City Life

View from the inside of the Capitol

Capitol photographer steps away from the lens

He’s the guy you might have seen with a camera, hanging around the edges of an event at the state Capitol. For the past 20 years, Jay Salvo has shot just about every happening under the dome—however exciting or mundane—as a staff photographer for the Wisconsin Legislature and other branches of government. He stepped away from the lens this year and retired. But before he did, we asked him what it’s been like to be a fly on the wall in the Capitol for so many years. This is our edited conversation. 

What has your job entailed over the years? 
I photograph all the floor sessions, all the committee hearings, bill signings, constituent visits, school groups—virtually anything that goes on here in the Capitol. I do stuff for the governor’s office, the state Supreme Court—we do their photo every once in a while and that’s been interesting the last couple of years. Anything and everything in the building that goes on is photographed. 

What do you like about it? 
All the different people you get to meet. I have photographed all the presidents since George W. Bush and the Dalai Lama. I’m trying to think of all the football players that have been through here and basketball players, dignitaries from around the world, chancellors from Germany—you get to meet some pretty interesting people. 

What have you not liked about it? 
In the beginning, some of those floor sessions were all-nighters into the next morning. You might notice a little cot right there [points at a cot against the wall in his office]. They would go on the floor and at 8 o’clock at night, say, ‘Now we’re going to caucus,’ and I would have no idea when they’re coming back. So I come down here, take a snooze, listen on the squawk box [that broadcasts floor session audio in offices] and go back up when they’re ready to come back on the floor.

Of all the photos you’ve taken over the years, any memorable ones? 
Probably the most memorable time, but not in a good way, was when Act 10 [the law restricting collective bargaining] was coming through. We made thousands and thousands of images. In my 20 years, I think conservatively I’ve shot a half a million images. Act 10 was violent at times. Another memorable time was when I photographed Reggie White during the speech he gave when he was here. I have old prints I’ve saved over the years and there’s one of the first President Bush with former Gov. Tommy Thompson at a school in Milwaukee. 

Do you feel like you see how the Legislature operates differently than most people do?
Absolutely. Whenever I meet someone for the first time they say, “What do you do, Jay?” and I say, “Oh, I work for the Legislature.” I say every citizen of voting age in the state of Wisconsin should have to work here for six months and you would then understand how the political process works. So many people, I think, don’t really have a clue about what actually goes on and works at the Capitol. 

What is it that you think people miss? 
I think they just see the black and white. For example, things that go on during a committee hearing—when people voice pros and cons [about] a bill and its two-thirds for and [one-]third against, and the third [against] just can’t understand why this will get passed. 

What would you like people to see in your photos? 
Maybe that things can get done once in a while when people work together. I was kind of hoping to retire when they were on the floor so I could get up and give a little speech. I think the first thing I would have in my speech is: “You don’t know how hard it has been for me to stand here off to the side and not want to grab a microphone during debate and say something!” 

Jessica Arp is assistant news director and chief political reporter for WISC-TV.

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