Man's worldview shaped behind lens
Richard E. Kozak’s resume reads like that of a battle-hardened war veteran, not a multiple award-winning news photographer.
His photographic endeavors have taken him around the world, but when he decided to slow down two years ago, Kozak, 58, decided to settle in Dixonville.
“(My wife Elaine and I) have family ties to this area,” he said, “so we thought this would be a nice place to come back and contribute to the community.”
Originally from upstate New York, Kozak first found work at the Morning Journal in Lorain, Ohio, after college graduation. It wasn’t long before his work began to garner notice. With photographs ranging in subject from news to sports, features and so on, he began racking up “a lot of awards.”
“I think one year I won 12 awards from the Ohio News Photographers Association,” he said.
All this attention caught the eye of the Washington Times in Washington, D.C. At the time, Kozak figured he had outgrown the paper in Ohio and was ready to move on to a larger venue. Covering news in the center of United States government provided him with a great deal of exposure to the news and politics of that area.
More awards followed. When he won first place in a White House News Photographers Association contest, Kozak was personally recognized by President Ronald Regan in the Oval Office. He would go on to meet many other presidents, including Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Following his work at the Times, Kozak freelanced for a short period before landing a gig at the now-defunct Insight magazine. His work started to take on a national perspective when he photographed a range of stories such as the Guardian Angels group in New York City, drug smuggling in Miami and portraits of political leaders in his familiar stomping grounds of Washington, D.C.
Each photograph came with its own unique story. Some were shot on the fly while some had a little more time and staging behind it.
When Kozak covered the mid-1990s government shutdown, discretion was key, he said.
“I happened to be invited to photograph a meeting that Speaker (Newt) Gingrich and his staff of congressmen as they discussed shutting down the government,” he said. “The way I was able to photograph that meeting was to keep silent of what I had heard.”
For a photograph Kozak did of then-U.S. Rep. Phil Crane, Kozak explained he wanted to get a shot of Crane away from his office, which had become a common and tired setting. Kozak suggested he come out to Crane’s house and take a few shots there, while Crane suggested he bring his grandchildren along. Trying to take a shot of the family on the sofa “just wasn’t working,” when Kozak spotted a trampoline in the back yard. He suggested having Crane in the foreground while the children jumped in the background, and that’s the photo Insight decided to run.
After Insight folded, he found work with the Army Times, a job that had him deploying as much as an active duty soldier.
“The first year I worked with Army Times,” he said, “I spent 245 days out of the country.
“It was quite an experience. To see the living conditions that the soldiers had to go through and see the hazardous situations of warfare and to experience that. There’s no way to unleash this except that I used photography and read a lot of books.”
Kozak also experienced his share of hazardous situations, even suffering injuries while on assignment.
He described a scene at the Syrian border while with the Marines. They had arrived under the cover of darkness and were waiting for an additional unit to show up. He and a gunnery sergeant had stepped from behind their cover when shots rang out. Both Kozak and the gunnery sergeant were hit in what turned into a “10- or 15-minute firefight.”
Kozak was flown out for surgery. Once the morphine cleared, “about 30 to 35 hours later, I was back on the front lines with the Marines,” he said.
His next tour was with the Army. While working outside of Bagdad one day, he declined to go on a second mission after having completed an early morning mission. Shortly after the soldiers left, “all hell broke loose at the building I was at.
“The Bradley (fighting vehicle) I was supposed to be in got hit with by an IED the size of a Volkswagen,” he said. “Flipped the 80-ton vehicle over, all six people inside burned to death. Those were the situations you keep for the rest of your life. What if, what if. What if I did, what if I didn’t?”
After leaving the Army Times, Kozak decided it was time to settle down somewhere he could give back. He wanted to go somewhere he could share his “wealth of knowledge.”
“Any knowledge you can obtain is wonderful,” he said.
He has been working with Indiana University of Pennsylvania, trying to get featured speakers for the university. He also showcases his work at the Artists Hand along Philadelphia Street. His wife is an advertising consultant with The Indiana Gazette.
“I’ve been fortunate to be all over the world. It’s been a very good journey,” he said.