Alumni Spotlight: Olga Shalygin Orloff ’77
Olga Shalygin Orloff ’77 has always been drawn to the power of the still image.
As a child, Orloff would spend hours looking through LIFE and National Geographic magazines studying photography of people in their native habitats—whether in the suburbs of the United States or tribal villages in Africa.
“I always loved looking at images that were different from the world I inhabited,” Orloff said. “I remember in LIFE, which covered a variety of topics, I used to find myself looking at people’s faces and eyes and how they reacted to a situation. It reminded me that it is a big world with many viewpoints and people are affected differently by the same event.”
Years later, Orloff, 2012 Alumna of the Year, translated that passion into a career as an award-winning photojournalist and documentary filmmaker. How she got to that point was a lucky combination of preparation and opportunity.
Orloff was born in Los Angeles to parents who fled Soviet Russia after World War II. She went to public school and on Saturdays attended Russian parochial school to keep up with the language.
Her parents were “firm believers” in the sciences as a path to a stable career and Orloff followed their practical advice to pursue a degree in the medical field. She found a good fit with nursing.
“New forms of nursing were coming out, such as the nurse practitioner program, nurse anesthetists, and specializations in orthopaedics, pediatrics and cardiology. When you got out of school you had a definite marketable skill and could work in almost any state.”
After completing her bachelor’s in critical care nursing, Orloff worked at the Keck School of Medicine of USC Division of Nephrology and Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, specializing in the surgical and burn intensive care units. Many of the lessons learned at Cal State L.A., she says, prepared her to be successful in her medical career.
“Here I was a stranger taking care of somebody and I had to make this person feel comfortable and trusting,” she said. “I feel like some of those skills helped me deal with people, and to become more empathetic.”
It’s a skill that helped her become a better photojournalist, she adds.
The flexible work schedule allowed her to enroll in photography courses at Cal State Long Beach. During the 1980s, she interned at the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register, eventually becoming a staff photographer with several major California newspapers.
In the 1990s, Orloff was hired as staff photographer for The Associated Press San Francisco Bureau, which dispatched her across the globe to cover everything from the Super Bowl to Olympic Games and major military conflicts in Somalia, Chechnya, Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union. Her fluency in Russian became invaluable while overseeing the AP Moscow Bureau photo department, where she coordinated coverage of the collapse of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union, an effort that won the team the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in Spot News Photography.
“One of my first thoughts was ‘thank you mom and dad, for making me speak Russian as a kid,’” she said. “I felt like all these events in my past were coming together. It was preparation and opportunity that changed the course of my professional career and helped me be in that situation.”
For the past 14 years, she and her husband, Cliff Orloff, have created documentaries out of their Berkeley home. Their company, Red Door Video Productions, produces films for PBS stations that tell stories about everyday life of different cultures, including Cuba, the Yanomami Indians and Congo. Several documentaries on Afghanistan have been used in cultural training exercises by the U.S. Department of Defense and featured at many universities. Orloff shoots the footage while Cliff writes and organizes the production.
“He keeps me on a schedule,” she said. “He jokes that if I were left to my own devices, I’d still be on my first documentary, but it would be absolutely perfect.”