Niles native Zachary Bako uses camera as passport
Like any world traveler, Zachary Bako has a passport — in his case, more than one.
There’s the booklet that gets stamped and gets him through customs, and there’s his camera.
“My camera is a gateway, a passport to anything,” Bako said during an interview from Shanghai, China, where he now lives.
Born in Youngstown and raised in Niles, the 2000 Niles McKinley High School graduate works as a freelance photographer and experimental filmmaker. His work has appeared in magazines like Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure and such newspapers as the New York Times and the Washington Post.
ESPN recently featured a photo essay by Bako on its website chronicling the efforts of female boxer Michele Aboro to keep her gym afloat in Shanghai during the coronavirus pandemic.
Bako’s interest in photography started at the Tribune Chronicle, where he was part of the newspaper’s Page One program for teens. But he grew up surrounded by art. His mother, Phyllis, taught art in Niles City Schools and studied with Youngstown painter Al Bright, who died in October.
“I basically grew up in Al’s studio, surrounded by African sculptures and jazz music,” Bako said.
He minored in photography at Case Western Reserve, but his major was business management. He eventually realized he had the wrong major.
“It started to click that I didn’t have the passion to follow the business route I was studying at Case,” he said. “I was taking courses at Cleveland Institute of Art. Its darkrooms closed every night at 2 o’clock in the morning, and I would be there every night until 2. There was something about image making, being in the darkroom, watching stuff develop.”
His initial interest was fashion photography, and after earning his master’s degree in photography, he worked for several years as an assistant to photographer Steve Vacciariello in New York.
“When I initially moved to New York, I gave myself until the age of 30 to be a full-time shooter,” Bako said. “Six years or so of assisting gave me enough time to learn what I needed to and apply it in my own manner.”
He did an artist residency in Beijing in 2010 and moved there two years later — the same year he turned 30.
There he cultivated relationships with Western journalists to land newspaper and magazine assignments while also working with Chinese artists. He also did marketing / advertising assignments.
“It’s that fine line of getting the jobs you want or getting a job to pay rent and expenses,” he said. “It’s a balancing act, and as a freelance photographer, you have the option to take the job or not.”
He came back to the States for three years, working primarily out of Los Angeles, before returning to China, this time living in Shanghai.
His recent work blends his art and journalistic influences as a he manipulates the image by using filters and pieces of plastic to allow light to leak into the camera and alter the subject. He said it wasn’t until he attended the memorial for Al Bright last year at the Butler Institute for American Art that he realized that he was trying to create the same kind of abstract expressionistic imagery with a camera that Bright created with paint.
Bako now is working as director of photography on a short documentary chronicling the impact of COVID-19 in China, Australia and Thailand. He found himself traveling the world at the moment when the world — and international travel — was shutting down.
“Every airport, every flight you take was just a gamble,” he said. “There was a lot of uncertainty. We’ve had to deal with some quarantine issues. We had to deal with being in a holding area in one of the airports. When we got back from Bangkok, we got to see the front-line workers doing the best they could. They were exhausted. It was impressive to see the steps they were taking to control it.”
Things are starting to return to normal in Shanghai, he said. Sometimes, when he goes on a bike ride, he even forgets to wear a mask. It’s a sharp contrast from January and February, when he could take a bike ride in a city of 26 million and not see 50 people outdoors.
“It was surreal,” Bako said. “The only thing that was very calming is every morning I could still hear birds chirping. That gave me hope that OK, this isn’t the end of the world.”