by Bailey Edelstein
Jack Gruber walks through the lobby wearing jeans, a button down and a tie as he cuts through shadows cast from the early afternoon light pouring through the windows of the USA Today headquarters in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Gruber never wears a tie; but he just returned from photographing the Slovenian ambassador to the United States. Last February, instead of a tie, his garb consisted of multiple winter layers while covering his eighth Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. A few years prior in Iraq, he wore a bulletproof vest while photographing Operation Iraqi Freedom as an embedded photojournalist—definitely no tie here. In the elevator, he adjusts the unfamiliar knot around his neck and the doors open to a sea of cubicles that is the USA Today newsroom, which has served as Gruber’s home base since 2000.
“There are people I’ve stumbled across and made pictures of that, somehow, helped them and their lives,” says Gruber, 48, who smiles at a colleague, gesturing as they walk past to the uncommon accessory around his neck. “Whether it was in Marshall, Missouri or Banda Aceh, Indonesia, I can honestly say that the pictures that have appeared in the paper, have been seen by people and have helped those families or individuals I photographed. I think that’s the most important thing a photojournalist does: inform and honestly show what’s out there, and what’s going on in the world and our lives.”
Gruber’s first job interview was at the Daily Advocate in Greenville, Ohio when he was sixteen. He was tossed a roll of film and told to develop it. Without prior knowledge of anything photo, he managed to process the film by following instructions on the darkroom walls. Since that first reel of film, Gruber began his career in visual communication whether he knew it or not. His frame of mind and approach to photography are what opened the doors to USA Today and developed the respect he receives from the photojournalism community.
“The great photojournalists, the ones I admire the most, are the ones who are themselves. They are genuine people. You feel their genuine understanding,” says Gruber as he takes a thoughtful sip of his Diet Coke. “Their job is to tell your story and they want to do it in a way that is honest and meaningful to you. Doing it in a way that is not going to hurt or demean you.”
Fires, catastrophes, world events or Olympics, you name it—“Guy” Gruber is there. But he’s the fly on the wall that goes unseen, blending into any landscape. He is careful not to obstruct the natural flow of the environment he is observing through his lens. With the slightest pressure applied from his index finger to the camera shutter, it snaps closed, letting in a fraction of a second of the light, action and emotion that surrounds his subject. The pivotal moment is captured and likely published in the morning paper in color, on the front page, above the fold.
“Say you’re going to an election night and you introduce yourself to the PR folks, or whoever is running it,” says Gruber who currently shoots with a Nikon digital camera. “They see the picture in the paper the next day and they’re like ‘Whoa that’s a nice picture. Who was that guy that was here? Where was he? How did he get that?’” illustrating the alter ego his colleagues refer to as “Guy.”
The nickname “Guy Gruber” was devised at his first internship in Muskegon, Michigan at the Muskegon Chronicle. It stuck and spread among the tight-knit photojournalist community and today, it’s also his Twitter username. If Gruber’s college roommate and longtime friend, Grover Sanschagrin saw him today, he says his camera would be at his side, he’d have a smile on his face, and would always have the right thing to say at the right time to put you at ease. “That’s Jack,” says Sanschagrin, who is also a photographer and the founder of PhotoShelter, a hub for professional photographers to share their work with the world.
“He likes to joke that he is ‘the man behind the man behind the man,’ but to me he’s just ‘the man,’” Sanschagrin says, lending a further description to the elusive “Guy Gruber” character.
A model for photojournalism ethics, Gruber does not need a checklist to be sure he’s doing the right thing—it’s in his nature. He knows to approach sensitive assignments like photographing a 13-month-old with spinal muscular atrophy.
“You have to look at every subject that you photograph as yourself and ask, ‘Would I want to be treated this way?’” Gruber says.
For a model of human compassion in visual storytelling, Gruber looks to photographer Todd Heisler, a photojournalist based at the New York Times. Heisler is known for his Pulitzer Prize winning series, “A Final Salute,” which shares the story of a fallen marine’s grieving wife and the heart wrenching days leading up to his funeral. Similar to Heisler, Gruber’s approach to sensitive assignments and his “no tie kind of guy,” genuine personality, are what foster his aptitude for visual storytelling no matter the subject or situation.
“If you met this guy [Heisler] and he came to your house to take your picture, you would instantly become friends with him—he’s just the nicest guy. It’s a great thing, being a nice person. You find that people open up to you that way,” Gruber says. “You feel their genuine understanding. Their job is to tell your story and they want to do it in a way that is honest and meaningful to you.”
Whether he’s on assignment or building a shed for his home in Falls Church, Virginia where he lives with his wife, Amy, and their children Maddie, 6, and Wade, 3, Gruber never does anything halfway. His shed won’t be just four walls and roof, it will be state-of-the-art.
“I don’t build just a shed. It’s not going to be done practical, it’s going to be done perfect. Beautiful, like a work of art,” Gruber says of the shed he built, that should have been 8×10 feet, but is now 9×20 feet with cedar shake and two entrances.
Gruber’s “go-getter” attitude stems from his college years of 1984 to 1989. Sanschagrin recalls that while other students were nursing hangovers, they would be working their weekends at newspapers. They never stopped shooting pictures, determined to learn and grow through their application of the craft. Nowadays, the way Gruber builds his sheds is similar to the way he approaches the photos he makes—as if each were the opportunity for a Pulitzer.
“Everywhere I go, every assignment I get, I see as ‘the big story,’” says Gruber. “I don’t see anything different between photographing the ambassador of Slovenia this morning to photographing the President of the United States—it’s all the same.”
Gruber would similarly photograph his small hometown of Pitsburg, Ohio, where the nearest department store was 45 minutes away and the high school graduating class had 47 students. He grew up in a family of four consisting of himself, his older sister, mother and his father who worked at General Motors. College wasn’t on the minds of many in Pitsburg, but Gruber knew he wanted to expand his horizons farther than the farming community he loved. During his first year at Ohio State University, he thought he would go into medicine but found himself working weekends at a newspaper. He transferred to Rochester Institute of Technology where he met other aspiring photojournalists and they determined their move was Ohio University in Athens, to study visual communication.
“We jumped in a car and drove down to Athens, Ohio and talked to the legendary Chuck Scott and the guys there in the field who created photojournalism as we know it,” says Gruber. “They looked at us and said, “You’re in, you’re in, and you’re in!””
Gruber went on to win the 1989 Hearst Photojournalism Competition, a contest that selects three of the top student photojournalists and sends them on a shoot-off in San Francisco. One of the finalists was a good friend of his and Gruber recalls feeling devastated because he didn’t like to see the others loose. The competition didn’t open up as many doors as he hoped, but Gruber found an internship in Kentucky that led to a more promising opportunity at a small paper in Flint, Michigan called the Flint Journal.
“So they told me ‘We know who you are, we know your work. This is a good news town and you’ll enjoy it,’” Gruber says. “I thought ‘Yeah whatever, I’ll be there a year,’ but I ended up staying for five. For a photojournalist, the town was gold.”
After he had his run in Flint, Gruber headed to the higher-profile Detroit News in 1994 as a staff photographer covering news and feature stories, the Detroit Lions’ football season and also helped cover the Detroit Red Wings beat during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was at the Detroit News where he met Daniel Mears, who is still a staff photographer at the paper today. They trekked across the country together, embracing the work they made at the cost of what Mears described as an “in over our heads” mentality.
“Jack is so good at photography, I don’t think he even needs a camera anymore,” said Mears. Gruber is a master of the craft and too humble to admit it.
A few years later, Gruber took a pay cut and relocated, only to strike another photographic gold mine at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee. In just seven months, the portfolio of work he made in Memphis attracted the attention of the editors at USA Today. The start of Gruber’s career there began somewhat like a camera placed on the “continuous shutter” setting.
“I came back [to the office] and was doing some orientation, then they gave me my gear and said, ‘Oh by the way, you have some underwater gear so go over [to this country club in McLean, Virginia] and shoot some of these new Olympic swimsuits that athletes will be wearing,”” says Gruber of his first assignment. “I was all set up with my cameras beside the pool and I grabbed one camera and went underwater—but it was one of the brand new $14,000 digital cameras—it wasn’t the one for the underwater housing unit. I came up and was like ‘What am I going to do?’ So I jumped into the water, shot three frames and said, ‘We’re done! See ya later, I’m outta here!’”
The photo was printed on the front page of the newspaper the next morning. Gruber says he doesn’t believe in getting a “lucky” shot, that timing and patience is everything. He put the broken camera aside and didn’t tell anyone what happened. Then, they sent him on a plane to Sydney to cover the summer Olympics. The following month, he was sent to the West Bank to cover the Intifada.
“I learned real fast how fun it could be and then how dangerous it could be,” Gruber says. “I got in over my head early on and it was great training for basically what I’ve done since 2000.”
The trip to the West Bank was the beginning of years of war coverage for Gruber, who says he’s been to Afghanistan around 16 to 18 times, but lost count. This time, he was “Guy” the fly on the wall of a Humvee in Iraq, serving as one of the first embedded reporters as he trekked along with the U.S. Army’s Task Force 3-69 across the Kuwait border.
“I vividly remember Capt. Dan Hibner jumping from the armored troop carrier we were riding down to the ground, into the darkness and into battle, yelling at me, ‘Are you with me or not?’” says Gruber. “I think this was the question he and I both were wondering. How far was this embedded photographer willing to go?”
The bullets went flying past him, as explosions flared up in the distance. Gruber knew he had a job to do for the soldiers and for himself. He was introduced to the realities of war and death on these assignments. One of his most vivid memories was when a vehicle with journalist Michael Kelly and Sergeant Wilbert Davis was caught in an ambush. Both Kelly and the Sergeant were killed in the accident.
“Jack is a consummate professional, never intrusive, yet with an impressive capability to “tell the story” through his camera lens,” comments Lt. Col. Michael Slack on Gruber’s LinkedIn profile of the experience working with him as an embedded photojournalist. “You can order a soldier to bring a reporter on a mission, but Jack earned the respect of the soldiers to be there—invisibly, if that makes sense. Perhaps that attests to why his photos are so very, very good.”
“Guy Gruber” is still in active duty working for USA Today, but in recent years, funds for extensive travel budgets witnessed significant cuts and Gruber receives fewer international assignments. He is currently developing his non-profit organization called Boyd’s Station, which is based in Kentucky and scheduled to launch next year. Their mission is to provide artists with “a rural and serene environment to “live free and create.” The non-profit’s “Art+Live” program offers free studio spaces for professional visual and literary artists after an extensive portfolio review.
“Being with Jack at his family farm in Kentucky is where you get to see him at his purest self, away from the constant demands of work and the newspaper industry,” says Sanschagrin. “It’s been a goal of his to expose more people to that farm, and to use it to give back to the photography community. It’s nice to see that this goal is coming true.”
Late afternoon in the lobby of USA Today is a sight to capture on camera. The lighting has shifted, so now it’s peeking through the steps of a suspension staircase near the main entrance. News Photo Editor Jud McCrehin walks past Gruber in the lobby corridor saying, “What are you doin’? You got a tie on!” The accessory seems to obstruct the usual “Super Photojournalist” guise of Jack “Guy” Gruber, while highlighting his work ethic.
“The one thing I operate with every day is: ‘Just work hard,’” Gruber says. “There’s important things to this—it’s a responsibility.”