The way we think about things, see things and react changes us—hopefully for the better. When Colorado photographer Jensen Sutta lived through the trauma of a rollover accident, his viewpoint on how to live, work and create became rooted in “life is short, do the things you love.” Each image he produces shows a deep understanding of the subject he is capturing and underscores how satisfying he finds his chosen career.
“Even before I was earning paid assignments, I was volunteering to photograph nonprofit events,” Sutta explains. “One of the most powerful early moments occurred while photographing for a wish-granting organization that had sent a family to see the ocean for the first time. I was able to photograph their experience and hope to never forget it!”
And so it began
Born in historic Fairfax, Virg., just outside Washington, D.C., Sutta and his family moved to Colorado when he was 10. He returned to Virginia to complete a degree in biology at the University of Richmond then switched coasts, earning a master’s degree in photography from the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif. Though he travels widely to cover a broad range of assignments, coming back home to his wife of 10 years and two “crazy boys” ages 7 and 6 is what grounds him.
Using his camera to record a scene and having a conversation to better understand the deeper context of a specific shot, Sutta is mindful of the action and emotion that brings strength to a picture. He is always moved by these encounters and often surprised by the resulting photos, like “standing next to female government officials from Africa and watching them weep when America made a woman a Presidential nominee; Kirk Douglas asking Quentin Tarantino to be his friend and in return, Tarantino kissing his hand; and a boy or girl being presented the medals of their parent who died in battle for the nonprofit Remembering the Brave.”
His portfolio reveals impactful events: covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; capturing special moments when the Dalai Lama visited Boulder recently; and, documenting charity efforts in Haiti and elsewhere. He celebrates photographing get-togethers like Elton John’s Oscar Party, producing images for a Paul Simon coffee table book, as well as snapping a smiling Oprah, a smirking Diane Keaton, a thoughtful Madeleine Albright and bristly-bearded Jeff Bridges, among others.
Love the work you do
“That I can take a picture of a celebrity that goes in a magazine, sure that’s fun to show people and send to my parents,” he says. “But, I can also say, ‘Hey, I went to Haiti to raise money to feed children.’ Showing how exactly the charity is helping in a place that most donors will never go is fulfilling. Any number of images from Haiti remind me what is really important in life.”
This sentiment also ties into a favorite quote from 18-year-old c, an American singer-songwriter who lost his life to cancer in 2013. “What makes you happy is seeing someone else smile because you put it there.” A cause and achieving this effect is Sutta’s passion.
Nonprofits validate that Sutta’s work boosts their efforts immensely. “The response that provides the clearest definition is that they ask me year after year to please reserve their dates. For many, many years now, I’ve been the photographer for several foundations: Global Down Syndrome, Children’s Hospital of Colorado, Children’s Diabetes and 16 years for Tim Tebow’s Foundations,” Sutta notes. “It’s not just a one-time-thanks for helping us. It is thanks, you have really helped us increase funding and share our story. Please come back.”
The growing list of philanthropic involvement could one day take up most of Sutta’s time. In addition to the photography, he thrives on interacting with other professionals. He often hones his matchmaking skills to bring people together to do good work. “If I do a job for a billionaire and my next job is for a nonprofit, I love the opportunity to connect them. In the future, if I can do nothing but nonprofit work and use the network I have built over the last 18, 19 years, that would be kind of my dream future. The breadth of opportunities I have had in my career is quite mind-boggling,” Sutta says. “I think life is very much about who you know. It doesn’t escape me that I move in these crazy circles.”
Sutta easily adjusts his mindset to match the task at hand. He might say to a corporate client, “If only three pictures turn out today, please tell me what they would look like. My goal is to give them exactly the images they are looking for.”
In a celebrity situation, he understands that picture-taking is ever present for them. “I know that person has potentially been photographed six times that day alone and thousands of times in a year. What can I do to put out an image that would be unique,” he says, recalling being in a crush of photographers at a performance by Burt Bacharach. Sutta lay on his back and captured Bacharach’s hands on the keys and his face reflected in the piano. Shooting B.B. King, the focus was not on the artist’s face but on the guitar and the hands that had “seen the miles.”
For nonprofits, it is depicting the legitimacy of what the group is achieving. “If I can help tell the story and help them make the world a better place, that’s my goal.”
A put-yourself-in-another-person’s shoes mantra Sutta recalls before each photo shoot is based on words by Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s: “Try not to look at your clients; try to look as your clients.” This quote always helps Sutta define the message of an image.
“I often leave the camera in the bag at the beginning of an interaction,” Sutta points out. “It’s very much about connecting on a human, personal level. It’s being kind and empathetic first and foremost. If it’s real, hopefully I get a better picture to share.”
Marge D. Hansen has held editorial positions on publications across the country and regularly writes for Colorado Expression and a variety of magazines, websites and corporate clients. She greatly admires photographers and the art of capturing life in the moment.
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