Daughter’s Tribute Video Foreshadowed Layoff of U-T Photographer

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By Ken Stone

A haunting video depicts the last night of a photographer at The San Diego Union-Tribune. But it turned eerily prophetic Tuesday when its subject was laid off seven months after the shoot.

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John Gastaldo is shown in third-floor newsroom of the Union-Tribune’s old Mission Valley plant. Image via Vimeo

John Gastaldo was directed by his 20-year-old daughter, Olivia, in a 5-minute film titled “Below the Fold,” posted on Vimeo.

Gastaldo, who worked at the U-T nearly 22 years, was “separated” along with 31-year veteran photographer Charlie Neuman and four social-media employees, according to newsroom sources. But Gastaldo was first to post the news on Facebook, noting the irony of his daughter’s video as “life imitating art.”

“To me, it was very much a piece of my childhood,” Olivia said of the newspaper’s Mission Valley offices.

Invited by her father to see the building again before the paper moved downtown, the cinematography student said: “When I walked in, I was just devastated. It was very sad, like seeing my childhood home get torn apart piece by piece, floor by floor. … I just turned to my dad and said: ‘We have to make a film.’”

Olivia recalled what she thought in January: “This is awful, and I can’t let this piece of myself just go without being recorded.”

So with an empty building as stage, John Gastaldo, 50, pretended in the late-night shoot to be walking the halls for the last time, cleaning a lens, reviewing his clips.

“A lot of emotions arose,” Olivia said in a phone interview. “It was just me and my dad. I was directing him. Dealing with those feelings was tough for him. It’s ironic because it actually happened.”

Her father broke the news Tuesday as she was making breakfast, she said.

“He was very [calm] on the phone,” she said, hearing her dad say: “Remember that video we made? Well, it looks like it’s becoming reality.”

Olivia didn’t weep at first, she said, “but I cried a little bit later.”

“My God, I always think of my dad as being impervious to everything,” she said from Rancho Bernardo, where she was visiting a friend. “He’s my hero, and he’s definitely my role model. So incredibly gifted. That he would be the one that they would say no to — and say we don’t need that kind of energy here — that was surprising.”

Gastaldo said he knew his days were numbered in the newspaper business, but “I didn’t anticipate it happening so quickly.”

He said his manager delivered the bad news, and blamed staff consolidation in the wake of the U-T’s sale to Chicago-based Tribune Publishing (now tronc) in May 2015. U-T editor and publisher Jeff Light didn’t respond to a voice mail seeking comment.

Gastaldo began his U-T tenure in October 1994 after four years at The Advocate in Stamford, Connecticut. Among his most memorable assignments were the weeklong Cedar Fire of 2003 and covering the Padres when they made the 1998 World Series.

He said he would miss his fellow photographers and “enthusiastic reporting staff. And the assignments — because we’re mostly on the street.” He hopes to find work in commercial photography but can’t stay away from “editorial” — photojournalism.

John Gastaldo as seen in his daughter Oliivia’s video, “Below the Fold.” Image via Vimeo

Olivia Gastaldo said “Below the Fold” — shot in a single night for its own sake, not a school project — also served as a tribute to the generation of family members — newspaper employees and relatives — who called the Mission Valley plant home.

“It’s definitely a story of saying goodbye,” she said. “In a lot of ways, it’s the story of a rebirth. I wanted to lead viewers up to that moment right before something new starts. And I wanted the audience to ask the question: What’s next?” for journalism.

Olivia’s career goal is working in Hollywood as a director of photography. After two years at the San Francisco Art Institute, she’s moving soon to Los Angeles to become a second-year student at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.

“The night before my dad called, I was budgeting all my expenses,” she said. “It’s definitely tough, but we’ll get through it. We’re really close as a family.”

The family has been through tough times before.

Ten summers ago, Olivia learned she had a form of leukemia — blood cancer. She began chemotherapy.

“I’m in the process of discontinuing my medication,” she said Tuesday. “So Aug. 29 I will find out officially whether or not I can discontinue my medication and possibly look towards being cancer-free without the chemotherapy, which is pretty revolutionary.”

Her father is staying positive, too.

“After 28 mostly fun years in the circus we call newspapers on both coasts, driving close to a million miles, I have only incredible memories and way too many people to thank for my getting here and staying here,” Gastaldo said on Facebook.

“The stuff I’ve seen and learned could fuel a screenplay or two, and will no doubt help me in the future.”

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