll be objective, you need to run, flee and scurry away from that person as quickly as possible. Because quite frankly—and I learned it right here at this campus—objectivity does not exist in the empirical world. All we have is consensus and subjective opinions,” Savoia said during his recent trip to campus.
Savoia could be talking to a barber, a famous musician or the president and he seems completely comfortable in every circumstance. While covering a press conference at Walkers Point in Maine, George H.W. Bush called him over to shake his hand and introduce him to Laura. “He loved the photographers, even though sometimes the photographers made him look bad, he loved us. He was chewing my ear off for about five minutes and finally I looked at him and said, ‘Mr. President, I’m sorry, but in case you didn’t notice, there are two world leaders up there and I got to get back to work,’ and I hear Barbara go, ‘George let him go.’”
Despite having images appear in newspapers around the world and winning two Pulitzer Prizes, if you were to tell Savoia that he’s a great photographer, he would not agree. “I’m at best a mediocre craftsman, but I think I’m a pretty good journalist. I use photography as my pen and paper. I communicate visually and the beauty that I find in communicating visually is that I can move past barriers of language and culture and ethnicity.”
In 2000, he had the opportunity to break through cultural and language barriers when he photographed the Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic, something he had dreamt about doing for 15 years. When Canada chose to give back the portions of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon to the Inuit people, he convinced the AP to send him to northern Canada. He hopped on a plane for Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut—1,750 miles from D.C. where he had been covering Clinton’s impeachment trial.
He spent the next three months immersed in the Inuit culture, sleeping in an igloo and even eating polar bear, a staple in their diet. After making some connections, he boarded another plane, this time a small ski plane that brought him to the remote Arctic ice flow. There, he spent several weeks documenting the lives of Lypa, Annie, their six children and one grandchild living off of the rugged landscape. He traveled by dogsled out to Lypa’s fishing grounds and join him on a seal hunting expedition.
“The majority of what I do when I’m on assignment is [that] I’m in a completely uncontrollable environment and I’m trying to make sense out of chaos. I kind of lean toward the Walker Evans sense of composition, really precise composition … and it’s so hard to do in a world where things are changing all the time,” Savoia said. “My life has taught me that I prepare for the worst, I hope for the best and that enables me to deal with anything in between.”
At 64, Savoia is starting to think about retirement, riding around his motorcycle and getting back to using his favorite classic Leica film cameras on a regular basis.