Photojournalist John Shishmanian reflects on 43-year career
A two-week temporary stint at The Bulletin in 1979 turned into a 43-year photo journalism career for John Shishmanian, who retired in November.
“I had fallen in love with the job. I just loved it immediately," he said during a telephone chat about meeting interesting people. "It's just the best job ever. It's a lot of fun.”
Memorable experiences include photographing Frank Sinatra when he opened for the new hotel and entertainment complex at Foxwoods Resort Casino in November 1993, Shishmanian, 73, said. “I remember they only allowed us to shoot three songs and from very far away. Good thing we (he and other members of the media) all had very long lenses to get close-ups of ol’ blue eyes."
The Colchester resident also photographed countless celebrities, including Elton John, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope, as well as baseball players Mickey Mantle, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, and former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush and George W. Bush.
Reflecting on when former President Ford visited the Coast Guard Academy in the 1980s, Shishmanian said he noticed Ford kept pulling up a sock that kept falling down and snapped a photo of his effort, which ran in the paper. He learned later that Ford was walking around with the clipping of that photo in his pocket. “He was showing it to people," Shishmanian said laughing. "He enjoyed it."
Then there was the time he crawled out his passenger-side door and battled a 90-mile-per-hour wind during Hurricane Gloria in September 1985 to shoot a downed tree on Chelsea Parade in Norwich.
That same year, Shishmanian covered the Space Shuttle Challenger launch “and teacher Christa McAuliffe who was there watching the lift-off of the shuttle she and six other astronauts would die on in a horrible explosion of the next flight in1986."
He also chatted with and photographed CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite, known as “the most trusted man in America,” on board the U.S. Coast Guard's Barque Eagle.
“We had just arrived in New York City after an overnight trip from New London on the Eagle. He was there as part of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986.”
On June 23, 1986, Shishmanian photographed the Girard brothers from Jewett City as they inflated their life-size Statue of Liberty hot air balloon and flew it from Kelly Middle School in Norwich.
“After taking some of the photos from the ground, I had to run to get on board one of the other hot air balloons. The Girard balloon was nearly three times the height of the other balloons. After the photos ran, a French magazine wrote me and asked to use the photos for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. The experience of silently floating over picturesque Norwich was exhilarating.”
Over the years, he also photographed many operations at the Backus Hospital in Norwich.
“My favorite was a natural childbirth in the mid-1980s. I got permission from the parents during a Lamaze class and was on call for the big day. I got the call at 3 a.m. and entered the back door of the hospital with my temporary ID badge and waited with the family. It was so special to share such an amazing moment in their lives and capture it on film for the paper."
How it all began
Born at Backus Hospital, Shishmanian’s family lived in Griswold and Windsor before settling in Norwich. After graduating from Norwich Free Academy in 1967 and Eastern Connecticut State University in 1975 (with a major in social relations and only a few courses in photography), timing was everything.
“I first met him (Shishmanian) when I was working the sidelines at local football games and he would often be there taking photos. I think he was taking photos just for himself and to learn more about photography. He was always coming up to me asking about job possibilities and was always very enthusiastic,” said Jeff Evans, who is now multimedia specialist at Hartford HealthCare East Region, which includes Backus and Windham hospitals.
Evans began working as a photographer for The Bulletin in 1975 and eventually became photo editor/manager of the department until 2000.
When Shishmanian heard about the two-week photography gig at The Bulletin (to fill in while Evans was on a European vacation), he quickly put together a portfolio with about a dozen 8-by-10 inch, black-and-white glossy photos by going to Harkness Memorial State Park and photographing people enjoying the water and the park and then snapping photos at an NFA football game. He was hired.
After his two weeks were up and Evans returned, Shishmanian said he decided to just show up at The Bulletin.
"They said, 'Oh, Shish, good. We've got some assignments here. Busy day.’ So I wasn't officially hired. I just had the nerve to show up. And I know they liked my work."
“As the story goes, when I returned no one actually told him (Shishmanian) he needed to leave and he had already established himself as a good photographer willing to hustle. So he stayed, for many more years,” Evans said in an email.
After working the two-week photography stint, Shishmanian said he was offered a firefighting position by the Norwich Fire Department chief for almost twice the pay, but turned it down.
“So it took months before I was finally officially hired. I just kept coming,” Shishmanian said. “It was privately co-owned back then by the Oat and Noyes families, so they could do whatever they wanted.”
He said he never thought of going to a different newspaper.
"It's my hometown. I was born there. I know so many people there and I liked working there…The employees always treated me well. I never, ever, had a problem with anybody. I loved working there.”
“Shish was a real asset to the Norwich community and surrounding towns. A staff photographer at a paper like the Norwich Bulletin, or The Day, gets to go to a lot of events and meets a lot of people. He became well known throughout the region, especially after 43 years. He had a good eye and a friendly personality, two things that are key to being a successful community newspaper photographer,” Evans said.
“It was fitting that Shish's last-ever assignment was covering NFA’s homecoming football game against New Milford,” said NFA Communications Director Michael O'Farrell, describing him as “one of a kind” in an email.
After the first-quarter, Shishmanian said he was surprised by an announcement over the school’s public address system thanking him for his work, the part he played in showcasing the efforts of NFA’s student athletes and marking “the end of an era in our local community. Today’s game represents the last-ever assignment for photography legend John Shishmanian. Shish, as he is known, has likely photographed thousands of NFA events over his long career at The Bulletin.”
“The thing about Shish that stands out above everything else is kindness. Yes, he had a job to do, and he did it well. But he is a kind, gentle man. And, with his career, he could have simply gone through the motions, but he didn't do that. He was a fixture,” O'Farrell said. “You'd just expect to see him in the gym, on the field or on grounds for both simple and important moments. He was a pleasure to work with no matter the story and he always showed interest in whatever story he was shooting for that particular day. His presence at an event brought added credibility.”
“Extremely thoughtful, friendly and kind” are words Norwich Mayor Peter Albert Nystrom used to describe Shismanian during a telephone interview. “He is also very understanding and very empathetic when it comes to taking pictures of people in particular.”
“I have known John for over four decades. I started in public service (as an alderman) in 1979” at 22 “right out of college” when he started with The Bulletin. “I consider him a very good friend,” Nystrom said.
“I wish him nothing but the best and hope he still visits us, shows up, and brings that camera,” whether it’s a telescopic lens or other type.
“He is going to be missed. I consider him a foundational person here in the City of Norwich,” he said.
“I don’t know if The Bulletin can survive without him to be honest. He is The Bulletin, has been the face of The Bulletin.”
“When John came to take a photograph, you knew that person, you knew of him, his quality, because he took the time to talk to you,” Nystrom said, adding, “His kindness is shared with a perfect stranger all the time.”
Shishmanian said the best part of his job was the people he met every day - some becoming longtime friends. Still, he knew it was time to retire. "When I left on the last day, I had no regrets and enjoyed every year I was there and worked for wonderful people, great reporters and editors and photographers."
For the next few months, he said he is going to relax, do more traveling with his wife, Angela Dias, and visit old friends he hasn't seen in a while. Having just returned from Home Depot to purchase more Christmas lights to hang outside, he said his “Honey-Do” list is getting longer.
In the future, he may start taking nature photos and volunteering again for Habitat for Humanity.
Describing her husband as a “people person,” Dias said, "He touched the lives of so many people in the community, and because he is so talented, his photos really resonated with a lot of people,” including people he met and photographed and those he didn’t.
She thinks the fact that they were both in the news business (Dias worked at WTIC Newstalk 1080 Radio in Hartford for over 35 years until 2020, as well as stations in Providence, Rhode Island and Massachusetts before that), deepened their relationship.
“We both understood the demands of our professions. They're very similar. I also did reporting. I know that when news breaks, you have to be there and we understood not only the challenges, but also the other issues that relate to it. So we had a common language,” and understood each other’s challenges, even though they didn’t talk about work all the time, she said.
John Shishmanian has been named grand marshall of this year’s Winterfest Parade (Norwich’s first light parade) on Sat., Dec. 3 at 6 p.m., which starts near Chelsea Groton Bank at One Franklin Square in downtown Norwich, across from Otis Library. For more information, go to gonorwichct.com.
John Shishmanian and his wife, Angela Dias, have two sons, William Shishmanian, 31, and Jack Shishmanian, 25.
Jan Tormay, a longtime Norwich resident, now lives in Westerly.