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Capturing life beyond news: ARLnow’s Jay Westcott transitions from news photography to artistic pursuits

Jay Westcott (courtesy of Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 2:25 p.m.) ARLnow’s staff photographer, Jay Westcott, is stepping away from the news industry — but he isn’t putting his camera aside just yet.

At 51, Westcott is shifting his focus from the fast-paced world of daily news photography to focus on the sides of photography that align with his other passions, including portraiture, storytelling and music.

“I’m looking forward to just concentrating on the things that I’m really good at,” he told ARLnow.

Growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, roughly two hours west of Detroit, Westcott displayed a passion for photography from a young age, often using his dad’s camera to shoot yearbook pictures in high school. It wasn’t until after high school when he joined the U.S. Navy that Westcott’s passion for the visual medium began to flourish.

Four years after he joined the service when Westcott was aboard the USS Roosevelt, a Navy photographer reignited his interest in camera work.

“He had this really cool camera… and I just loved what he was able to do with that, the pictures he could get from that, and he convinced me to buy a camera,” Westcott said.

He wrote to his mother, asking her to mail his dad’s camera and bought a 35mm Canon autofocus SLR. In the years that followed, he documented life aboard the ship and the countries he visited around the Mediterranean, including Rhodes, Greece, and Venice, Italy.

Westcott, who is also a guitarist, remembers the day he decided he would leave the Navy and pursue photography. While browsing Guitar World magazine in his bunk one day, he came across a photograph by the renowned Seattle-based American photographer Charles Peterson, who was promoting his new book “Touch Me I’m Sick.”

“Instead of being one of the guys in the photos in the magazine, I wanted to be the guy taking the picture,” Westcott said.

King Baby Man Child (by Jay Westcott)

In 1996, Westcott was honorably discharged from the Navy and headed to Virginia Beach, where he met his now ex-wife and sold cars for several years before moving to Northern Virginia.

In the summer of 2000, at age 28, Westcott enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College and then transferred a year later to George Mason University to study photography. About a year into his tenure at George Mason, and disillusioned with the program, Westcott applied and was accepted on a scholarship to The Corcoran College of Art and Design (now a part of George Washington University) in D.C.

“I went there for three years and loved every second of it,” he said.

Westcott’s first big break was a paid internship at the Scripps-Howard news service in D.C., which operated for 96 years from 1917 to 2013. What launched his career, however, was a chance sighting of of an armored truck robbery near McPherson Square Park, where he saw a man wielding a shotgun.

“So, I go out, and I take a couple of pictures and then go down to the street and take a few more pictures,” he said. “The guy gets hauled away in an ambulance while he was handcuffed.”

The pictures Westcott took that day got picked up by the Washington Post, which offered Westcott a full-time staff job shortly after.

“I felt I started at the top,” he said.

After his tenure at the Post, Westcott, whose work has been nationally recognized, would spend the next 15 years working with top national news outlets, such as Politico, The New York Times, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg before joining ARLnow in 2019.

“ARLnow has been a great place to be,” Westcott said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have an amazing boss in Scott [Brodbeck]. He’s the kindest, most understanding employer I’ve ever worked for.”

From his coverage of the pandemic to breaking news and day-to-day events, Westcott says he feels that his contributions at ARLnow have genuinely portrayed what living in Arlington is like.

“I feel like somebody could take away and get a feel for what Arlington was truly like by looking through my pictures. And it’s a vibrant, beautiful, crazy place,” he said.

But after a 20-plus career in the field, Westcott says it’s finally time to move on.

In addition to his straight news assignments, Westcott also said he had several opportunities to freelance for several bands, such as The Devil Makes Three, The Dropkick Murphys, Candlebox, The Violent Femmes and Blues Traveler, and create content for their websites, press kits and social media.

Some of his best work and favorite memories came from working with musicians, says Westcott, who now plans to focus on photographing bands on tour.

“I love documenting the musicians. Not just the performances, but the in-between moments,” he said. “This is where my work is going.”

The band Candlebox performing along the Mississippi River (photo by Jay Westcott)

Westcott says he will miss capturing historic moments, such as images outside the White House following the death of Osama Bin Laden.

“It’s been 20 years of amazing moments I’ve been able to capture. I worked my tail off to be able to do it,” he said.

Reflecting on the news business, Westcott says his departure comes as the news industry is getting more competitive and he is having a harder time keeping up. The landscape is also changing, he said, noting the loss of more than 2,400 newspapers since he graduated college.

Andrew Beaujon, one of Jay’s former colleagues at TBD.com and the current senior editor at Washingtonian Magazine, said that the journalism world will feel the absence of Westcott’s work. But Beaujon also noted he’s happy his friend can leave the industry on his own terms.

“I think that that’s really worth celebrating,” he said. “Jay doesn’t owe journalism anything… He’s put in the time. He’s always given it his all.”

When asked what it truly takes to be at the top, Westcott said it’s about understanding when a moment is special or historic.

“[American photographer] Eddie Adams would say, to paraphrase, ‘For any given news event, there might be one picture remembered for it, and your job is photojournalist is to get that picture and beat everybody else there,” Westcott said.

Looking back, however, Westcott said if he could do it all over again, he would.

“I think meditation and mindfulness and reading Buddhist philosophy has taught me to appreciate the present,” he said. “And so, I don’t focus on the past, but I’m grateful for it, warts and all.”

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