Christobal Perez understands the power of photojournalism and the rewards of helping others. And, he believes that everything happens for a reason. Those basic tenants, along with a strong work ethic and an unwavering drive to be true to himself, have effectively steered his life from migrant worker’s son to award-winning photographer.
The love of competition first got Perez into professional photography, and then contributed to his ongoing career.
As a boy he looked up to his older brother, who was on the newspaper photo staff at their high school. He liked his brother’s photos, but always saw ways in which he thought they could have been shot a little differently…and better. “Even then I was competing and trying to see life differently than others do,” he remembers.
A few years later he secured a track scholarship to a junior college in Pasadena, Texas, USA, but he wasn’t happy with the way the school newspaper was covering his sport. In fact there was no coverage at all. He approached the editor with his complaint, and she told him “if you don’ t like what we’re doing and think you can do a better job, you should do it.” The reaction? He started writing and taking pictures while he was at track meets using a trusty Canon T70.
Soon his passion turned from track to taking pictures. “Running gave me the opportunity to reflect on life and what I was doing,” he says, “but gradually photography started to provide that for me, and eventually I expressed myself through my photography work.”
In 1990 he transferred to the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, a school well known for its photojournalism program. “I realized I wanted to do it as a career when I made my decision to go to UT,” Perez states. “It came naturally. I’d go into the darkroom and play for hours and hours. No one else was really doing that and I couldn’t understand why, since I thought it was so much fun. I just fell in love with it and I couldn’t get enough. I still can’t.”
UT provided Perez with a whole new level of competition, and was where the reality of serious photography hit him hard. “At the junior college I could bring back the pictures that ran in the paper all the time,” he recalls. “Now I was thrown in with the big boys. The group I was with was really good, and I had to work.” Indeed, his peers at UT included the likes of John Moore, John McConnico and Jean-Marc Bouju—all of whom later won Pulitzer Prizes.
Perez left college before graduating to pursue his career. “My parents thought I was nuts,” he says, “but I equated it to coming out of a sports draft.” He told them he was going to be a “top pick” and not to worry.
In 1994 he moved to Houston and started freelancing for the Associated Press while working at a small daily newspaper in Conroe, TX, USA. He also took some classes at the University of Houston, which led to an internship at the Houston Chronicle.
The Houston Rockets went to the NBA finals that year, and the director of photography for the Chronicle decided to send Perez to cover the series. “It was unheard of for an intern to get this kind of assignment, but he believed in me, and I was able to bring back the pictures for him,” Perez says. “It was a blast. Adrenalin. It was my first time actually experiencing pressure. You’ve got to get the picture of the shot that transforms the game and tells the story. You’re competing against all of the other photographers and you’re going to know if you got beat the next day.”
He also took numerous iconic photos as part of his daily assignments around the Houston. One image he shot in the intercity showed kids playing basketball using a milk crate as a basket. “They were just dealing with what they had, and obviously were not well off,” Perez notes. “The next day I received several phone calls about how people could donate hoops and balls to these kids. And that’s when I realized how powerful a job we have as photojournalists. We can help create change. That changed the way I shot.”
Perez gained a reputation of the kind of person who can handle pressure well, so the next year when the Rockets repeated their success, the Chronicle again sent him to the NBA finals. But alas, the newspaper wasn’t yet ready to offer him a staff position, suggesting that he prove his mettle in other cities. So, in 1997 he went to work as a staff photographer for the Shreveport Times.
While he was in Shreveport he covered Louisiana Tech’s basketball team playing in the Final Four against North Carolina State. Perez had five or six cameras with him, because he had planned to set up several remotes. Another photojournalist, Robert Miller, was there shooting for the Raleigh News and Observer, and was having camera problems. He didn’t have any backups, so Perez offered him his cameras. “Take as many as you want,” he told Miller.
The next year Perez went to interview at the News and Observer and ran into Miller. Recalls Perez, “I had forgotten he worked there, and I said ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ He asked me the same question and I said ‘Well, I’m interviewing for a job here.’ He said ‘No you’re not…you’re here!’”
Miller immediately spoke to the picture editor, told him that Perez was a team player who had helped him out—someone they could use, and Perez got the job, a direct result of his generous earlier offer to help a colleague in need. “It was karma,” Perez notes. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Indeed, North Carolina, USA was good for Perez. During his stint there, he covered Final Fours, hurricanes and the U.S. Open. “The N&O and their staffers taught me a lot about how to tell stories,” he says. Their team coverage of Hurricane Floyd in 1999 led the paper to submit a set of images and stories to the Pulitzer committee, and that entry was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the Spot News category. Perhaps best of all, he met another talented photojournalist, Kathleen Oehler, who became his wife.
After a few years in Raleigh, Perez finally received the long-awaited phone call to come “back home” to Houston and work as a full-fledged staff photographer for the Chronicle. There, he documented the inauguration of Mexican President Vincente Fox, the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia over Texas, Michael Jordan's last All-Star game, the demise of the Mayan rain forest, Pope John Paul's last visit to Mexico and the 2004 Olympics in Athens, among other landmark stories.
He and Kathleen ended up spending four years in Houston, TX but according to Perez his wife was “a kind of a small-town girl” who wasn’t totally comfortable in that city. She wanted to move back to North Carolina.
“I couldn’t go back to my old job, which would have been a downgrade in pay,” Perez notes. He applied for an AP bureau position in Raleigh, and although he was a finalist, he didn’t get the job. Ever the competitor, he says that not winning the AP position “bothered me for awhile because I got beat,” but now feels it was another example of everything happening for a reason.
Perez and his wife thought about their options and decided to make the move anyway, starting a wedding photography business in North Carolina. (Kathleen had already been shooting weddings on the side for years.) Even before they left Houston, they “set up shop” in North Carolina, launching a web site and incorporating their business. They advertised, booked weddings over the phone and joined the WPJA (“The best thing that ever happened to us,” according to Perez).
Perez actually flew to his first North Carolina wedding job from Houston before the move, and a photo from that event won first place in WPJA’s Ceremony category. “The look [the bride] gave her father is priceless,” Perez says. “All the planning, the anticipation, the excitement, and love for her father is all said in her look back. This is definitely one of my favorite images.”
Now Christobal and Kathleen Perez run a thriving North Carolina-based business that covers 35 to 40 weddings a year, with both partners winning numerous awards for their work, including recognition in WPJA contests.
“When I came into this I was petrified,” Perez admits. “I had these misconceptions about what a wedding photographer did. Would I have to shoot ‘grip & grin’ shots all of the time? Those are the kinds of things that concerned me about crossing over. However, it didn’t take me long to figure out that I could do my own thing and put my own signature on the industry.” His clients, he says, understand his photojournalistic style and leave him to capture the photos his way.
He says it’s hard work, in spite of the enjoyment it brings him. “Everything I used to do for a newspaper I do for couples,” he notes. “I work my tail off and they appreciate it.”
Despite the competitive spirit that has resulted in so much success, Perez now believes that the situation that forced his career move from news to weddings was indeed the way it was supposed to happen. “I spend so much more time with my boys now than I ever did before [as a news photojournalist]. And that’s what’s important—my family. Now, instead of chasing the Pulitzer, I am chasing my kids and loving it!”
Ultimately, Perez believes in always treating people with respect and helping fellow photographers, building relationships. “Everyone has gifts; everyone has talents,” he says. “You never know who is going to be the next greatest photographer in the world, someone you can help now. Someday you may need help from them.”
“My father was a migrant worker who left school in the tenth grade,” he explains. “I just love how far our family has come, and I think that’s why I work so hard. I’m not the best photographer in the world, and I know that. But I push myself, working as hard as I possibly can to be the best I can be.”
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association