NYS Fair photographer will miss ‘family reunion’ this year

Virtual Fair

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — Some go for the food, some for the animals, and some for the rides, but Mike Okoniewski goes for one thing: to take pictures as the New York State Fair’s photographer. However, with the State Fair being canceled this year due to COVID-19, Okoniewski is missing out on a lot more than just the pictures.

“I’m going to miss seeing a lot of the people,” Okoniewski, the State Fair’s photographer, said. “Hilby, the juggle boy from Ithaca, The Corona’s from Circus Hollywood, I’m going to miss all those people.”

Okoniewski has been taking pictures at the fair for almost 40 years, starting in 1983 as a member of the Associated Press, and later in 1995 as the State Fair’s official photographer.

“For someone like me, it’s just walk, walk, walk, and take lots of pictures,” Okoniewski said. “For a photographer, we call it photo nirvana. You can’t take two steps without taking a decent picture.”

He’s photographed multitudes of people as they come through the gates, capturing some of the best moments. 

Okoniewski said, “I’m capturing what the fair is about, the essence. I’m not generally running around doing a lot of the political stuff. They want me to go and find the fair, what the fair’s about, and showcase that.”

It’s a fun job that can be even more rewarding.

“I once photographed a young boy. His father had used food coloring to paint the sheep in pink and blue checkered pattern, and an American flag,” Okoniewski said. “That was in the ’80s, I think, maybe the 90’s, it’s the Howe family from Whalen, New York. I had a beer with him two years ago, that young child. They’re still raising sheep, they’re still showing at the State Fair.”

Along with the Howe family, Okoniewski says he’s stayed in touch with some of the other acts he’s photographed throughout the years, like the Corona Circus and Hilby, The Skinny German Juggle Boy.

With the fair canceled this year, Okoniewski says he will miss his fair family the most. 

“The relationships I’ve made at the fair, the people I’ve met, and worked side-by-side with out there, for this year I’m just going to say, ‘Oh, they’re out there. This was the anniversary party that I missed, the family get together that I missed, this year.’ It will be back next year. It’s not going anywhere, it’ll be there long after I’m taking a dirt nap, it’ll just always be there,” Okoniewski said.

Many Central New Yorkers will miss the end of August celebration, but for a fair photographer, it’s like being away from your family for an extra 365 days.

The New York State Fair plans to be back in 2021 with an expanded 18-day lineup. 

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