Illini Media Hall of Fame inducts documentary filmmaker Ryan Suffern

By Piotr Fedczuk, Managing Editor for Reporting

Airplane tires failed to escape the grip of Midwest mud. The president had just been stopped by a combination of dirt and water, and a Daily Illini photographer held a camera to record it.

Ryan Suffern, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English in ’99 and was once photo editor at The Daily Illini, captured President Bill Clinton’s failed departure after his visit to the University.

“All the other photographers in the press pool were on the plane and the local press had already all left,” Suffern said. “I had stuck around just to photograph the plane taking off, and so I ended up with a photo of the tires.”

The Associated Press picked up the photo and ran it all over the country, he said.

During his time at The Daily Illini, Suffern said he photographed Michael Jordan, Chicago Bears games and the Rolling Stones opening show at Soldier Field.

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“All of those experiences started to instill an appetite to really think big and try to take some big swings,” he said.

Up until the end of college, Suffern said he thought of pursuing a career in photography. However, his experiences in movie theaters forced him into another direction.

After watching “American Beauty,” Suffern wished he could have “just carried coffee” on the film set, he said.

“When I saw these movies, they just implanted a bug in me, that (moviemaking) was what I wanted to do,” Suffern said. “And I had zero connection to the film industry whatsoever.”

Through a workplace connection, a producer offered Suffern an assistant position on a film, he said. However, he would have to sacrifice his old job’s salary, company car and health insurance.

“I decided that, if I don’t take this opportunity, I have to stop saying I want to work in movies,” Suffern said. “The next day, I put in my resignation, and that was the start of it all.”

Ten months after seeing “American Beauty,” Suffern started working with the movie’s producer, he said. His first assignment was carrying coffee on the film set.

“That was one of those signposts,” Suffern said. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

After producing for film, Suffern moved to documentaries.

In 2023, he received a 2023 Grammy Award for Best Music Film for his documentary “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story.”

“The way I approach documentary storytelling is, first and foremost, to focus on the human interest, the heart of the story,” Suffern said.

As a script writer and director, Suffern said he looks for people to flesh out into characters onscreen.

“We shouldn’t expect an audience to watch something that’s important,” Suffern said. “You should expect them to watch it because it’s good, because it’s compelling.”


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