Serge McCabe is still true. He was our mystery man last fall -- bearded, plaid-clad, and unidentified in a black-and-white photo found in the archives at Lied Library. The tattoo on his right bicep encircled "UNLV" in a heart; a banner waving below read "Be True to Your School."
Turns out the tattoo was temporary; the picture was for a university marketing campaign around 1977. McCabe joined the staff as a student worker and continued for a few years after graduation as a graphic designer and photographer.
Today, he's a freelance photographer in Oregon and California. McCabe earned a master's degree in 1984 from California's Brooks Institute of Photography. He later worked for the Associated Press and newspapers in Santa Barbara, Calif.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Seattle. He became director of photography for the Portland Oregonian in 1990 and helped launch its magazine, Homes and Gardens of the Northwest, as chief photographer.
With a minor in secondary education, his original career plan, though, was teaching. But it seems his talent got in the way. "I did my student teaching, but then I kept getting hired as a photographer," he says.
So, the classroom wasn't in the cards, but McCabe didn't lose his impulse to teach. Soon after he came to the Oregonian, he trailblazed the Minority Residency Program, on a mission to diversify first the photo staff, then the newsroom.
He was inspired by an African-American newsroom clerk who wanted to take photos, but just didn't have the know-how. McCabe began working with her one-on-one, early every morning. Eventually he proposed an on-the-job training program for minority journalists. He had to be persistent -- newsroom editors resisted because the paper was in a hiring freeze, but eventually the publisher bit at the idea.
"I thought, 'This is America. It's a society of many different faces. How can we report the news in a major town like Portland when all of the photographers are white?' I don't mean that in a bad way, but if you're going to see the world, you need a lot of different eyes to be objective," McCabe says.
As an immigrant, McCabe knows what it's like to be the outsider. He spent his early childhood in France, then came to California as a 7-year-old who didn't speak English. His classmates taunted him, and McCabe resolved never to make others feel the way he did. He stayed true to that promise when he created the minority residency, through which the Oregonian went on to hire 11 full-time staffers.
"It gives you richness to have that diversity. It makes your life more full," he says.
Diversity defines McCabe's own photography. He's shot just about anything you can imagine: hard news, fashion, food, gardens, sea life, even childbirth. One of his regular freelance clients is Portland International Raceway. "I can shoot pretty much anything from underwater to aerial. It's better for me mentally. I couldn't specialize in one thing and stay with that; it would drive me crazy." He left the Oregonian in 2004 to move to California with his wife, who had relocated a few years earlier for her work. They've since returned to Portland, but McCabe still has a foot in each state, both for work and to care for his ailing father in California.
Freelancing gives him the flexibility to go where he's needed. Like when he was assigned a story about Surgical Eye Expeditions International, which provides free eye surgery in developing countries. McCabe was so fascinated that he volunteered on expeditions to Mexico and Vietnam and served on the group's board. He also is involved with Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, which provides vision care and glasses in poor countries.
"As a photographer," he says, "I rely so much on my eyes that I really felt it was important to get involved."
He can't seem to resist when someone asks for help. At the post office one recent day, a worker noticed the word "photography" on his package and asked to pick his brain. McCabe took a few moments to explain F-stops and shutter speeds to her. On home and garden shoots, inevitably homeowners would start to quiz him about his techniques and how to improve their own photography. It seems teaching is part of McCabe's true nature after all.