In Conversation with Melinda Hofstetter, daughter of photographer, Seymour Hofstetter

In the summer of 1976, Seymour Hofstetter, along with 20 other teachers from Ohio participated in a 6-week program of African studies sponsored by the American Forum for International Study under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education.

Between now and January 9, 2024, the J’s Bodzin Art Gallery is proud to display about 40 photographs that Mr. Hofstetter took as the official photographer of this group and which appeared in a traveling show, “Portraits of West Africa” from 1977-1979. The J is the first stop of the 2024 revival tour of these photographs. We thank long-time J member, Melinda Hofstetter, for the opportunity to share her father Seymour’s photography in the gallery and for answering four questions from our gallery curator, Sarah Berry.

1. Tell us more about your father’s journey in West Africa, and why he was selected to be the group’s documentarian.

For 25 years, my father was a teacher in predominantly Black and Hispanic schools in Cleveland, Ohio. In the summer of 1976 he, along with twenty other teachers from Cleveland and northern Ohio, participated in a six-week program of African Studies sponsored by the American Forum for International Study (AFIS). These Ohio educators were chosen from over 100 applicants and studied at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, travelling under the supervision of faculty from the University of Ibadan and University of Ghana to various sites throughout West Africa. The program was funded by the Division of International Education of the U.S. Office of Education (now the Department of Education) under a grant from the Hays-Fulbright Program. My father received one of the grants. The director of the AFIS, Dr. Melvin Drimmer, recognized my father as having been a professional photographer in previous days and whose avocation was remained photography. Dad always had a camera around his neck, so it seemed like a good idea and great advertising to select some of those photos my dad was taking anyway for a show!

Although this exhibit was my dad’s first major “One Man Show,” he had been a serious student of the camera since his student days in Cleveland. He was the school photographer in high school using a folding Kodak camera. During World War II, he spent five years in the U.S. Coast Guard as a combat photographer, serving one tour of duty in the dangerous North Atlantic run, and two tours in the South Pacific. He took thousands of pictures and left the service as Chief Photographic Mate, with three letter of commendation and a Navy Commendation Medal. Many of his pictures won awards. Some can be seen today in the permanent collection of The Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut; in Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C.; and the National Archives in Washington D.C. I have donated many of Dad’s photos to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredrickburg, Texas, the birth place of Admiral Nimitz, the great WWII leader who led our naval forces to victory over the Japanese as Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet and Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas.

2. These photos have already been shown extensively. Which institutions have exhibited them and when? Where are they off to next?

The photos of the exhibit “Portraits of West Africa” started in our hometown of Cleveland at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. In 1977 these pictures were shown at: U.S. Department of State, Washington D.C.; Overseas Press Club of New York; Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, Philadelphia; Cleveland State University. In 1978 these pictures were shown at Ohio State University, Columbus; Cleveland State University; Cleveland Board of Education Supplemental Education Center. He had a full show full show in Washington D.C. at the U.S. Office of Education (now the Department of Education), as part of the celebration of the International Year of the Child through the spring and summer of that year.
I am happy to say that the exhibit will be showing from 1-29 February 2024 at the Jewish Educational Alliance (JEA) in Savannah, Georgia, where my daughter and grandchildren live. My oldest grandson there is named for his great-grandfather so having my dad’s photos in Savannah will mean a lot to our family. I hope to reach out to the Cleveland JCC for a showing there as well as my dad is a real “son of Cleveland.”

3. Did your father bring his love for photography into his family and community life?

As soon as I was born I was in front of the camera. I don’t remember a time when on our many family trips, family events or other occasions that he didn’t have a camera around his neck. At weddings, b’nai mitzvot and other family events, he’d be called on to take the pictures. Of course, he wasn’t always on point. One of his first cousins never ceased to remind me (no matter it was 25 years after the fact) that Seymour was supposed to have taken her wedding pictures but he met Betty, her friend at the wedding, with whom he was taken. His cousin, the bride, was constantly calling “where’s Seymour?!” to take the pictures of her he had promised. Betty, it seems, was a bit distracting at that event. However, in general my dad was more focused!

4. We look forward to hearing more about the revival of this exhibition on December. What do you hope people will come to learn?

I hope that people will come to understand in a small way how a Jewish boy from Cleveland, whose parents, one of whom was born in the Austro-Hungarian Republic and the other born in New York City and who ran a second-hand furniture store, came to learn a love of travel, photography and patriotism, and who somehow developed an innate sensitivity that won the confidence of his African hosts “by smiling, by meaning well, and using forbearance and kindness.” As can be seen, young and old alike responded more than favorably to him and his camera.

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