Nick Oza, Republic photojournalist, documentarian of the immigrant world, dies at age 57 – The Arizona Republic

Nick Oza, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who produced stark images of resilience and triumph in the face of natural and man-made adversity, has died. He was 57.
Oza, who joined The Arizona Republic’s photo staff in 2006, was known for an immersive style of photography, working as a documentarian and following individuals through life-changing events. His signature images captured emotion, often expressed through a subject’s eyes or hands.
Though he often was with people as they suffered through trying times — cleaning up a hurricane-ravaged house, anxious about a looming deportation — Oza had a disarming personality that put subjects at ease. 
Though he spoke limited Spanish, Oza became well known in the community of Latino immigrants in Phoenix. 
He often documented protest actions. And he was often pegged to cover longer-term projects about immigrant issues and people. 
Many of those projects came from Oza himself, whose drive to find compelling visuals naturally spilled into discovering great stories.
Oza died early Monday. He had been hospitalized since Sept. 3, when a single-vehicle car accident in Phoenix left him seriously injured. 
“Our hearts go out to Nick’s wife Jacquelyn, daughter Shanti, and the Oza family,” said Greg Burton, executive editor of The Republic.
Burton said that Oza “changed the way we see each other and, true to his calling, the way we see ourselves in the struggles of others.”
On assignment for The Republic, Oza traveled to Central America and Mexico to capture the trek of migrants hopping trains to head north. Oza often went to the Arizona border with Mexico to tell stories.
His work was included in The Republic’s 2017 project called “The Wall” that examined the planned border wall imagined by President Donald Trump. The project team won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting that year. 
In one image taken for that project, Oza focused on a spot in existing border fencing that ended as the terrain became mountainous. In the foreground, stood an empty water bottle, like those used by migrants making the trek across the desert. 
In an image from April 2021, Oza photographed a spot on the border along the San Pedro River that had an open gate. Through the gate, a stand of cottonwood trees stood illuminated by the sun. 
In August, Oza was in the Mexican state of Sonora, which borders Arizona, to document Central American families who had been in limbo waiting out shifting U.S. government policies on asylum claims.
In one image, for a story that hasn’t published yet, Oza captured the vacant look of a baby girl, her face filtered by the mesh lining of a crib in a dark rental apartment.
Oza’s photos were also part of the Biloxi Sun Herald’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina that tore through Biloxi, Mississippi. At the time, Oza was working for sister newspaper The Telegraph of Macon, Georgia.
A photo from that time: A mother holding a toddler on a beach. Around them lies destruction. A dirty mattress, piles of debris, wooden logs. She is nuzzling the child, pursing her lips for a kiss.
Anita Lee, a reporter for the Sun Herald who worked with Oza covering the aftermath of the hurricane, praised his unique talent and spirit.
“Nick’s sense of humor and charm helped us through a catastrophe,” she said.
Oza often trained his camera in unexpected places, capturing the emotion of an event in a small detail that caught his eye.
Amid a busy protest against police violence in 2020, Oza focused on a woman who was holding a cardboard sign filled with the scrawled names of people who died by officers’ actions. The arm that clutched the sign had several tattoos of blooming flowers. The woman wasn’t posing for Oza’s camera, but he saw an arresting image and snapped it.
Oza could capture emotion even when circumstances required that he couldn’t show a subject’s face:
The tiny hands of a tot clutch the bars of a police car where he was kept for safekeeping after his mother threatened suicide. A child at a behavioral health center squeezes a red ball to his chest with his forearm during recess. 
Oza’s images built a reputation that stretched far beyond local journalism, and photographers who encountered him in the field quickly became as close as colleagues.
Joshua Lott moved to Phoenix in 2008, working as a freelance photographer for The New York Times and other outlets. He said he found a fast friend in Oza.
“His was knee-deep in just trying to tell stories,” Lott said. “He wanted to make sure he got that message out there to the readers and the people of Arizona.”
Lott said he never saw Oza without his camera. “He lived and breathed photojournalism,” he said. “That’s who Nick was.” 
Oza was “a muse to colleagues and a medium for those seeking asylum or justice or truth or comfort,” Burton said. 
He was also the colleague with a “twinkle in his eye,” recalled Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, a Republic reporter who has covered politics for years. 
Wingett Sanchez recalled Oza getting a reluctant Gov. Jan Brewer to agree to a photo session on the floor of the 2016 Republican National Convention. On the day Sheriff Joe Arpaio received a pardon from President Donald Trump, Oza went through Arpaio’s home office, rummaging through his shelf of collectibles with no complaint from the man once known as America’s Toughest Sheriff.
Wingett Sanchez recalled that on their last assignment together, the two concocted a plan to get a U.S. senator to discuss on video, away from other reporters, the possibility of the existence of aliens. Oza told her: “I can’t believe we get paid to do this.”
Wingett Sanchez said Oza was a treasured friend away from journalism. “His deep love for people and all of their joys and anguish made him an easy friend to turn to in good times and bad times,” she said.” He didn’t just experience them with you, he felt them, too.”
Daniel Gonzalez, a reporter who frequently worked with Oza on immigration-related stories, said that at times Oza would disappear while on assignments, chasing what he thought was the visual story. 
“He was always looking for that really beautiful poetic image that captured a story in a way that the words couldn’t,” Gonzalez said. 
Oza told Gonzalez that he didn’t necessarily want to mimic his reporting, snapping photos of the people Gonzalez was interviewing. Oza went searching for more.
“He was trying to see things at a much higher level,” Gonzalez said. “He knew the reporter would do their job. He wouldn’t want photos to be redundant of the words. He wanted photos to say something at another level that only a photograph could do.”
Rafael Carranza, an immigration reporter, traveled to Mexico with Oza this year for the stories on refugees who are in limbo in Mexico.
Carranza said Oza excelled at capturing the heart of the story, even if the image wasn’t the expected one.
“If something big was happening, photos of a big crowd don’t convey much,” Carranza said. “He would have a really good way of focusing on the smaller details.” At a refugee camp, he would focus on someone cooking, Carranza said.
“That was the way he really humanized the subjects of his photos,” he said.
Carranza was able to see Oza use his charismatic personality to get subjects to open up to him.
“He’d find a way to relate to everyone, even if they don’t speak the same language, as is often the case when I worked with him,” Carranza said. “He just found a way to really connect with people.”
Gonzalez said Oza often used humor to relate to subjects, not being afraid to show his silly side.
Gonzalez recalled visiting South Carolina and meeting a man who had made some overtly racist comments. The man had a menacing dog and toted a shotgun, Gonzalez said. Still, he warmed to Oza, Gonzalez said, and agreed to give the immigrant from India a ride to his farm.
One of his editors, Diana Payan, said that Oza was “the only person that could frustrate me and make me laugh uncontrollably in the same breath.”
To ease those frustrating moments, Oza would tell Payan, “Di, you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.”
Payan said it sounded silly. “But he was right,” she said. “I miss him terribly.”
Oza was born in Mumbai, India, where his passion for photography began, his wife, Jacquelyn, told The Republic.
A friend who worked at a photography store lent him a book on the subject, she said. Months passed and the friend asked Oza if he was done with it. Not yet, Oza told him. He was re-writing it word-for-word, he told him, and still had a few chapters to copy down. The friend was so impressed, he gave Oza some film. Oza built a pinhole camera out of a cardboard box and took his first photo. 
Oza worked as a freelance photographer until age 22 when he moved to the United States. He later became a U.S. citizen. 
He attended Columbia College in Chicago and intended to become a commercial photographer.
However, his professors noted his gift for immersing himself into his subjects’ lives and suggested he pursue journalism or documentary photography.
It was the best advice he would ever receive, Oza would say.
His wife said her husband strived to make his mark on the world through his lens.
“He had an independent spirit and film flowed through his veins,” she said. “His heart truly belonged to the community and the greater world. He had a mission. He and his camera were the vessel to highlight important issues. He was a storyteller, an artist of light and the voice to enlighten others.”
His daughter, Shanti, said her father taught her that everyone has a story worth telling. “I will always carry that with me,” she said to The Republic. “It’s the reason I want to be a teacher who advocates for social justice.”
Oza talked to his family in India every day, Gonzalez said. On assignments, he would hear Oza on his phone speaking to them. And on month-long trips he made to India, he would video conference with Gonzalez so he could meet them.
Oza said he often starts his projects by gaining the trust of his subjects. “That’s why I spend more time talking, almost like a preacher,” he told Java Magazine in 2019. “Then the photography comes out.”
GoFundMe.com account was established to support Oza and his family.

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