Spotlight On Nick Oza

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TID:

Nick, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. 
This is such a powerful image. Can you talk a little 
about the background of the picture?

NICK: 

Back in 2006, then-Arizona Republic reporter Judi Villa, 
and I were shadowing a gang task force unit with Phoenix 
Police Department. The story was focusing on how Phoenix 
gangs were seeing an influx of members from Los Angeles. 
We were working in neighborhoods just south of downtown 
Phoenix when we heard from the police radio that shots had 
been fired in a nearby predominately Hispanic neighborhood. 

We were just a few blocks away from the scene. It was 
pandemonium. A man had been shot. He was lying in 
the middle of the road, dying of multiple gunshot wounds. 
His friends and family were hunched over him, begging 
him to not succumb to his wounds. 

I asked the detective if I could approach the crime scene. 
He said he would “take some heat,” but allowed me to take 
photos because it was such an important story. Then the 
detective told me that the man who had been shot was the 
same man who just 10 minutes earlier had refused 
to talk to me for our story. 

I approached the scene. The man’s mother screamed, "Oh my 
God, please don't leave me!" to her son, as she prayed over his 
body. But it was too late - he was already gone.

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TID:

This image is part of a larger story, can you tell us 
what was the origin of the story (how it was pitched 
and began), and how long you worked on it?

NICK:

The Republic’s Director of Photography, Mike Meister, put 
full faith in me as the new kid on the block. It is very important 
that your photo editors know your strength, instead of just 
seeing who is available during the shift (I have always been one
of the "street guys," so this assignment was a good fit.}

At the time, I was just three months on the job, and didn’t know 
the city’s neighborhoods well. Villa, who for years had reported 
and written about crime in the Valley, pitched the story about a 
resurgence of street gangs moving west from California to Phoenix. 
Officials were reporting that the gangs were more violent and more 
organized than before. So, we went with police for an 11-hour ride-along 
to document the growing problem. 

gangsearch1

Along the way, we made several stops looking for 
gang associates, and documented as the police 
responded to crimes related to the gangs – including 
a carjacking and a drug search in a suspected 
gang banger's car. Villa and I worked on the story for 
a week. Our work resulted in a front page 
Sunday story and an online slideshow.

While reporting the story, I kept in touch with Grace 
Villavicencio, the mother of Andrew Vargas, who had died. 
She allowed me to document her as she visited her son’s 
body at the morgue, the funeral home, at the cemetery 
where he was buried, and later, she invited me to her home. 

TID:

This picture below is very disturbing. Can you tell us what 
is going on here, and how you managed to get the picture?

NICK:

His mom called me on my cell phone and asked me if I wanted to join
her to see her son for the first time at the funeral home. It was the first time 
I became emotional and I said, "Are you sure?" When I went to the morgue 
the guys were yelling at me to get out but the mom said, "He's with me."
As soon as we got in the room I stayed behind. I was observing the scene,
and I started hearing a brother of the victim crying hard. This image was
when his mother was explaining what happened. Vargas said, 
to her son Kiki, "Look what happen to your brother. They were trying to kill 
you and now your brother is laying for you." It was such a surreal, dark, scene. 

I hid my face behind the camera so they couldn't see my emotion. 

morgue

TID:

One of the things I admired most about your coverage of this,
was how much you stuck with it. You eventually covered the 
funeral of the person who was shot. How did you gain access?

NICK:

It was simple, they actually called me to let me know about
the wake. I had earned their trust enough for them to call me.

funeral

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TID:

What was your approach to this story?

NICK: 

I wanted to tell the story of a mother’s grief from her 
point of view. Oftentimes, gang related stories are 
told from the point of view of law enforcement, and 
too often, the emotion behind the story – the gut-
wrenching grief of a family – is untold. 

I set out to tell that story. I immediately got to work 
to try to get to know the mother. Two days after the 
shooting, I returned to the street where the man died. 
I wanted to see where he came from, where he lived, 
who his family was. Neighbors directed me to his mom’s 
house. I knocked on the door, and made my pitch: I 
wanted to illustrate how Phoenix’s gang problems 
affected her family, and tell the story through their eyes. 

home

She said she remembered me as being respectful at the 
crime scene. She invited me into her home, showed me 
her son’s room, and talked with me about her son, and 
how he became a gang member. Since she was willing 
to tell her story, others were, too. That credibility allowed 
me to “work the streets” and find other gang members 
who talked with us for the story. 

TID:

Ok, now onto the image itself. Tell us what led up to the 
image, and what was going on in the moment.

NICK:

The crime scene was very surreal. 

Over the years, I have covered emotional scenes. I’ve seen 
people die in combat. I’ve photographed many murder scenes. 
But this one was different knowing that I had just spoken to 
the victim a few minutes earlier. (Later I learned from police 
that the man was not even the intended target. The gang 
members meant to shoot his brother).

On the scene, I heard two young men swearing and asking 
the victim to not give up. The mom was crouched over her 
son, crying. And the cops were trying to gather information 
from witnesses and the man’s sisters. 

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It was a very sad scene. What shook me the most was the 
way the mother was sobbing over the loss of her child. I’ll 
never forget it. She was cradling her son’s upper body, rocking 
him back and forth. As a father to a young child, I cannot 
imagine losing my child in an instant – and so traumatically. 

The memories of that day will haunt me forever. 

TID:

Were there any points of conflict or struggle during the 
making of this picture, and how did you handle it?

NICK:

The biggest challenge in getting this photo was getting the 
police to allow me to take pictures of the body. Because of the 
sensitive nature of the scene, I had to stress to the 
detective that the public had a right to know what was 
happening. While sad, the man’s death illustrated the point 
of the story: that increased gang activity was leading to more 
crime and violence in certain areas of the city.

At first, the detective would not allow me to take photos. After 
some back-and-forth on the issue, the detective finally allowed 
to me to shoot photos, saying, “I’ll take the heat.” And he later did. 
The detective also asked that I take only tasteful photos. I only 
shot half a dozen frames - the least amount of photos I’ve ever 
shot on any assignment. 

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Also some of the gang members and their friends were not happy 
that I was there taking photos. But as time wore on, they grew 
tolerant of me and didn’t get in my way. The lesson I learned there 
is that patience and respect will overcome almost any story. 

TID:

What was the reaction after the image was published?

NICK:

The images of that scene were very powerful. Response came 
in from within and outside of the newspaper, saying that the 
photos captured the mother’s grief. I heard from the family, 
police, neighborhood activists, and my peers. 

TID:

I'm sure this was a tough moment, and story, to work on.
What lessons did you learn from this experience?

NICK:

This story really instilled my belief that if you are honest, 
persistent and respectful, you can work your way into any story. 
When working on such sensitive stories, you often have only your 
gut to rely on – those feelings that tell you to either keep pushing, 
or stop pushing. 

ozamain

TID:

In conclusion, what advice do you have for photographers to
get access to such moments, and also how to handle it
once you get access?

NICK:

I love challenges and I am not afraid to fail. My success is based 
on all of the failures I’ve racked up over the years. My best advice 
to photographers is to allow yourself to fail. Allow yourself to push 
boundaries. Allow yourself to follow your gut feelings. Street 
photographers must work fast on their feet and make snap 
decisions that can either make or break access to a photo. 

Oftentimes, photographers get stuck in the mindset that they 
must quickly find photos and move on to the next assignment. 
But I work on the philosophy that photography is a craft – a 
means of exploration. Just work it and success will come.

As philosopher Muktananda has taught: if you are the master 
of dancers, all of the dancers will follow you. If you are the master 
of art, all artists will follow. But if you understand yourself, 
everything will come to you. 

TID:

You said, "I work on the philosophy that photography is a 
craft - a means of exploration." Can you please elaborate?

NICK:

We as a photographer are too often driven by the narcissistic values
stemming from competition. Instead of focusing on this, I think we need 
to explore and understand life issues more, as well as put yourself on 
the other side of camera (imaging yourself in the shoes of others).
 

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http://www.nickoza.com/

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2010/08/the-images-of-sb-1070.html

http://www.azcentral.com/community/surprise/articles/2010/04/07/20100407-parkinson-brain-stimulation.html

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Next week we'll take a peek into celebrity portraiture with 
this image of U2's Bono by Jay Clendenin of the Los Angeles Times.

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As always, if you have a suggestion of someone, or an image you 
want to know more about, contact Ross Taylor or Logan Mock-Bunting:

ross@imagedeconstructed.com 
logan@imagedeconstructed.com 

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