Physician ‘lens’ a unique perspective to newspaper

Dr. Fernando Ugarte has photographed churches all over the world. A surgeon in Marysville, Ugarte has been freelancing for The Leaven for more than a decade.
Dr. Fernando Ugarte has photographed churches all over the world. A surgeon in Marysville, Ugarte has been freelancing for The Leaven for more than a decade.

By Marc and Julie Anderson
mjanderson@theleaven.org

MARYSVILLE — Flowers. Animals. Weddings. Sunsets. Early morning fog. You name it, and Dr. Fernando Ugarte, a member of St. Gregory Parish here, has photographed it.

Yet, his favorite subjects are churches. To date, he has photographed at least 400 different Catholic churches around the world — from Axtell to Venice — and almost everywhere in between. And when on vacation with his wife Nina, it’s not unusual for him to shoot more than 5,000 photos in just one week.

Ugarte is one of the photographers The Leaven relies on to cover events throughout the archdiocese’s 12,000-plus square miles, and his journey to serving the archdiocese through the gift of his photography was an unusual one.

By profession, Ugarte is a surgeon practicing in a city of about 3,000 located in Marshall County, just a few miles from the Kansas-Nebraska border. After training at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, Ugarte began residency in upstate New York. That’s when he discovered cameras for the second time in his life.

Born in Lima, Peru, Ugarte said he often recalls seeing American tourists throughout the city. They were easily identified by one distinguishing feature: They all had cameras around their necks. While he was never jealous of them, Ugarte often wished he could have a camera, too. Eventually, he got his wish.

While completing his medical training, Ugarte noticed many surgeons used Instamatic cameras to document their cases. So he bought his first camera — an Instamatic — and began his now lifelong obsession with cameras and photography.

Since then, Ugarte has owned at least two dozen different types of cameras and shot thousands and thousands of photographs on a wide variety of subjects. But his favorite subject remains Catholic churches.

“I love churches,” he said. “They’re always open, and they’re free.”

Ugarte has traveled to some of the world’s greatest churches, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, often losing track of time as he spends hours capturing hundreds of images of a single thing — a crucifix, for example — from various angles, using different lenses and trying different lighting effects.

The critical eye necessary for him to be a good surgeon has also translated into some outstanding photos for Ugarte, earning him recognition and awards at both local and national levels. Yet, it’s not the recognition or awards that he enjoys most about photography. Rather, it’s finding the beauty of a particular subject matter.

Years ago, Ugarte said a book transformed the way he looked at ordinary objects. Titled “The Art of Seeing: A Creative Approach to Photography,” and published by Kodak, the book discusses composition, color, perspective and other such photographic elements. In other words, he said, the book discusses how appreciating the ordinary can transform the ordinary into extraordinary.

“I always try to get something different,” he said. “You have to find the beauty in what you see,” adding that people can drive by a house and see just a house, but he sees something different — architectural design, lines or colors arranged in a unique way.

It’s that critical eye that led him to his passion for a unique feature in all Catholic churches — the Stations of the Cross.

Ugarte’s favorite Station is the sixth, when Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. From a purely human standpoint, Ugarte said, he likes it because he once took a picture of that particular Station that later came back to him in the form of a postcard — a fact which not only surprised him, but thrilled him at the same time.

From a spiritual aspect, though, Ugarte is drawn to the Stations of the Cross as it draws him closer to Jesus.

“I love the Stations of the Cross,” said Ugarte. “Each Station tells a different part of the story of Jesus’ suffering and death.”

Ugarte’s life as a surgeon has attuned him to human suffering, but he and his wife of more than 40 years are no strangers to personal tragedy either. Unable to have a child biologically, the two underwent testing and treatment. When all medical possibilities had been explored, the couple adopted a son, Diego.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2002, while riding home from a collegiate bowl game with a friend, Diego was thrown from the car in a rollover accident and died. He was just 20 years old.

“To this day, I try to find an explanation. Why did it happen?” asks Ugarte. “We don’t have the answer, and we’ll never have the answer.”

That day, Ugarte said, changed his life forever. Although he was a lifelong Catholic, he readily admits he didn’t always live for the Lord. Nowadays though, he starts every morning the same way — visiting Diego’s grave.

“I think. I pray,” he said, adding that he only misses the early morning time at the grave when he’s out of town.

After his time in prayer, Ugarte heads to the office and begins his day of seeing patients and treating their aches and pains, spending time in surgery and in pre- and postoperative appointments. At the end of the day, he heads home and takes his camera out, always on the lookout for something new or different.

“The other day, it was very foggy,” he said. “So, I got my camera and took photographs of houses and buildings in the fog.”

Photography, for him, has become his stress reliever. But in many ways, it has become a way for him to pray as well.

And that’s what eventually led him to The Leaven.

More than 10 years ago, he called managing editor Anita McSorley and asked to meet The Leaven staff. He had been admiring the newspaper’s work for some time, he said, and he thought that he could help in some way.

“I saw the pictures, and I said, ‘Maybe I can do something,’” he recalled.

After meeting with the staff, McSorley told him that she’d call him as specific needs in his area of the archdiocese arose. He recalls his first assignment was a youth rally in Kelly, located in Nemaha County just one county over from his home.

At the same time, Ugarte offered the use of a series of Stations of the Cross photographs he had completed. They were used in a feature about the Stations for Lent coupled with reflections written by then-Abbot Barnabas Senecal, OSB, of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison.

Although Ugarte’s photographs have appeared in the newspaper many times since, he admits his favorite assignment was a project four years ago when The Leaven staff and various freelancers spread out across the archdiocese and worked from sunup to nearly midnight to document a day in the life of the archdiocese.

“That was really, really neat,” Ugarte said.

“When we did the ‘Day in the Life of the Archdiocese’ in 2011, Dr. Ugarte brought back wonderful images,” said Leaven production manager Todd Habiger. “He’s a practicing physician, yet he cleared his day to be able to photograph his geographical area.

“I was very impressed by his willingness to do that. And he came through wonderfully.”

But it was more than his photographs that impressed the younger man.

“He worked from sunrise to sundown and beyond. It was an exhausting day for everyone involved. Dr. Ugarte had a lot of territory to cover,” said Habiger, “and he loved every minute of it.”

As soon as the project was over, said Habiger, Dr. Ugarte had only one question: “When can we do it again?”

“I love that,” said Habiger with a laugh.

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