By Vanessa Romero—
Even before attending Rutgers, Thomas Costello, J/MS 1985, already had plans to make photography a part of his life.
Now chief photographer for video at the Asbury Park Press, he has reached the pinnacle of his career, winning the Joseph Costa Award from the National Press Photographers Association for outstanding initiative, leadership and service.
“It was great to be recognized,” said Costello, who joined the National Press Photographers Association 30 years ago and has been national secretary and regional director. But he prefers to be in the background, currently serving as audio-visual coordinator for national education programs.
“One thing I say is that almost no one realizes I am there unless I screw up,” he noted. “But if things go smoothly then it is just behind-the-scenes stuff. So I strive for things to go smoothly.”
Costello has seen the news photography business make immense leaps, from analog to digital photography and to video. While some have found it difficult to adjust, Costello found mastering both photography and video to be necessary.
“The technology was moving forward, giving me different tools in the tool box,” Costello said. “Now I have all these different ways to tell stories — some better in stills, some better in video, and sometimes in both stills and the video.”
The technological advances, according to Costello, have seriously improved the ways photojournalists today cover their stories and meet deadlines. During the national conventions in 1988, soon after he started at the Asbury Park Press, Costello recalled that the newspaper actually had to send film via a courier service and someone would have to pick it up at the airport and get it back to the paper.
“At that time a color print took half an hour to transmit, and it was expensive,” he noted, “but now a color picture takes seconds, which dramatically increases the choices given to the editors.”
There are many memorable stories he covered for the Press. One story stands out: covering the Miss America Pageant when the 9/11 attack happened.
“I covered the Miss America story for 20 years, and when the attack happened I got to tell a story that no one sees,” he recalled. “The president said, ‘Go back to your life,’ and they did. They still had the pageant, but the story changed. It was a true piece of Americana that the show must go on.”
Costello’s love for photography started in high school.
“A friend of mine wanted to take the photography class, and we wanted to take the same classes,” he said.
Before long he was involved with the yearbook and the photography club.
At Rutgers, he became involved with the Daily Targum and gained inspiration from his journalism professors, among them David Sachsman.
“He would tell you when you wrote something that was crap,” noted Costello. “It was great that he did that. You had to do it again. He was like a real newspaper editor.”
While being Targum photo editor and working for Rutgers’ Sports Information office, Costello did freelance photography for a number of papers, namely the Star-Ledger and the Asbury Park Press.
“It kind of clicked that the Press was a place where I enjoyed freelancing, and I loved the area so I applied for a job,” he said.
Later he began working with video journalists through National Press Photographers Association programs and felt he wanted to learn that skill.
According to Costello, a small group of 10 or 15 newspaper photographers across the country started shooting video for their websites, progressing to the point where Gannett, which had purchased the Asbury Park Press, started a video training program.
“I was a trained as a trainer,” Costello said. “It was my responsibility that people were meeting the proper standards.”
Costello lives with wife Christine and their two sons in Brick. Although he loves his career, he acknowledges that the profession is not what it used to be, principally because of the availability and ease of digital cameras and smart phones.
Here is his advice for future journalists: “Make sure you have a lot of money in the bank. This profession used to be respected, but now everyone has a feeling that anyone can take a picture. There is a difference between a professional photograph and an amateur photograph. You’ve got to know the story and tell the story in the photograph rather than just taking a snap shot.”