Rafael Maldonado on the red carpet of the 2006 Santa Barbara International Film Festival. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

A Brooks graduate, a veteran, and an F.B.I. employee walk into a daily newspaper and don’t leave for 51 years. Their name is Rafael Maldonado and that’s no joke. 

A self-described military brat, Rafael bounced around from his birthplace of Santurce, Puerto Rico, to Key West to Jacksonville to Pensacola and back to Puerto Rico, depending on which naval base his father was stationed. He caught the camera bug in junior high and at 14, he got an Ansco film-developing kit from the owner of the dime store where he worked. A bathroom at his home soon became a darkroom where he developed rolls of film from the family Brownie camera. But it was a Nikorex 35mm that his mom purchased with the family credit card that sealed the deal. 

When he returned home from a deployment, Rafael’s father “blew his top” that the credit card had been used, but by then, Rafael had already cleared the debt with $10 payments. When Raf started selling 8x10s for 50 cents a pop in high school, his father was fully on board and suggested he set up a photo studio in the garage once he graduated.

But Rafael was fixed on attending Brooks Institute of Photography, and in 1965, he arrived in Santa Barbara. A lucky 13 months into his education, he learned that the Army did not consider the venerable campus an actual college, so into the service he went. He served two years in the Army as a photographer, first in Oklahoma, then a year and a half in Ausberg, Germany, shooting for NATO and Stars and Stripes and finishing in Fort Riley, Kansas.

Afterward, Rafael really wanted to work at a Jacksonville paper, but they said he was over-qualified and that he should try the FBI, who hired him immediately as a darkroom printer. Rafael’s iconic beard got an early start due to a skin condition that gave him a rare pass on shaving, though he did fear meeting J. Edgar Hoover in the halls to test that exception. It was there that he met his wife of 53 years, Maria, who was working on another floor in the ID department. 

Upon returning to Santa Barbara in 1970, the G.I. Bill helped Rafael buy a home in Isla Vista and a student loan allowed him to complete his Brooks education. He picked up the part-time job at the Santa Barbara News-Press that had been put on hold when he was drafted, which became a full-time gig once he graduated.

A photographer covers a lot of ground at a daily paper ― breaking news, parades, protests, celebrities, politics, sports. History is constantly being made, and Raf probably has a few million images to prove it.

One particularly memorable moment came in the ’80s when Rafael, waiting near the Reagan Ranch for a scheduled arrival of Marine One, took a casual snap of a plane flying overhead. Back at the paper, he learned that a person had been taken into custody for flying in restricted airspace. Checking his contact sheet, he saw he had the culprit. By the next morning, the photo he submitted to the Associated Press had been republished all over the country. 

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Rafael also took a first place award for a photo of a surfer being rescued from the rocky shores of Isla Vista. The image channeled Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, capturing the last second before a rescuer’s reaching hand made contact with the stranded youth.

Fellow Santa Barbara news photographer Len Wood interned at the News-Press in 1976 and eventually rose to the rank of photo editor. He recalled Rafael as being “very influential” and showing him the ropes. Wood also remembered Maldonado being “completely different than anyone in the field because he always had interesting hobbies going on and stories that had zero to do with journalism. Most photojournalists get consumed with the job with photos coming first and everything else coming second.” 

And it’s true. Rafael was into video and illustrations. He was a marathoner until an injury during the 1984 L.A. Marathon made him swap his running shoes for swim trunks. He brewed beer and sold brewing supplies out of his home, and when he moved to Solvang, he started making wine. With so many other interests, it is ironic that he would become the one of the longest-serving photographers at the paper.

Rafael embraced technology all along the way and says that “digital” is the best thing that could have happened to photography. Instead of worrying about the chemical hazards or mishaps during development, you can concentrate on what’s really important, like “the light and the moment,” he said. “And that’s, to me, where the picture happens.”

After years of toting around two or three big cameras, Rafael welcomed the lightweight iPhone into his quiver. He always had a full-sized body and long lens at the ready, but for day to day images like food assignments or head shots, he preferred the phone.  

After 51 years, Rafael said it was strange to walk out the door of the News-Press for the last time, but the next chapter is going to be spent in Hawai‘i, where he will live close to his son and grandchild. He’ll still be snapping pics, but mainly of the family or snorkeling with a GoPro. 

But there are parts of his career he’ll miss, he admitted. “The best thrill you can get in this job is, at the end of the day, you’re getting into your car and you say, ‘You know, this was a good day. I did okay today.’ Then you go home and enjoy the family.”

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