Zack Canepari is an American filmmaker and photojournalist from Northern California. Zack started his career working as a photojournalist in India and Pakistan for Panos Pictures in 2007. In 2010 he partnered with Drea Cooper, another filmmaker, and started the California is a Place website which became a platform for them to tell unique stories from their home state. The series showed at Sundance and led them to produce commercials and other editorial content under the ZCDC moniker.
Through the success of California is a Place Canepari and Cooper were led to the story of Claressa Shields, a young female boxer from Flint, Michigan, who was training for the 2012 Olympics, the first year women boxing was included. The documentary captured the strain of expectation and pressures that are put on someone ‘successful’ from a place like Flint. Over the course of the film, you not only see Claressa’s growth, but you also see the growth of Zack and Drea as filmmakers. Their cinematography and approach to storytelling progresses so much throughout the runtime of the film. The film allows you to watch them learn their craft through just doing it, something I respect greatly. The project was also a testament to their commitment to their work. Getting the project funded seemed to be a huge hurdle for them, but they were able to keep their perspective on why it was important to push forward when it didn’t seem possible. That ability to tune out the doubt, which I’m sure they had, and focus on the importance of the story is something that can’t be taught and they were able to push through, ultimately creating a film that told a powerful story.
I started to follow Zack’s work in 2011, well before I had considered the possibility of filmmaking as a career and right in the midst of his work on T-Rex. Even then I thought it was incredibly lucky for a filmmaker to find a story so ripe with natural tension and the possibility of such an amazing outcome as a Olympic Gold Medal. The idea of trying to capture such a story was overwhelming to think about at the time and I’m still in awe of how they fostered such a close relationship with Claressa and her community. It is that skill, the ability to make a real human connection and then reflect that in the work that I respect Zack for the most. He obviously respects his subjects and connects with them before capturing their life. It must be incredibly rewarding for him at a personal level and the depth it brings to his work is obvious. It is that humility that I hope to bring to my own work.
His time on T-Rex connected him to the Flint community a few years before the water crisis there. Since then, he’s developed Flint is a Place, a reboot of his earlier work in California. This platform showcases a more journalistic approach and reflects his more recent work with the New York Times. Photos, film, audio, graphics and platform design weave seamlessly together to tell unique stories through the eyes of Flint residents. This is where I want my own work to go and I feel that he is pushing the boundaries of how to tell impactful stories through the use of multiple different mediums.
Not only does his work in Flint pushing the boundaries of storytelling, it really shows how Zack approaches his work. He truly believes he must live and breathe with the people/stories he covers. Since California is a Place, much of his work has been focused on communities he is a part of. When asked why he stopped working overseas, he replied:
It’s a change of pace for me, for sure, but I realize the more I work in the Western World is that I have no business working on projects in distant, far-off places. I don’t know shit about those places. I’m always impressed when people can make great work about places they are just exploring for the first time. The best work, in my experience, tends to take place in the place that you know best. For me, at this stage, that’s in California.
Since then, he has moved from California to Michigan where he has spent his time developing relationships with the community in Flint. Living with the people there and gaining their trust so he can better shine light on their perspective. His ability to do this stems from his genuineness. He approaches people in a way that doesn’t make them feel used or manipulated and in turn they allow him into their life. The practice of clarity and humanity is powerful.
For someone with such a successful career, Zack is pretty hard to pin down. His online presence is limited to a few canned blurbs via his agency and sony bios, a website that doesn’t quite work and a neglected instagram and twitter feed. I think this is the most important and inspiring thing about Zack. He doesn’t seem to care about the press he gets or how many likes his photos are getting online. Instead he seems to quietly grind it out and allowing his work to speaks for itself. This is pretty refreshing in a time where journalists are romanticized and idolized and a photographer/filmmaker’s brand is almost more powerful than the stories they are telling. Zack seems to keep the focus on what is in front of his camera and makes sure he doesn’t get in the way. His calculated invisibility is his most powerful storytelling technique.
Recently, he signed with VII, a photo agency founded by some of the best photojournalists of our time. The agency’s members focus their time on some of the world’s most complicated and intense issues. I’ve always had deep respect and admiration for their work and I look forward to how this will amplify Zack’s voice and the voice of all his subjects.