Name: Monica Lopossay (pronounced “low-PAH-say”)
Occupation: freelance photographer
Years in Baltimore: 10
New York Times front-page photos: 7
Pulitzer nominations: 3
Since 2001, Monica Lopossay has made her home in Baltimore, where she works as a photojournalist. It’s a job that lures her to curious places, like a garden party in Owings Mills last month, with Prince Edward as the guest of honor.
“There were moments he was in a sea of people, left completely alone with nobody to talk to, and just standing there fidgeting,” Monica recalls. “I felt really bad for him, but it’s not my job to make sure that Prince Edward feels comfortable at his party. I’m supposed to document the event.”
Even in semi-awkward professional instances like this one, Monica never seems to fall from her element. She’s come far from where she started in rural Durham County, North Carolina, though, according to Monica, it’s precisely her country roots that allow her to keep her cool in any situation. To see people as, well, just people.
“[My roots and my trajectory have] made me a social chameleon. Through jobs and through school I got exposure to middle and upper classes. But I’ve also got my upbringing. So I’m not surprised by much of anything.”
FROM THERE TO HERE
Her camera obsession began at age nine, when she watched a National Geographic nature special on her family’s 13-inch black-and-white television. “It was so rural out there [in Durham County] that PBS was the only thing that let you know that the world was round and not flat,” Monica remembers. “I was watching something with lions in the Serengeti, and I was like, ‘Whatever these dudes do, this is what I want to do.'” The camera panned to follow the movement of the lions, and a photographer was briefly brought into view.
Inspired, she begged her father to buy her a camera. He got her a Polaroid. It didn’t remotely resemble the one she’d seen on television, and at first she was disappointed. “I was like, ‘What is this?!’ I was an ungrateful little impoverished brat,” she jokes. Nevertheless, she fell in love with photography and snapped pictures constantly.
Despite her devotion to the craft, taking photographs professionally never seemed like a reachable goal. “I loved taking pictures but I could never ever imagine in a million years somebody would actually pay me for being a photographer; that was insane,” she says.
Aiming for a degree in something “practical,” she enrolled in Guilford College’s Cultural Anthropology program. A remark from her advisor, upon seeing some of her photos, changed her educational trajectory, in another flash.
“He said, ‘These are your photos?'” Monica recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘But these are great.’ I’d never really heard that before. Then he said the magic words: ‘These look like they should be in National Geographic.’ Now he’d really gotten my attention. He said, ‘I think you should pursue this.'” Monica took his advice and left Guilford after her second year.
After an unfruitful summer in New York City, and going back to school in North Carolina, she landed an unpaid internship at The Baltimore Sun.
In 2001, The Sun offered her a full-time job as a staff photographer. She took it, and launched a career in photojournalism that would take her all over the world, but always bring her back to Baltimore.
BALTIMORE AND BEYOND
After eight years on staff at The Sun, Monica was laid off and began freelancing, taking photos locally and for The New York Times. To date she has shot seven Times cover photos (counting online multimedia), including last Tuesday’s cover shot of two Tea Party lobbyists.
Publications will contact her when they’re running a story about the Baltimore area, like the recent hubbub over Harold Camping’s rapture prediction, or the funeral for William Donald Schaeffer. “The New York Times called me at 10 in the morning and said, ‘We want you to go out and photograph all the things William Donald Schaeffer succeeded at in Baltimore City, and all the things he failed at. And we need these photos by 2 p.m.'”
ABOUT THOSE PULITZER NOMINATIONS
To get to the heart of her stories, Monica often spends hours and hours with the people she photographs. Sometimes this dedication requires many repeat days of photographing, like it did in 2004 when she spent four weeks living in 12-year-old R.J. Voigt’s hospital room at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center for a series of articles in The Sun, called “If I Die,” about palliative care for terminally ill children. Occasionally, her dedication leads to a Pulitzer nomination, as it did with this story.
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
Even though she now brings Baltimore to the rest of the world, it’s her country upbringing that allows her to feel comfortable anywhere, from covering the war in Iraq to the effects of that war on poverty-stricken homes in Tennessee.
In one particularly impoverished home, Monica took several compelling photos (including one of a child pointing his father’s bazooka at his younger brother), while the reporter made it only so far as the living room before leaving and refusing to reenter for fear of disease. “That’s not typical of my experience with reporters,” Monica notes.
And of course, her social ease comes in handy at the Prince’s garden party as well.
“[Edward would] kind of like look in my direction, but he also knows he’s not supposed to talk to me; I’m the hired help. He was so desperate for someone to talk to. It’s like he’s about to say something like ‘Cheerio, lovely garden.’ Then he realizes, ‘Oh, it’s just the photographer.'”