Bob Sofaly: Lowcountry photojournalist focuses on full career

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By Anne Christnovich

Bob Sofaly first picked up a camera in 1971 to catch the eye of a crush, but instead, a lifelong love affair with photography developed.

That first camera — which successfully, albeit briefly, wooed his crush — was a Polaroid with peel-apart film. He got it, Sofaly said, when his father was stationed at the military base in Junction City, Kansas.

Photographer Bob Sofaly
Photographer Bob Sofaly

Although Sofaly and family moved from the Midwest, he kept photography as a hobby, transitioning from his Polaroid to a 35 mm rangefinder.

A few years later, Sofaly said he found himself attending the University of South Carolina, with the hope of becoming a Marine Biologist.

“I had it figured out,” he said, chuckling. “I was going to get a degree in Marine Biology and go to work with Jacques Cousteau. … Me and 10 million other kids.”

As it turned out, biology classes clicked but chemistry did not. He soon realized Marine Biology wasn’t his calling.

Sofaly’s love for taking photos came back to the rescue when he sought help from an advisor who encouraged him to pursue the hobby. Sofaly recalls the meeting as a whirlwind of phone calls and, suddenly, he found himself enrolled in the journalism school.

“It was the one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he said.

While in J-school, Sofaly met Professor Don Woolley, who became his mentor. He was the one who taught Sofaly to shed his fear and get close to a subject.

More than 30 years later, Sofaly sums up Woolley’s secrets to photojournalism like this: “If you’re going to a fire, you should come back smelling like smoke. If you’re going to a car wreck, you should come back with glass stuck under your shoes. Photographers and soldiers are the only people I know of that run toward the sound of gunfire.”

In 1979 — his last year in school — Sofaly said he had a month-long internship at the Beaufort Gazette. One of his projects was to shoot construction of the McTeer Bridge. He was in full construction gear taking photos at the apex of bridge, he said, when looked around and the scenery and it took his breath away.

“It just hit me then and I said to myself ‘I would really like to live here,’ ” he said.

Sofaly got his wish in December of 1980.

After suddenly quitting a construction job, he found himself back in Woolley’s office for help. His mentor told him a staff photography position had just opened up at the Beaufort Gazette and within a week, he and his wife, Sheila, moved to the area.

“It was those two serendipitous events that lead me and my wife to Beaufort,” he said.

At one point, Sofaly said he considered leaving the Lowcountry and applying for a photojournalism position at the Charlotte Observer. He called a contact there and asked him what he saw on his drive home the night before.

The Charlotte journalist said he sat in traffic and saw only the taillights of the cars in front of him and the headlights of the cars idling in the opposite lanes.

“I told him I saw an egret feed on a mullet,” Sofaly said. “Who gets to get stuck in traffic and see something like that?”

Beaufort, at that time, became more than a dream come true for the newlywed couple. Both Sofaly and his wife came from families that moved frequently (Sofaly attended four high schools in three years, he said) and both wanted their future children to be more rooted.

“Both our sons have something we never did: A hometown,” Sofaly said.

Though he retired from The Beaufort Gazette in 2010, he still does commercial and private work. Occasionally he strings for The Island News, The Beaufort Gazette and other local publications, too. Through the years, many things have changed insofar as technology and culture, but his role as a photographer, he said, has still required the same core skills.

“I’ve been to 32 Water Festivals — How many different ways can you cover that?” he said. “You have to find ways to be creative and that’s what I like about it.”

Sofaly said he’s the first person to admit that he’s not a big fan of change. In fact, he said, he used to have a saying above his work desk that read, “Resist change at all costs.”

Of course, that’s not always possible in the 21st Century and Sofaly said next that he prides himself on being able to adapt to change — even if he does it a little begrudgingly.

He used to spend more than two hours of his workday processing photos in a dark room. Then came the first digital cameras. He and the other photo staff spent the first few years adapting to digital cameras and the software that would follow them.

“Your phone can take higher resolution photos than (The Beaufort Gazette’s) first digital camera,” he said, laughing. The first digital camera, he said, held 117 photos on the memory card and was 1.3 megapixels. Most cameras in smart phones have 8 megapixels.

After he retired, he started a Facebook page and website for his work. Last week, he got his first smart phone. He and his wife also plan to travel after she retires from Naval Hospital Beaufort in September, he said.

Despite the changes, Sofaly said he looks back on his career with confidence that he found his niche in life.

“There’s that saying: ‘If you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,’ ” he said. “When I was working for the paper, I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do some of the things I did.”

With more than 30 years of photography experience, Bob Sofaly is available for commercial, corporate, private parties, weddings and family and individual portraits. Contact him at bobsofaly@gmail.com or call 843-694-7351.