David Zapatka: Emmy Winning Network Director of Photography, Adjunct Instructor, RISD

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Bio:

David Zapatka grew up in Westerly, RI and picked up his first camera at age 13.  An astute yearbook advisor noticed him carrying the camera in school and asked if he’d shoot pictures instead of sitting in study halls, essentially giving him his first press pass, and from then on he was hooked. At Rhode Island College he studied mass communications, discovering film and video during his junior year. In his senior year he was hired full time as a news cameraman in Providence. Zapatka spent ten years shooting local news in the Providence market until he began his long career as a network freelance cameraman and director of photography.  His work regularly appears on network news and sports programs working for ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, HBO, and CNN.  His assignments have brought him to 49 states and over 30 countries.  He’s covered six Superbowls and for the past 17 years has covered the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament; he’s worked at four winter Olympic Games, winning two National Sports Emmy awards for his contributions to the NBC coverage of the Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010.  In 2016 he joined the adjunct faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design teaching lighting techniques in the Film/Animation/Video department.

In October 2103 he began what has become the “Stars & Lights” lighthouse project capturing nighttime studies of New England lighthouses under brilliant star filled skies. His works have been juried into dozens of New England art galleries and festivals and he has had solo shows on Block Island and in New York City.  The work was recently chosen by the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts for its Public Art Display for Home and Hospice beginning in December 2016.  He continues to photograph lighthouses under the stars and as of the fall of 2016 has captured more than ninety throughout the Northeast.

What do you do best?

Probably what I’m doing at this very moment--staring at the screen wondering what I do best.  And I don’t say that to be flippant or sarcastic because being the best is something I’ve strived to be in everything I do: being a husband; a father; a friend; a neighbor on the personal level; being a cameraman; a director of photography; a producer; a photographer; an instructor on the professional end.  Striving to do the best at whatever task is at hand is what I’ve always tried to do.  It doesn’t always work out that the end result is the most wonderful creation of anything but I know in my heart I’ve always given it my best effort no matter the task.  Nothing bothers me more than to see someone “phone it in” and give a lackadaisical effort simply because they can. Currently I’m trying to give the best answers to a series of interesting questions while answering from the heart.

What makes you the best?

Early in my career as a local news photographer reporters would always comment how wonderfully lit their stories were.  For a time I didn’t realize what I was doing, it just came naturally.  Over the years I developed a latent sense within my brain that allows for me to walk into a room and immediately know how to light it without ever second guessing that instinct. Concurrently I was also learning to be a student of the world by listening, studying and understanding every story I was covering. Many times, and this holds true even today where I sit long into my network television career, at the end of an interview I’ll ask the producer if I may ask a question of the interviewee and many times that answer will be the most important one of the interview. One of my closest friends in television is now a senior VP at ABC and she once commented that working with me “always made her a better producer.”  To have this label is a great honor.

What are your aspirations?

I’ve been so fortunate to have had a long career at the highest level and I realize that that part of my life is starting to wind down and as a result my aspirations are also in transition.  For thirty-five years the career focus was on time-based media though throughout still photography was an important aspect as well.  With television I never had anything tangible to show for the effort.  I recently started a wonderful stills project involving lighthouses at night and while it has reinvigorated my photography passion it has also introduced me to the art world that I’d never fully explored.  The works have received numerous local awards as well as international recognition with the hope of being published as early as summer 2017.

Biggest Success?

In network television there are thousands of failed marriages and broken families that have lain in ruin from the time and travel demands.  For many years I’d hear horror stories while covering huge national and international stories of correspondents, producers and cameramen who have broken their vows because of the latest big story.  Among all this personal carnage people were often amazed I had been able to maintain my marriage and family life, and this has been my greatest success.  We recently celebrated the first wedding of one of our three children and it was the most perfect day we have ever had as a family.  As I think back over the years, it was at times difficult with the stress of travel mixed with two careers and three young and growing children.  To accomplish this in an industry rampant with failed marriages is a big personal success.

While I’ve never been one to tout professional success, everyday while leaving the house I pass by two National Emmy awards on a bookcase near the door.  They are a reminder of the past successes and are inspiration for that day’s client. The Emmy awards are a funny thing in the television business because so many are handed out at various levels.  In the industry no one ever talks or acknowledges them within professional circles and if one does it is at their own peril.  The professionalism at the networks is so incredibly high and getting to that level requires such a commitment, no one needs braggadocio and those that do are often weeded out.  The bling on the bookcase is more for family and friends to admire but aren’t dwelled upon until an inquiry like this comes along.

Most Challenging Moment?

In summer 2015 while working on an otherwise normal and nondescript corporate video shoot I herniated a back disc and was incapacitated for two weeks before needing eight months of rehabilitation.  While having always been a physical cameraman in a demanding profession, I’d never before experienced a serious injury.  Being freelance, this type of trauma is twofold for not only was it extremely painful in the short term, long term it meant turning work down for the entire rehab and missing many national stories including the New Hampshire Primary and the Super Bowl.  It also meant I was no longer reliable to the many clients I’d fostered over the years and I was soon forgotten.  Fortunately, RISD had a need for an adjunct instructor to teach film and television lighting and I jumped at the chance.  It was extremely nerve-wracking standing in front of the smart, creative and wonderful students for the first time and I went to that first class tremendously over-prepared.  I had ten pages of notes and a completely dry mouth but barely got through page three before the five-hour studio class ended.  I later replayed the scenario to a long-time fellow instructor and he laughed while pointing at my head saying, “It’s all up there, Dave, and the kids are simply tapping into that knowledge in your brain.”  So I guess this question has given you two answers: it was certainly challenging coming back from the injury and serendipity led to the challenge of standing in front of my students for the first time.

Motto?

“Some days you win, some days you lose.”  For several years my son worked with me during his summer breaks from RISD.  He was a student in the department where I now teach and it was his enrollment that gave me the introductions to the professors who are now my colleagues.  As a freelance cameraman, some days are extremely long and often financially rewarding.  Occasionally there are days that aren’t long but are as equally rewarding.  I would often say the phrase to Cory usually while we were heading home after a short day.  Conversely sometimes days would be brutal, we’d be heading home exhausted and sweaty and in really bad moods after dealing with demanding clients, and one of us would mutter the same phrase.  It’s simply a reminder that you can get either the good or the bad on any given day.

Favorite People/Role Models?

Clearly on the personal level it’s my wife and kids.  On the professional level, on any given assignment I’ll likely be meeting and working with a total stranger.  Usually the first ten minutes determines at what kind of a professional relationship we’ll be working under and whether they’ll be trusting of me with the creativity or whether I’m simply someone there to simply follow their commands. My favorite professional people are the clients who appreciate my talents and insight to help them reach their vision and those who give me the freedom to complete the story. Many first time clients enter my life through networking and referrals and they’ve likely come to me with recommendations from others.  Those new clients who demand and direct without my input are generally insecure with their own careers and it makes my job and our new relationship much more difficult.  Some days you win, some days you lose.

Favorite Places/Destinations?

We live in a historic fishing village in a town south of Providence where the water is paramount to our lifestyle.  We take advantage of it and are on the water as much as possible and anytime we can get out on Narragansett Bay is great for our mental health. We have a powerboat and often entertain family and friends on it during the warmer months.

Favorite Products/Objects?

I love when the hummingbirds gather around the feeder on our back deck.  I love seeing the billions of stars on the new moon nights while I’m out shooting lighthouses. I love the cold winter mornings after a new snowfall when the snow crunches beneath your boots. I love the little switch on the steering wheel that heats it up on those cold winter mornings.  I love the “last” button on the television remote when watching two sporting events with one television.  I love the ten year-old Leatherman pocket tool I always carry even though my family gives me grief because they think I look geeky—the thing’s got a bottle opener and a corkscrew and has bailed us out countless times, despite being geeky.

Current Passions?

In an earlier answer I briefly alluded to the still photography project I stumbled on three years ago.  While out boating on Narragansett Bay I wondered what a local lighthouse might look like under the stars at night.  I returned in the early falloff 2013 on a new moon night and captured billions of stars over the lonely little lighthouse.  I was amazed at what the camera could capture and continued shooting other local lighthouses in the ensuing months and years. Soon the project became an obsession known as “Stars and Lights” and the work introduced me to the world of fine art, gallery shows and art festivals, and most recently to the publishing world. I’ve also been negotiating with two competing publishers a deal to bring the works together into a coffee-table style publication. In between my freelance network shoots and my RISD class I continue to shoot more lighthouses similarly though much more travel is now required as the subjects lie further and further from our home.