Article by Cheryl Harris Forbes
Photographs by Carla Ten Eyck & Shana Sureck
It's amazing what can inspire people. For some, it may be the works of a master artist or poet, a majestic landscape, or the rising and setting of the sun. For Shana Sureck, it was a small advertisement in a New York theatre playbill that changed her life. She recalls, "I was about 15. I was looking for something . . . somewhere I belonged, something that fit." The ad was for a free photography workshop. Sureck decided she wanted to go.
"That next Saturday, I took the train down there and walked into the room. It turns out I hadn't read the fine print. The teacher stopped and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ I responded, ‘I thought this was a basic photography workshop. I want to learn photography.’ ‘This is a minority workshop,’ he thundered. I looked around and, seeing that I was the only white kid in the room, I responded, ‘Well, I guess I'm in the minority.’ The kids thought I was funny, especially when they saw that all I had to shoot with was a $19 Kodak box camera. He let me stay."
Sureck has a knack for landing in peculiar situations. During the group's first photography outing she got into another. "Our assignment was to take photos in Washington Square Park, so we could practice lighting and composition. I've always found people quite fascinating and began to turn my lens to various scenes. I was young, excited, and pretty naive. I began clicking away as I followed two men who were having a serious conversation. I suppose I got too close and they must have heard the shutter click because they turned with a sudden change of expression. I began running as fast as I could, right into to the abdominal wall of my 350 pound instructor. He saved me. Turns out I had documented a drug deal."
After appeasing her would-be assailants, the teacher led her to the safety of a nearby playground and told her to take pictures there. "That's when I began taking photos of moms and their children. I was hooked. I spent two and a half years with the Ben Fernandez Photo Film Workshop, and every day I was thrilled."
Oddly, when Sureck came to Connecticut as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, she didn't study photography. Following the advice of her workshop instructor, she explored liberal arts and later anthropology, crafting her major, Visual and Narrative History of the Person, while broadening her perspective of the world.
Shortly after graduation, armed with plenty of chutzpah and no portfolio, she landed a job as a lab technician at The Hartford Courant. After proving herself and taking the initiative to take slice-of-life feature photographs in her spare time, she gained freelance photography assignments. She then moved to a staff job as a general assignment photographer, which she held for 22 years. "Being at the Hartford Courant was absolutely amazing! I didn't think there was a better job anywhere. It was absolutely perfect for me. Until the very end, I jumped out of bed every morning. I couldn't wait to get to work!"
However, in 2007 it all came crashing down. Journalism and The Hartford Courant's ownership were changing. "I began to see the writing on the wall. I started having to drag myself out of bed. Everything just got yucky." After more than 22 years in her dream job, Sureck was in another life-changing situation. She described the conditions, "It was clear the paper was tanking. In 2008, they offered a buy-out and I took it. My friends tried to protect me. They warned that it was the worst economic recession on record and that I would have no financial security. I heard them, but my soul was saying, "You gotta go." Before that, I thought I was going to work at the Courant until I was 90 years old and they would carry my body out with a camera still around my neck. That's honestly how I thought it was going to be. I never printed a portfolio, never kept track of my work, because I never, ever thought I was leaving."
She hit the ground running, emailing everyone she knew that she was available for work. "I didn't know what to charge. I didn't plan and had no business skills. I knew nothing. I thought being in business was just about taking great pictures and I made a lot of mistakes. After my first year, I took my financial information to my accountant. When she returned it, I braced for the news. All she said was, "This is bad." Being the optimist I am, I said, "I know, but it'll get better." I left her office, got in my car and cried, thinking, "What have I done? "
Sureck, then a single mother of a first-grader, rebounded quickly and began looking for help. When she searched online for business courses, she found the Women’s Business Center at the Entrepreneurial Center. "It was a God-send! I started with a half day class about starting your own business. It was incredible to realize how much I needed to know. I sat in that class thinking, "Oh my gosh, why didn't I do this a year ago?"
Since beginning business skill training, Sureck has gone on to take business planning, operations and management, as well as QuickBooks. She's also received business and marketing counseling through the Hartford Small Business Technical Assistance Program, an in-depth program offered by the Center. She credits the Entrepreneurial Center with helping define her photography niche, including: 1) schools and non-profits, and, 2) life events, particularly weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs.
Sureck took what she learned at the Center and leveraged it to grow her business. She received two City of Hartford Arts & Heritage Jobs Grants, one of which covered the purchase of new camera and lighting equipment to grow her business to include video storytelling. The second allowed her to produce two short documentaries about older Hartford artists Ed Johnetta Miller and Sister Nandi. Among her current projects are a series of 10 short Centennial films for the Mandell Jewish Community Center and an interactive video project with the Hartford History Center (Hartford Public Library) and UCONN. She rents a modest office in the Connecticut Public Television building. The facility also provides broadcasting experiences for the Hartford Journalism and Media Academy students, of which Sureck is a board member.
Though her business knowledge has developed and client base is expanding, Sureck continues to immerse herself in the Entrepreneurial Center’s environment. "You get community support which is really valuable. I've learned from other people because they share their successes and mistakes. We all help each other and discover ways to do things better. That's how I found out about the benefits of subcontracting. I focus on doing the things I'm good at, and my subcontractors make more money for me."
By combining business know-how with her love of people and photography, Shana Sureck has found a way to do just that. Her business operations have undergone changes ranging from subtle enhancements to complete overhauls. The "situation" now is a good one. She's kept the best of what she's always been, a keen observer of life and the stories they produce. Thirty-five years after her initial assignment, Sureck still captures the essence and existence of humanity with a glint in her eye and click of her cameras.
It is now easy to view her work. She keeps a voluminous portfolio and digital images. One of her most powerful images was captured just weeks after the Sandy Hook School massacre. It shows the world what resolve, forgiveness, and hope look like. Amidst a crowd of supporters pressing in to greet President Obama during his visit to the University of Hartford, the unexpectedly serene face of Nelba Marquez-Green, mother of shooting victim Ana Grace Marquez-Green, appears, holding a sign that simply says, "Love Wins".
Examples like this prove Sureck's ability to document soul-stirring photographs in unlikely places and unusual circumstances. Although her journey to self-employment couldn't be predicted, the fulfillment she's found can serve as an inspiration to us all.