Evan Vucci: An Unfinished Photo

A profile of American photojournalist Evan Vucci.

@EvanVucci/Twitter

@EvanVucci/Twitter

I woke up still groggy from the red-eye flight I had just taken from Seattle to DC. It was quiet this early in the morning, I could hear the soft sounds of hurrying passengers’ roller bags and clicking heels. I needed something to fill my time. I sipped my coffee and clicked over to The Daily Collegian, an independent newspaper published by Penn State students including myself. The front page dawned an editorial titled “FOX News was right in supporting CNN.” with an accompanying image of CNN journalist Jim Acosta entrenched in a verbal battle with Donald Trump and a physical battle over control of his microphone with a White House aide. It wasn’t a breathtaking image by any means, but it was perfectly timed and beautifully pictorialized the situation in one frame. I scroll down and read the photo credit, “Photo by: Evan Vucci/AP”. I couldn’t help but smirk.  

I had started to notice Evan’s work everywhere I went. This one man has captured so many important moments and most people don’t even know his name. I know if Evan were here right now, he would be cutting me off and telling me that recognition isn’t what this job is about. Maybe that’s true, but how many people’s images grace the pages of hundreds if not thousands of publications weekly.  

Evan Vucci grew up in Olney, Maryland, a town just 45 minutes outside of DC. His mother was a secretary and his father a police officer. “it was a pretty blue-collar upbringing.” Vucci explained. “[My] parents divorced when I was young, and my mom raised me. I had a pretty normal childhood.” I asked Evan if living close to DC growing up nudged his career path toward photojournalism in Washington. “I think the last place I thought I would end up is political photography,” Evan told me as he walked outside of the Associated Press building. “When I went to college, I knew I wanted to be a photographer, but I wanted to get into fashion and move to New York. Photojournalism wasn’t even on my radar.” Shortly after enrolling at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1995 on a path to commercial photography Evan attended a lecture given by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Michael Williamson. In the lecture, Williamson showed his work and spoke of his travels all around the world while on staff with the Washington Post. “It had soul, it wasn’t just about making things look pretty. [And] every day is fresh and new, I thought what an amazing way to spend a life traveling the world and taking pictures.” Vucci was struck; right then he knew he had to change his major to focus on photojournalism.  

You could tell how influential Willaimson’s work was just by the passion in Evan’s voice. I completely understood. I didn’t tell him then, but Vucci’s work has the same effect on me. When I first started following him it wasn’t even a blip in my mind that I would want to be a political photographer. It wasn’t that I didn’t think it was interesting it just didn’t even cross my mind, I just always thought my path would take me to cover sports. Similar to Evan it’s what I enjoyed doing in high school, but hearing the stories and seeing the impact of his work has made me pause and look at what I thought I wanted.   

Vucci worked hard while still in college, finding work shooting sports for Reuters and an internship with the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. As his college career came to an end Vucci moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina and took a 30-hour-a-week position at the Fayetteville Observer. After about 3 months Evan began to grow tired of life at a small-town paper. Vucci headed off to Sydney, Australia to work for the International Olympic Committee as a photo manager during the 2000 Summer Olympics. “My job was to help photographers, I helped them mark spots and [did] whatever [else] they needed.” While working for the IOC at the aquatics venue Vucci was able to meet some of the world’s best photojournalists. “While I was there, I started showing my work to photographers I came in contact with.” One of those people was then Associated Press photographer Doug Mills. “He was like, ‘Hey when you get back to DC come to the office and show your portfolio maybe we can get you some freelance work.’” Once the closing ceremonies had commenced, Vucci headed to DC to meet with Doug Mills and the AP team and became a freelancer. This would be a launching point for the rest of his career.  

In 2003 the Iraq war started, Vucci was a freelancer working in DC for various clients at the time. He accepted a contract by the European Pressphoto Agency to cover the war from Baghdad. “I think everyone likes to hear war stories. It’s hard to explain, I kind of just looked at is as another assignment.” Vucci spoke through nervous laughter. “[I] approach[ed] it like anything else, be aware of what's happening, what the subject is and what’s at play here. There are safety issues involved but it’s always still about finding the truth, being accurate and making those storytelling images.” Vucci explained. I asked him what was going through his head while in such a dangerous place and Vucci shared with me the transition of emotions from excitement to caution. "Shit yeah, you’re scared. The only people who want to go to war are the ones who haven’t been before. When you first get there, you are excited, [that’s] because no one has ever tried to kill you before. Once you get older, grow up, and you have had [that] experience, it changes.”  

In late 2003 Vucci got a job offer from the Associated Press that would allow him to move back to Washington, DC. Vucci accepted the offer and has been working there ever since. One of Vucci’s most iconic shots came from Iraq while he was working for AP. On December 14th, 2008 Vucci was in a press conference with then-President Geroge W. Bush in Baghdad. The joint press conference was to announce the signing of a status of forces agreement, which allowed US troops to remain in Iraq. During the press conference, Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw a shoe at then-President Bush. “[It] was out of nowhere, we heard this screaming. I caught something out of the corner of my eye, turned, and got one frame off. It was this guy throwing a shoe at the President of the United States and screaming at him.” The next day the photo would run in papers across the world under headlines like “Bush Dodges Shoe” and my personal favorite, “Bush Puts the ‘Duck” in Lame Duck.” Vucci laughed, “At the time we just looked at each other and went, jeez, what just happened there? [Then] you have to start thinking about, okay am I going to be able to get out of this room with these images or am I going to be stopped by the Iraqis.”  

 Vucci’s job is to cover the political landscape in the United States. His position led him to follow around the 2016 Trump campaign. I asked Vucci about how accurate our perceptions were about the glamor in the White House and Washington. “It’s not [glamorous], it’s a grind. Its long days and it's stressful.” Evan shared with me what a normal day looks like for him. “Before you go to bed at night the first thing you do is clean off your computer's hard drive, charge all your equipment, pack for the next day, lay out your clothes for the next day then go to bed. Then wake up early for a call time where you’re going to have to be swept by secret service which means going through security screenings. So, if the president is going to leave his hotel at 7 am you’re going to be up and ready to go by 5 am.” The workplace environment is extremely competitive and if Vucci doesn't perform well he will know about it immediately. Vucci expressed the slim margins for error and the high-stress environment in this line of work. “Listen, is traveling on Air Force One cool, yeah, but at the end of the day you still have the same worries of meeting your deadlines and not making any mistakes.”   

The struggle for a work-life balance is real for Vucci, “You’re going to have to find a partner that is going to be understanding of what your life is going to be like.” Missing large events in his family's life have been hard, “I found out we were pregnant with our second kid when I was in Afghanistan.” Vucci has two little girls and a wife; they are extremely supportive, but the traveling is taxing. “During 2016 I was gone probably 260 days,” Vucci explained that not everyone has a good track record of keeping families together. “I have been lucky, it’s been important to me to try to hold it together.” Vucci complimented his wife endlessly and shared how important she is and how much admiration he has for her. “It’s about being present when you are home, not just going through the motions, but actually being present and trying the best you possibly can.” Vucci loves his family, “That’s the shit in life that truly matters. My kids don’t care if I can take a picture; they care if dad is there to go to the dance recital”  

But it’s not to say that Evan doesn’t love what he does, “It’s wild.” Evan laughed “I have seen all kinds of crazy things, I was there when a guy threw a shoe at the President of the United States, I was on the Trump campaign, I was there when Trump met Kim Jong Un.” Vucci has a passion for his work and tries not to dwell on the hardships. At the end of the day, Vucci says, “This is the best job in the world.” I asked Vucci what his defining moment in his career has been, his answer didn’t surprise me. “Maybe I'll be able to look back one day and look at the events I have covered, but right now I'm in the middle of it and I don’t know what defines me.”    

There are few times in your life when you will meet someone so humble yet compelling with such a captivating body of work like Mr. Vucci. He is the head down hard worker that is never finished, and that’s how it should be. He respects his platform and understands the importance of not forgetting history. His work allows us to be closer to the powers that be, allows us to feel the pain that others feel and experience some of history’s most exciting moments.