Justin Stokes in Conversation with Photographer John Partipilo

Published November 13th 2023
By Justin Stokes

John Partipilo. Photo Credit: Hunter Armistead

Over a career of more than forty years, the award-winning Music City photojournalist and fine
arts photographer John Partipilo has been capturing important moments. These moments—rare
fragments of humanity—are often historic, raw, and deeply emotional, showing the likes of a
violent conflict’s aftermath or the righteous joy earned after political victory. Currently working
as a contract photographer for nonprofit news outlet Tennessee Lookout, John’s photography is
regularly used by Nashville media outlets and global publications, including Rolling Stone.

In advance of his showcase in the November “Down A Country Road V” art show, John spoke to
Justin Stokes. to discuss his photography. Our interview with John is below.

Justin Stokes (JS): Throughout your four-decade career, you’ve won about fifty national and international
awards. Let’s discuss that.

John Partipilo (JP): Sure. The ones that I’m most proud of are my nomination for First Runner-Up for the Pulitzer
Prize, back when I worked for The Tennessean. That was a staff award, but so many of my
photographs were used. But that award was for photojournalism, and it ran against everyone in
America and Europe for our coverage of the 2010 Nashville Flood, which was really cool. I also
got a “Best of Photojournalism Still Photography – Best Published Picture Story (Smaller
Markets) First Place Award that same year for our “Gangs of Middle Tennessee” story.

JS: Did that experience of being ranked against some of the best photographers in the world
change your approach to taking pictures? Did it encourage you to be more experimental?

JP: Yeah! What clicked was—and I don’t want to say anything bad about The Tennessean—but if
you go through the history of the paper, the editors kept gravitating to a lot of the same old stuff.
I wanted to cover my story ideas, and I wanted to give them pitches that had a stronger emphasis
on the visual elements so that those stories would be better.

And by the way, every story idea of mine that they picked won an award for them.

JS:You’ve had the pleasure of working with several media outlets over the last few decades?

JP: Yes! The Tennessean and The Arkansas Gazette were the two big ones for daily newspapers. But
I’ve had stuff in Newsweek, Time Magazine, New York Magazine, and several European
publications. One highlight I’ll mention is being featured in Black and White Magazine, which
was incredible! They did a story on me, and it was just amazing. That was a major
accomplishment, as that’s a major publication for photographers.

JS: As a photojournalist working in his fourth decade on the job, you’ve produced a sizable
body of work. Let’s discuss that.

JP: Honestly, It’s a double-edged sword. When you’re a journalist who is employed by someone
else, you often have to sign work-for-hire agreements. So, all of the work that I did for The
Tennessean, they own it.

However, what I’m proud of is that from 2015 to now, I’ve produced a substantial body of work,
which has been wonderful for me. This work includes many pictures and collaborative stories, as
well as art shows, two books… In this almost eight-year period, I would tell you that I’ve been
more productive now than I was working for The Tennessean.

JS: It doesn’t appear that you have any intention of slowing down, either. Some people in the
world of photography have stepped away because of changes in the landscape.

JP: When I left The Tennessean in 2015, everyone kept treating me as if we were having a
retirement party. They would say things like “John’s retiring!”

I wasn’t retiring. I was just leaving a job to go find the next one. Granted, it’s tough giving up a
regular job that paid that well… But neither the money nor the job gave me any kind of
satisfaction. And stepping away from The Tennessean allowed me to do some of my best work.
When you’re a photographer or an artist, the wonderful thing about those professions is that we
can carry on even if we’re not working for anybody. I just don’t ever see myself retiring. I don’t
even like the word “retire.”

JS: It would seem that you don’t want to retire because you enjoy the energy from the job, as
well as the fact that it constantly puts you in front of new people to tell their stories.

JP:It’s funny. People think that I’m an extrovert when I’m out in the general public. But I’m very
much an introvert. When it comes right down to it, I behave according to what the job demands.
I’m not faking anything, and I do love talking to people. But I am also perfectly happy in
solitude. I enjoy having quiet time with my dog, who doesn’t talk back! (laughs)

Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson concluding his defense prior to the House of Representatives vote to expel him. Photo Credit: John Partipilo

JS: Despite your introverted nature, you also like teaching the art of photography.

JP: Yes, but I would say that that’s a particular kind of teaching, which is a little different. For
instance, when I taught at Nossi College of Art & Design, I was teaching the very basics of
photojournalism while adding a few things in there.

JS: You’re getting ready to launch PhotoVision Tellers, which is your photography program.
Let’s discuss this.

JP: So PhotoVision Tellers will be a little different than the classes I used to teach at Nossi. This is
all about passing along my knowledge about the craft, and it’s more intimate and personal than
something like a college course. I plan on teaching subjects that you might not get out of regular
photography classes, like “The Psychology of Light & Color.”

And let me say something to any aspiring photographer: It’s not about the gear you use. I get
asked about the gear I use all the time. I can take any camera and make a pretty nice
photograph… But treating everything like it’s just a picture is the wrong philosophy. They’re
pieces of art. That’s why I call my work “photographic essays.” And I don’t just take photos. I
make photographs. I always tell that to other people. “Make sure that that’s in your head.
Because you are making things. That’s your vision.”

I find that 90 percent of the pictures you see on the internet are taken. People are just grabbing
stuff. But treating photography as a fine art means treating the subjects a certain way, and being
aware that you’re there to produce an iconic image.

JS: So readers of NUMBER, Inc. should understand PhotoVision Tellers as your way of
teaching people to make iconic photographs.

JP: Yes. It’s also my way of trying to give something back to the art that made me who I am and
ushering in a new group of people who will continue the tradition of photography.

This was something that I tried to do at Nossi, but honestly, it was tough. When you’re teaching
at a school, certain expectations are put on you by the faculty and administrators, the parents
paying tuition, the students attending, etc. But with PhotoVision Tellers, I’m free to do all of that
my way. I’m not put in a little box. I’m free to teach my students—who are all adults, by the way—as if they were adults who were seriously interested in the medium of photography. We respect each other’s time, and we don’t have to waste time on things like remedial education or worrying about whether or not they’re serious about photography. That kind of teaching offers a
much greater impact than anything else.

And the skill of photography can be applied to other arts, too, like video production. I like big
shots with details that tell a story, set a tone, or offer character about, say, the place or time that
the subject is in. I’ve had several other photographers tell me that I have a natural eye for

JS: On the subject of cinematographers with an eye for captivating images, you had the
pleasure of meeting Stanley Kubrick.

JP: So, when I was in California, I was working for another photographer. He was a nice man,
Douglas Jones. He was cool with everyone. I got to go to The Brooks Institute because Douglas
Jones was teaching there, and I was his teaching assistant.

When he wasn’t teaching, I was with Jones at his studio. One day, Kubrick dropped by to see
Doug. Both of them had worked together previously at Look Magazine. I got to meet Kubrick
briefly during his visit, which was unbelievable.

Meeting him and knowing him as an alum of Look Magazine gives me a totally different view of
his work, as Look Magazine was responsible for launching his film career.

And his still pictures are now in national archives… the thing I love about his filmmaking is that “Barry Lyndon”—which is not my favorite movie—but probably one of the most beautifully shot movies ever! He understood art, and every frame is compositionally set to be a beautiful photograph that you could frame and hang on your wall. Great photographers make great filmmakers, I think. One of his first films is “Paths of Glory,” which if you study that film, you’ll notice that there are several Look photographers in it as background characters.

JS: You’ve had the privilege of meeting some famous people over your career.

JP: Oh yeah. I had a printing workshop with W. Eugene Smith, I had several workshops with Bill
Allard of National Geographic. Those two men had a profound impact on my work.

Regardless of who else might be there, workshops are something I recommend to everyone.
What I love about workshops is that they enliven you from all of the burnout that you might’ve
recently experienced. Even if you’re thinking about quitting, going to a workshop is like a
second wind.

JS: The tone of your work seems to vary widely, and some of the examples you’ve just
provided are notably grim. Does that affect you?

JP: It all affects me, both positively and negatively. Sometimes you take an image of a terrible event,
and it might bother you at the time. Usually, those images end up helping people. For instance,
during the 2010 Nashville Flood, I had a lot of images of people who’d lost their homes and
stuff. It was tough. But also, those people got help because of those images.

I’ll never forget this one incident during the flood. This gentleman was flooded out, and I took his picture. This guy needed a wheelchair because he had lost his wheelchair during the flood. So, I photographed this fella and we published his story. The next day, the guy had eight wheelchairs show up for him! And that’s part of the great thing about working in Tennessee: People are always really great about stepping up to help their neighbor.

But I photographed a little boy and his mother crying because his house burned down on
Christmas Eve one year. And a bunch of people messaged me, asking “Why did you do that?”
But so many people reached out and helped them, and got them another place to live!

If you’re a journalist and you’re doing those kinds of stories, it’s helping people. It’s not simply
tugging at people’s heartstrings just to get them to click a link or something. And it’s the same
thing with my homelessness advocacy. Of everything I’ve done, I think I got the most
complaints about documenting the homeless. Some people try to tell me that it’s exploitation.
No, it’s not! What I’m doing is telling a story to hopefully give others the incentive to step up
and help.

An image of two homeless people living under an ironic billboard. Photo Credit: John Partipilo

JS: You’re known throughout Nashville as someone who uses their art to combat the issue of

JP: This goes back almost 20 years ago when I naively thought I could end homelessness through
photographic essays. I’m still trying! (Laughs)

But, a lot more people are aware of the issue now. And I didn’t just go out and make pictures of
these people. I did a lot of volunteering through organizations like Open Table Nashville and
made a lot of friends and connections to the community that way. All of this was done in the
spirit of helping people. It pisses me off that people are forced to live in the street. There should be some kind of home provided for people. That’s a basic human thing. The mark of a great city ought to be how it serves all of its citizens.

JS: Is hope necessary for the success of an artist?

JP: I think you need hope, which is different than faith. If you don’t have any hope, then you just
degenerate into a person who’s toxic and doesn’t have any feelings. Hope is the one that we
always have to have. You can’t dash your hopes. If you do, you’ll wind up just giving up on life.
There’s always an element of hope in everything that I photograph.

JS: What’s the most depressing photograph you’ve made?

JP: A long, long, long time ago, I had photographed the aftermath of a tornado in Jonesboro,
Arkansas. I was walking through the rubble, and I saw a dead woman holding her two dead
babies in the debris. I have never been able to get that image out of my head. That photo didn’t
get published.

JS: Do you find yourself periodically getting burned out on photography?

JP: I never let it get that far. I often reflect on something that photographer Bill Steber told me. Bill
is a really good friend of mine. We were working together at The Tennessean one day, and he
said “Man, when you’re doing photographs for a news story, you’ve got to do it for yourself.
Don’t do it for them. And do what you want to do.” When you take that approach, and you’re
doing it for yourself, it makes a huge difference in how the assignment affects you. It safeguards
you from burnout.

And it seems to me that there’s a lot of photography out there that people are just doing because
they have to do it. They’re not doing it because they love what they’re doing. And it’s often not
going to be their best work.

The other thing that I have to say is that—and I think this defeats photographers more than
anything—is that a lot of photographers try to emulate others. There are all kinds of little Ansel
Adamses running around, and all kinds of this and that. It’s not bad to be influenced by those
people, but you’ve got to have your own eye. You can’t copy someone else’s style just because
you like it.

Now and again, I go through periods where I don’t want to see another photographer’s work just
because I don’t want to be influenced that way. I want to keep that well pure. Other times, I do
look at other peoples’ stuff, but I make it a point not to emulate anybody. Everyone has a
different eye and a different way of looking at things. If you’re going to be of value as a
photographer, you need to protect the clarity of your artistic vision from any sort of negative
influence. And if you suppress your unique perspective, then you’re hurting yourself.

JS: How does a budding photographer cultivate their perspective?

JP: Well, the first step is listening to your inner voice and trusting that. I don’t think many people
realize what that is. Sometimes, you develop a feeling about something, and you have to give
that feeling space to grow inside of you. I always refer to pictures as feelings when I’m working
on something. I try to figure out “How should this particular picture make me feel? What kinds
of details or mood should it convey?”

JS: You refer to your process as “Zen photography,” referring to the Buddhist values of
meditation, intuition, and being present in the moment. Let’s unpack that.

JP: Being present in the moment is exactly what I try to do. I actually try not to think about it. I don’t
sit around going, “I need a picture! I need a picture!” It’s serendipity. You’re walking around,
and you see someone or something that catches your attention. That’s what I mean by Zen
photography: You don’t think. You just react to what’s in front of you, without worrying about
what people think or manipulating the image after the session. Most of the time when I come
back from an assignment, I’m totally surprised by what I was able to get because I’m so
immersed in the process. Some of these photos you don’t ever remember taking.

JS: The relationship dynamic between photographers and employers/clients can vary greatly.
If someone hires a photographer for an assignment, should it be with minimal input for the
creative process? And should those hiring you just trust the process?

JP: My editor for the Tennessee Lookout—Holly McCall—is that way. She’s incredibly trusting.
And not just with me, but with all of the Tennessee Lookout team members. It’s wonderful
because she doesn’t micromanage anybody, leaving us free to do our best work the way we
know how to do it.

This was after 17 years of being micromanaged. But everything seems to work out.

JS: Let’s discuss your art exhibition efforts. You have a forthcoming art show entitled “Down
A Country Road V” coming up in Columbia? What can you share?

JP: It opens on Saturday, November. 11. This is an art show concept set up by Anne Goetze. Anne is
a Franklin artist and a dear personal friend. I met her through my work with Nashville Arts
Magazine, and we hit it off.

She specifically wanted me to show my Americana/Nashville stuff. So many of those
photographs found their way into my second book “Rancho Beyondo.” A lot of that stuff hasn’t
been in shows, it’s just been in the book since it was released around the time of the pandemic.

The drive behind “Rancho Beyondo” was to try and document the weirder stuff in Nashville that
happens to be its true character. I’ve been covering Nashville since 2000. The Nashville Scene
wrote about my book, saying that the pictures in it were unlike anything people get to see. That
made me feel like “Wow! I’m doing the right thing!”

An image from "Rancho Beyondo" featuring an Elvis impersonator with two little girls.Photo Credit: John Partipilo

JS: Along with work from other artists, your selections for this art show will feature 12
photographs that showcase what you feel to be Nashville’s true character.

JP: Yes! And this is going to be a great show with some amazing artists. Buddy Jackson is in it,
along with Anne, her son Nathan Collie—who is an outstanding bird photographer—and my
friend Valentine Adams, who does metal sculpture work. I was just honored to be asked by these
people to join them because everyone participating is very talented.

And the great thing about this show is that it’s going to be up until December 10. There’s live
music scheduled for the weekends, and those wanting to see it during the weekdays can see the
show privately by appointment.

JS: The opportunity to be in “Down A Country Road V” comes after a string of several
successful art exhibitions in 2022-2023, including the Frist Art Museum’s “Guitar Town:
Picturing Performance Today.”

JP: That’s correct, along with my show at Vanderbilt University, which featured a bunch of
photography made during the pandemic. A lot of the work in those shows was made during the
pandemic. While everything was slowed down, several of my artist friends and I wanted to go
out and make photographs. I was out almost every single day documenting what I could during
COVID-19. Most of this work got picked up by local publications like the Nashville Scene.

That was such a synchronous thing. Not only did my work get put in their permanent collection,
but because I did that show, I was able to photograph Reverend James Lawson, who is a Civil
Rights icon. I was getting ready to try and track him down to take his picture for a Civil Rights
project I’m working on, and here he is in Nashville ready for me to take his picture.

JS: Should it be the understanding of NUMBER, Inc. readers that many Civil Rights icons
remain uncelebrated?

JP: Living in Nashville, you hear a lot about Congressman John Lewis. And he’s an incredible guy.
But there are so many other people who should be acknowledged.

There are lots of Freedom Riders whose images and works haven’t been preserved for future
generations to learn about. These people are heroes! Every one of the Freedom Riders in
Nashville got kicked out of college. Now, they’ve all been allowed to get their degrees back and
all this kinds of stuff, but they went through a lot. They got beat up and encountered so much
racism. And all of that affected them. There were a couple of Freedom Riders whom I tried to
interview. But they had such a horrible experience that they were scarred for life, and they just
didn’t want to talk about it.

I don’t want to reveal specific details just yet, but I’m working on a project that will document
some of these unsung Civil Rights heroes. It may be one of the most important things I’ve done
to date.

JS: Lastly, is it fair to say that you feel a sense of destiny with what you do?

JP: Absolutely. I’ve always felt that my destiny was to be a photographer. Ever since I was nine
years old. A lot of people know this story, but my first time using a camera was to document the
nuns at St. Joseph’s when they were spanking my classmates!

And I’ve been documenting things ever since. I documented the Nashville Christmas Day
Bombing. I’ve documented the attempted arson of the Nashville Courthouse during the Black
Lives Matter protests. I’ve documented U.S. Presidents. You name it, I’ve done it.

I think that synchronicity has a lot to do with my success. Every day that I wake, I speak about
how grateful I am for all of the stuff that’s happened to me, like a little thank-you to the universe.
I’ve been very lucky. I think that all of the things that have happened to me are meant to be.

That’s something I try to tell other artists: If you follow your gut, these things will fall into place.

“Down A Country Road V” will run every weekend at Columbia’s Theta General Store from
Saturday, Nov. 11 to Sunday, Dec. 10, available also on weekdays by advanced appointment.

John Partipilo is an award-winning photographer and fine arts photojournalist who has
documented some of Nashville’s most memorable moments. He’s currently a contract
photographer for Tennessee Lookout, a watchdog nonprofit news outlet covering politics in the
Volunteer State. As a photojournalist, his work has been seen around the world via publications
such as The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Time, and Newsweek. John has photographed rock
stars, U.S. Presidents, violent racists, urban protestors, engaged soldiers, refugees, and just about
everything else one could imagine. His work is part of private art collections and public art
collections alike. He lives in East Nashville with his dog, Lily.

Justin Stokes is a freelance writer living in Murfreesboro, TN. Since 2012, he has covered the
Nashville media market, writing about music, visual art, technology, business, politics,
entertainment, and real estate. His work has been featured in national publications, and he has
interviewed hundreds of celebrities, including comedians, musicians, authors, actors, and