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Janine Bentivegna
The Book of Janine
Complete with Photos

"I was born a poor white child."

And so begins the story of photographer Janine Bentivegna. She was born August 20, 1955 in Garfield Heights, in a neighborhood she describes as "very ethnic and blue collar".

The neighborhood was mainly Polish and Italian and Janine herself is 100% Sicilian. She has two older sisters and one younger brother.

Her mother, Gilda died about 14 years ago. Her father, over twenty years ago. Her house was an active, vibrant house. She tells the story of her mother saying that her father never cussed or swore and did not like it when others did. So to upset him, her mother would swear, or as Janine says "It was really more of a curse than actually swearing."

When she died, the kids put together a book of photos of the family and their mothers favorite "sayings." Titled 'The Book of Gilda' it includes such favorites as "Colder than a well diggers a**", "I'll snatch you bald-headed" and "I wouldn't hit a dog in the a** with that."

Janine graduated with the Class of 1973 from Garfield Heights High School and then attended Cooper School of Art.

Janine Bentivegna

Janine Bentivegna

Like so many photographers, Janine started out as a hobbyist, that is to say someone who takes pictures for fun. A friend of hers had a dark room and she loved to develop her own pictures. Her parents noted both her interest and her talent and bought her a Yashica Rangefinder camera.

"They spent a phenomenal amount of money on it - something like $50 or $75!" She notes how different things are today. "I can't even imagine wanting, never mind asking for, a $200.00 toy like a (Sony) Play Station. Yet here they where buying me this great camera."

Her father was a very traditional father, expected his girls to get married. So naturally he expected the photography to be a passing phase. Janine got a job doing office work and continued to enjoy photography as a hobby.

Eventually she decided to take a leap of faith and consider a career in the one thing she truly loved doing. She started out taking night classes part time and eventually it turned to full time. There was no financial aid available for her classes, so she continued to work.

Janine never even considered asking her family to pay for her college - that was unheard of at the time. "Our family was pretty normal - if you wanted something you worked for it. That's the way it was done."

Janine Bentivegna and husband Wayne Sot

Janine Bentivegna and husband Wayne A. Sot

Just out of college she met Wayne A. Sot, a photo hobbyist and carpenter. She was 23 - he was 33. They became fast friends and married in 1983. They have one son Eli Brady Sot, who attends Chaminade University in Hawaii.

He graduated from Benedictine High School and Janine says "Sending him to Benedictine was the best thing we ever did. Because of the education and discipline he got at Benedictine he was able to get a scholarship to Chaminade."

Janine's son, Eli Brady Sot

Janine's son, Eli Brady Sot

Janine said she was always a supporter of the public schools until her son entered high school. "His grades dropped like a stone." She said it was a bureaucratic nightmare. She knew they had to make a change. Eli had applied to and was accepted to the all-male high school.

"It was pure education there. No one can convince me that co-ed schools are a good idea. Single sex schools are the way to go. And I think it's even worse now."

She says when she was going to school if a parent got a call about their child it was a big deal and the child had every reason to be afraid. She sees that as being very different now, which she blames on a lack of parenting skills, especially in single parent households. "I'm not saying single parents can't do a good job with their children. I am just saying it is so much harder and two parents really make a difference."

Janine took the plunge and went into the photo industry. She did as much assisting as she could, but it was difficult, time consuming work with very little pay. A freelance assistant, which is what she was, has a very difficult time. So she tried to attach herself to one studio to get more work and more experience.

She took a job at [now closed] Laurel Camera and stayed there much longer than she expected; almost twelve years.

While she was there she decided "I'm done with this." Her business advisor at Cuyahoga Community College helped her write a business plan.

She views her profession with humor. "I always believe I am in the Moron Business. You work for virtually nothing as an assistant for someone else. There are so many egos in the industry - directors, photographers - all of them. Anyway - the bills don't get paid on time. The photographer gets blamed. After all this you say 'If this moron can be in business so can I' and you are inspired to start your own business."

So that's what she did - started her own business, Janine Bentivegna Photography. "It is my vision. I am not an assistant. It is mine." As always, she adds humor "When you work for yourself you always know what a jerk your boss is."

Janine started working out of her home and created a studio on the vacant third floor. Word spread and she got accounts right away. She says she didn't turn down any jobs except weddings and family portraits. She says that wasn't her area and she really wanted to focus (no pun intended).

Janine finds that doing the small things right made a big difference in her business. From contacting to showing portfolio to closing deals to follow up calls, it is all equally important to her.

Janine Bentivegna and her lucky dog

Janine Bentivegna and her lucky dog

Finally, about 15 years ago she got a studio in the Flats, downtown. "Photographers are notorious for finding a really big space for very little money" and that's what she did. "Of course today, because of the technology we don't need that much space."

Janine believes that film photography is gone. A lot of people, including the professionals are using digital photography. Even though amateurs and hobbyists can take digital photographs she knows that professionals can do things that hobbyists can't - and it shows in the finished project.

Janine Bentivegna on a shoot

Janine Bentivegna on a shoot

As a business person, Janine has to re-invent herself to keep up with the changes in modern photography. She is in the process of doing that now. She is taking on-line college courses to get her bachelor's degree. She finds that many people in her profession are now turning to teaching.

Janine also works part time doing medical photography at the Cleveland Clinic. Six years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After chemotherapy and radiation she had no push. In her business, she says, there is a lot of hustle and moving around and she was not up to doing that.

"When you are a freelancer you become a road warrior. You are always marketing yourself. But I just didn't have the juice. I didn't have the energy."

Since she was having daily radiation she joked to herself that she was there so often she should get paid. On a whim she called her friend Pat Shoda in the Photo Department of the Plastic Surgery Center. Coincidentally they needed someone as soon as possible. She pared down her client list and only kept those clients she knew she had the energy for. Her friend taught her what she needed to know to be a medical photographer.

This arrangement provided her with the best of both worlds. Even though she is healthy and doing great now, she made so many friends there and likes the work so much that she continues to do the medical photography.

Janine Bentivegna and crew (and the Bone Lady) at Taste of NFL Charity event at Cleveland Browns Stadium

Janine Bentivegna and crew (and The Bone Lady!) at the Taste of NFL Charity event at Cleveland Browns Stadium

Most of her peers in freelance photography experienced a major loss of business and most have closed up shop or downsized. Janine was still getting paid from the Clinic and was able to do the mainstream photography as well.

Janine is not afraid of digital cameras. Her first thought was that once digital cameras became available to the public everyone became her competition. She realized though that it is "the nature of the beast. Any business, anywhere, anytime, is going to change and evolve. So to get ahead you need to embrace it and learn as much as you can."

Janine is proud of the work she does, and says matter-of-factly "I am very good." She loves to photograph people and environmental portraiture. This specialty is best described as focusing on two aspects in a photo. Both being equal in importance, the first is the living being (person or animal) and the second being their surroundings.

Janine Bentivegna on a shoot

Janine Bentivegna at work

Unlike environmental portraiture, the standard portrait that we are all familiar with is usually from the neck or shoulders up of a single person with no background.

She does a lot of magazine work. Crain's Cleveland Business has been a long time client. In fact she shot the photographs of Cleveland photographer Tim Ryan for the magazine. "The hardest part of magazine work" Janine says "is convincing the subject to adhere to the client's agenda."

She explains that too often the subject has ideas of the best place to shoot the photos or poses they think make them look better. It is Janine's job to reconcile the subject's wishes with the client's wishes. Ultimately, the client is the one who must make the decisions, since they are, after all, paying the bill.

She would not easily recommend the field to young people. She cites Department of Labor statistics that say it is hard to get into the field, hard to stay in and hard to get paid. She notes that those are not promising words.

On the other hand, even though it is even tougher now than when she got into it, she still maintains it is a wonderful creative outlet and she loves doing it. "Someone getting into it today should really examine what they need to get out of it."

In hind sight Janine thinks a four year program at Kent State for photo-journalism may have been a good choice for her. "It's a great field. You can still be creative and you have lots of wonderful equipment to work, with. It would have been 100% easier than freelance work."

She does think there will be opportunities in the entire photography field opening up very soon. That is based on the notion that the older group - the film people - will be leaving quickly and opportunities will open up.

Janine Bentivegna on a shoot

Janine Bentivegna getting the lighting just right

Janine is a "secret philanthropist." "I try to give back a lot. I have separate rates for non-profit organizations, like the Cleveland Food Bank."

She also says she is not very humble and is "really, really passionate about my work. Being able to produce beautiful art through photography - that's where my passion is, not the money. I think my hourly rate comes out to about 32 cents an hour."

The one aspect of freelance work that is hardest for Janine is the loneliness. "It's the one thing I really don't like and other women photographers have told me the same thing." A freelance photographer usually goes in, takes the shots and goes and develops them. Interaction is minimal. As her business grows she is considering hiring help, as needed, which will help with the loneliness as well.

Janine and her work have been recognized by many associations including the Cleveland Press Club where she has been recognized over twenty times since 1992. In addition to local galleries and regional photographic exhibits Janine's work has been included in the "Pictures from the Edge" national touring show.

"Pictures from the Edge" focuses on the homeless. She has also participated in the Women's Bicentennial Project and The Faces of Cleveland art exhibit sponsored by the Free Times. Cleveland Hopkins Airport displayed her work throughout the airport as "The Community Portrait Gallery."

Janine Bentivegna and camera

Janine Bentivegna

To really understand Janine Bentivegna and her photography you should try to get to know this fun-loving, very humorous and talented woman. In the absence of that opportunity you will know her a little better if you read her mission statement:

"I am dedicated to portraying honest and precise images that reflect the diverse framework of a community while maintaining the integrity of the subject matter. I enjoy depicting a no-frills yet passionate story, trying not to stray too far from the grit and grime of Cleveland's industrial base.

My work mirrors my blue collar roots. I communicate via the camera to capture boardroom leaders and to provide a voice to the voiceless. "

Profiled by Debbie Hanson (2/07)

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