CPA moonlights as a sports photographer

Whether it’s investigating the financial records of a company or sitting in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ dugout, Joel Zolondek likes to be where the action is.

Certified public accountant Zolondek is the founder and managing partner of Zolondek, Strassels, Greene & Freed, P.C., as well as a free-lance photographer for sports publications.

Despite the stigma branding accountants as being only laws-and-numbers-oriented, he says “that’s not the way successful accountants have ever operated. They’ve always had to have some vision and a lot of creativity and a lot of resiliency.”

His photographs have appeared in Harnett’s Sports Arizona, Swimmers World, Scottsdale Life and Jewish News, among others. He has been a contributing photographer for the Arizona Diamondbacks Magazine since September 1998.

Zolondek is a second-generation moonlighter – his father was also a certified public accountant and a photographer – and he wanted to be a CPA since he was 10.

“I really admired (my father’s) enthusiasm for the profession and the larger vision about what the profession was about enabled me to set goals,” he says. “Photography was just for fun.”

As a teenager, he took up photography and made home movies in high school and college. “My knowledge has been basically through experience and through a lot of reading,” he says.

One of the exciting elements of being a sports photographer is feeling like he’s part of the action, he adds. “It’s about feeling closer to the athletes, to events, and feeling as though you weren’t just a spectator, but somebody who was an intrinsic part of the event and was able to, in some way, put on paper something that’s tangible evidence that this was truly a special occurrence.”

He sums up his passion for sports photography as “feeling the privilege of witnessing the event and the need to capture it.”

His 1996 photo of Olympic swimmer Janet Evans appeared on Harnett’s Sports Arizona magazine’s table of contents page, which won the 1996 National Gold Medal Ozzie Award.

In addition to photographing sports teams, Zolondek snaps photographs on vacations to foreign countries, which he and his wife, Marilyn, try to take at least once a year. In taking pictures of the scenery and the people, he tries to understand the culture of each country. “My wife and I really enjoy traveling, getting a sense of history, (and seeing) some beautiful sites around the world,” he says.

Past trips have included Denmark, France, Israel, Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden. This year the couple will visit Greece and Turkey.

On a weeklong vacation, he uses an average of 50-100 rolls of film. “You have to be prepared to waste a lot of film, to throw a lot of prints away,” he says.

He often waits, camera in hand, for just the right image.

“You have to wait for the right scene to evolve,” he explains. “It does take time.” In one instance, he waited in front of a Spanish fruit market for half an hour to capture the desired scene of an elderly woman buying fruit.

He uses his photographs mainly for personal enjoyment and often enlarges and frames them, then gives them to friends as gifts.

“I get a lot of enjoyment from sharing the images with people,” he says. He adds that he feels fortunate enough to be in the right place and maybe see something that somebody hasn’t seen before.

This photograph-sharing concept extends to those he takes of athletes.

If he has a photo that memorializes an event he thinks an athlete would cherish, he makes an enlargement of the photo and gives it as a gift.

“I found out that many of the athletes have very few images of themselves,” he notes. Although the athletes are in the public eye, many times only the principal players are the ones whose photographs are published. He tries to give photographs to those athletes who may not make it to the printed page.

“They might not have that remembrance so that their children can see that they really were on that same field with the legend,” he explains.

His other work includes portraits of public figures including Robert Redford, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Dan Quayle and Alice Cooper.

Earlier this year, Zolondek joined landscape photographer David Muench and other photographers on a trip to Monument Valley, located on the border of Arizona and Utah, which was documented by KAET-TV.

The trip opened Zolondek’s eyes to other types of photography.

“Everyone there brought tripods; everybody was setting up to take long exposures with very slow shutter speeds,” he says. “My style has always been sports – a catch in mid-air, players sliding or jumping and catching them in mid-air with the ball in their hand going over the rim.”

While the other photographers were leisurely photographing the landscape, Zolondek walked around with his hand-held camera taking pictures of the film crew and of Muench.

Afterward, KAET requested the use of Zolondek’s photographs to document the trip on the station’s Web site.

He said he learned a great deal from that trip, which introduced him to a new style of art. He says he has incorporated some of it into his sports photography.

Sports have always been an important part of Zolondek’s life.

Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., he played single-wall handball, basketball, baseball and football on concrete fields.

He followed the Dodgers, the Yankees, the Knicks and the Giants. “In New York, that was a major part of growing up,” he says, recalling discussions, arguments and the memorization of facts and statistics.

“I had all the advantages of living in a major city and everything it had to offer, including some great sports teams of the ’50s and ’60s,” he recalls.

He met Marilyn while he was a student at City College of New York, they married in 1969 and moved to Arizona in 1971. They have two children, Sharon and Jeff, both in their mid-20s.

Zolondek has been a member of Beth El Congregation in Phoenix since 1980, and was on the boards of Jewish Family Children’s Service and the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center. He has also helped raise funds for the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix.

In 1974 he founded his Phoenix accounting firm, and since then it has grown to seven partners and a staff of 50.

He says he would never think about leaving accounting for full-time photography.

“I think that business is so exciting. You have the opportunity to help people, to learn more about what’s happening in their lives, with the IRS and with banks and with unpredictable economic events,” he says. “I get a tremendous thrill doing that.”

He says the hours he puts into both careers don’t disrupt his personal life, but rather enhance it.

“I burn the candle at both ends and try to make every day an important day,” he says. “I think it’s important to cherish the moment and not feel that I’ve missed anything. So it’s ‘work hard and play hard’ and it all integrates.”

This article first appeared in the June 15, 2001 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

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