San Francisco Chronicle, Photography, Journalism, Photojournalism

Carlos Avila Gonzalez speaking at the University of San Francisco, Photograph by Nevdil Çankaya

By Brandon Keller

Carlos Avila Gonzalez, a Staff Photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle, stopped by the University of San Francisco’s Master of Arts in Professional Communication program last week to share wisdom from his impressive career. Since 1997, his awe-inspiring work has helped the Chronicle become a force in multimedia reporting. With the rise of digital technology and today’s rapid news cycle, audiences need a reason to connect with a publication’s pieces. Because of Carlos Gonzalez’s expert brand of photojournalism, readers keep coming back for more.

Most people don’t always think about the hours of planning and attention to detail that go into photographing a news story. However, Carlos uses his passion for storytelling and artistic vision to capture the moments that bring his images to life. Here is just one brief example from Carlos’ prolific output, which I’d highly recommend your browsing: his 2017: The Year in Pictures (published by the San Francisco Chronicle).

When looking at his photographs, I instantly noticed the peoples’ expressions. The phrase, “a picture can say a thousand words,” is on display throughout this photo essay. It’s almost as if I can feel the same emotions as the people in the images, as if they are mirrors of myself, and that’s a signature achievement of the best photography. As a huge fan of the Warriors, the photograph of Steph Curry kicking his leg upwards brings a smile to my face. To me, that shot is one of the most iconic images of last year’s NBA Finals, and Carlos Gonzalez happened to be the photographer who sealed that moment in history.

I couldn’t believe that my graduate program’s guest speaker had photographed the moments that helped make the 2017 NBA Finals special. During his talk, Carlos said, “I love the actions but the reactions are even better.” Any experienced sports writer can produce a well-written recap and analysis of a game. However, Carlos has the skill and awareness to take a photograph that perfectly illustrates the triumphant vibe felt by Curry and every fan in attendance at Oracle Arena.

Aside from sports, Carlos recently covered the story about the Oakland Nurse, Maria Mendoza-Sanchez, who was told by immigration officials that she and her husband would be deported to Mexico. Despite having lived in the United States for over two decades with no criminal record, she was driven out of the country by the Trump administration.

The photograph of Maria Mendoza-Sanchez talking on the phonel, and the one with her hand resting on her forehead invite the reader to understand the pain she and her entire family felt. As a photojournalist, Carlos made sure not to impose himself during an incredibly sensitive and stressful situation for the family. He kept his distance, he explained, but did respectfully ask to take photographs and upon receiving consent wasted no time recording what has become an emblematic moment in a deeply divided time in our country’s history.

If you read the article on Maria, you know that Carlos’s photographs perfectly capture the despair at the heart of the story. However, Carlos doesn’t just show up with a camera to take pictures; he strives to understand the context of what he’s shooting. Journalists should understand why they are covering a story, he explained. This practice helped him develop his craft as an effective storyteller who communicates not only facts, but emotion, context and socio-historical significance. The most successful storytellers find a way to share something that gives the audience a reason to connect with a piece while at the same time engaging with the relevant or universal.

Throughout Carlos’s talk, I gained the impression that he knows pretty much everything about telling a good story through photos. He is a master craftsman and something of a one-person band, often shooting his subjects with a variety of cameras and lenses, remote cameras and drones, all of which he can adjust with lightning speed to bring out a certain desired effect. He is  a listener and an observer and a connector with people, able to arrive at an assignment and quickly pinpoint the core human narrative that exists there.

While he’s been shooting photographs obsessively since he was fourteen years old – that annoying kid, he told us, who brought his camera everywhere – he is also always learning, always adapting to new tools and new technology and new possibilities that the ever-developing digital landscape bestows. He told us that journalists and storytellers of all stripes need to be ready to learn on the fly if they want to develop their craft. And he emphasized that photographers should always give the viewer something interesting – a new angle, a new perspective, an unexpected detail or series of details or interaction, a thought-provoking juxtaposition, a compelling composition or use of light – whether you’re covering the eclipse or sports or a natural disaster; just look for features in beautiful and terrible things as often as you can. Always pay attention to details, he said. It’s the details that breathe life into journalism, that animate the visual world, and if you can open your eyes to them and capture them in interesting ways, you’re on your way to being a captivating storyteller.

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