Mel Gibson smoking in a hotel room, vigils at the Lincoln Memorial, the Malta Summit meeting between President Bush and Gorbachev — these are a handful of moments Binghamton University alumnus Matthew Mendelsohn has captured throughout his career.
Mendelsohn graduated from BU in 1985 with a B.A. in English and spoke in the New University Union as part of the Fleishman Center’s Cool Connections, Hot Alumni program. A former Pipe Dream photographer, Mendelsohn was brought to campus to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Pipe Dream’s 1970 name change from The Colonial News.
After his graduation, Mendelsohn was a photographer at the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, eventually moving on to USA Today. He then wrote for both the New York Times and the Washington Post. For several years he photographed celebrities and sporting events before leaving to work with his brother to write a New York Times Magazine story investigating who killed their great uncle during the Holocaust. Inspired by this story and, due to a knack for listening, his career moved in a different direction — writing.
“It’s just in my DNA: When I hear a good story, I latch onto it,” Mendelsohn said. “You have to be able to connect and you have to be able to listen.”
More recently, Mendelsohn founded Matt Mendelsohn Photography. Through it, he is hired to photograph weddings — which pays the bills — whilst also finding stories that are worth telling. In once instance, he photographed the wedding of a deaf couple. Mendelsohn then stayed in touch with them over the years, documenting all the milestones in their lives, including the birth of their two children, one of whom has various medical problems and underwent open-heart surgery as a newborn.
Mendelsohn also shared the story of Lindsay Ess, a young woman who had her arms and legs amputated a result of a surgical complication. He had heard about Lindsay at a wedding he was photographing when the hairdresser asked him to pray for her friend’s daughter. Mendelsohn then reached out to the family. On Friday, he showed a photo essay of Lindsay’s recovery. She ended up being the recipient of one of the first-ever bilateral hand transplants.
“I just thought it sounded like a story that needed to be covered,” he said.
However, Mendelsohn said that he now prefers writing to photography, because he believes the photograph has gone from being an absolute truth to an absolute non-truth.
“I like to write because you can’t fake being a writer,” Mendelsohn said. “And now you can sort of fake being a photographer. Everybody is a photographer now and it’s kind of a bummer.”
Jake Ratner, a senior majoring in art and design, said he went to the event to get a preview of the road ahead by seeing how Mendelsohn navigated an artistic market.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to hear about the possibilities of a career in a creative industry from someone who has been a part of it for longer than I’ve been alive,” Ratner said. “Matt’s lessons push me to make sure I look and listen at everything going on around me, because you never know where a story will end based on how it started.”
Mendelsohn stressed that the stories he writes do not have to be about famous celebrities or sports games, saying that writing about interesting people is much more real.
“Listen carefully — when people say things to you, there’s a story there,” he said. “As you get older you realize the best stories are right under your thumb.”
As a photographer on Pipe Dream, Mendelsohn took photos for Ron Klempner, the sports editor in the early ’80s, who was in attendance. Even then, Klempner said, he knew journalism was going to be Mendelsohn’s life.
“As if it isn’t enough to take incredible pictures to evoke in people all the emotions that his photos evoke,” Klempner said, “the fact that he can write about it as well is just the most unique experience that you’ll ever find.”