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ExPress Spotlight: Baltimore Sun photographer Gene Sweeney

He covered the Cuban boat lifts, murders, bridge collapses and two Super Bowl victories, yet he didn't graduate from journalism school and never interviewed for the photographer's job he held at the Baltimore Sun for 30 years.

Gene Sweeney retired from the Baltimore Sun last week. He came to Baltimore in 1983 after working for a pair of newspapers in Florida. Born in Bismarck, ND and raised in Minneapolis, Sweeney covered the last championship for the Baltimore Orioles, the stunning departure of the Baltimore Colts and the re-emergence of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in his first few years on the job.

After nearly 35 years in print media, Sweeney, 59, spoke with ExPress News about the highlights and lowlights of his career. Sweeney also discussed what he would do differently and his thoughts on where print journalism is headed.

ExPress News (EN): What brought you to Baltimore and how long did you work at the Sun?
Gene Sweeney (GS): I worked at the Sun from July 31, 1983 until last Friday, but I never interviewed at the Sun. I was part of a group of 85 staffers in Jacksonville who walked out on the job when Billy Morris from Morris Communications took control of the paper. Back then, some of his ideas were counter to what journalists believed. For example, he wanted business reporters to write pro-business stories to sell them to the businesses he was writing about. Today that’s quite common.

My editor, Ken Paik, who died in 2006, came to the Sun from Jacksonville in March 1983 and then brought me up in July. He told me he was going to bring me up here whenever he could convince the Sun to allow him a first hire. When I came to Baltimore, Ken showed me around and introduced me to everyone as their new photographer, so I never had to interview for the job.

EN: Where did you attend journalism school?
GS: The University of Minnesota, but I’m not a graduate. I was offered a job – my first job – at the Bradenton (FL) Herald while I was still an undergrad and I accepted it. My brother, who worked for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, told me I was in college to get a job, and I had one, so it was time to go. I’ve never really looked back.

EN: After landing your first job, what happened next?
GS: Nine months after I got my first job, I got a call asking if I would join the Florida Times-Union, which I did. That was in 1980, when the Times-Union was the morning paper and the Jacksonville Journal was our afternoon paper. Like many afternoon papers, the Journal went out of business, but the Times-Union is still there.

EN: What stories do you remember most from your career?
GS: I have four stories that I remember more than any others. Bradenton was a sleepy little town where nothing ever happened, but while I was there myself and another reporter covered the Cuban boat lifts, which was a big national story. Back in those days, our boss wanted us to compete with all the major papers in Florida, so we were this little paper that could.

The second big story was the day I was driving out to Anna Marie Island when I happened upon a drug murder. Apparently, a family of five had picked up a hitchhiker, put his bicycle in a boat and this person ended up shooting all of them. I’ll never know if the family was involved or just bad luck, but I was literally the first person on the crime scene. I had pictures of the family killed, the blood-soaked car, just a gruesome scene that I’ll never forget.

Tim Bitney, my boss, was very big on graphics, so after I covered a standoff where police shot a guy all to hell, we ran these huge pictures on the front page. We were covering stories that papers with 30,000 in circulations never covered and still don’t, but we did.

Finally, we had an old joke in Bradenton which went like this: “I’ll see you tomorrow if the Skyway Bridge doesn’t fall.” I was covering the boat lifts, and I’m sending my pictures back on the old laser machines. So I called the paper to let them know I was sending my pictures and they said, “Don’t bother – the Skyway Bridge fell.”

Two days later, when I returned from the boat lifts story, I spent the next three weeks on and off a Coast Guard cutter while all the vehicles which were submerged in the water were recovered.

So much for a sleepy town where nothing happened, huh?

EN: If you were 20, what is the piece of advice you can offer photojournalists?
GS: Video is where it is at. Proficiency in shooting video and processing it is really the key. It’s the new skillset every photojournalist has to possess. My last assignment for the Sun was an IndyCar race in Ohio. I was shooting the cars and drivers in advance of the race here in Baltimore. The accreditation process was all very fair, accommodating and professional, but all the attention was skewed toward video. It spoke to our TV culture.

I loved shooting football, especially college football. I covered the Baltimore Ravens for 16 years and they treated me very well, but it’s not hard to see video has become the driving force in media.

EN: What does the future of photojournalism look like to you?
GS: Frightening. In the past, it was accepted photographers couldn’t write and writers couldn’t shoot. Today you have reporters also being asked to shoot. You can learn how to be a good shooter, but I wonder how you can do both? I’ve seen reporters taking copious notes at a high school football game, then having to stop to shoot pictures, and then take more notes on their shots, causing them to ignore the game.

EN: Do you have any regrets?
GS: None! The Baltimore Sun treated me great. I cannot speak a poor word about the paper, and they did things for me they didn’t have to do. I feel like I worked in the golden age of photojournalism for one of America’s great papers.

EN: Do you plan to stay in the area?
GS: For the next five weeks, my wife and I will be here in Parkton, Md. Then we’re moving to Midway, Utah, which is just a hop, skip and a jump from Park City. I was there for three weeks when I covered the 2002 Olympics for the Sun. I’m 40 years late but I’m going to be a ski bum.

~ compiled by T.C. Cameron

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