Four years ago, I put out my first post for aspiring photojournalists. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, and I was both humbled and grateful to see the post shared by many and to hear from those who messaged me their appreciation for the things I had to say. A lot has happened since then, and I wanted to share what other pieces of advice that I have learned over the last four years; as well as some things I left out in my previous post. As with the last one, It’s my hope that something I’ve written here is of some help or encouragement.
There’s more than one way into a building than the front door.
While some conventional avenues remain, there’s no real “path” in this industry. It’s not like becoming a doctor or a lawyer in which you go to law or medical school, do a residency or make the bar and then bam, you’re a lawyer or a doctor. Ask anyone whose working in this industry how they got to where they are, and most likely you’ll hear a different story every time.
I first got my start with the Washington Post when I was photographing the emerging “Occupy Wall St” protests that were spreading across the country- including Washington DC. I sold my first photo to the Post in late 2011 after a few protesters were injured by a car, and would continue to send in images until finally I was given my first formal assignment; covering the camp on a night some believed the camp would be taken down by park police. Shortly after however, the camp was finally removed, and essentially all contact with the Post had stopped. I wanted to continue making the connections I was making, but knew I wasn’t at a professional level that I could apply for an internship with them or expect calls for other assignments. I asked my college professor at the time Bob Reeder, who was a former staff photographer at the Post, for his advice. On my behalf he sent off an email to then-DOP Michel du Cille, who suggested that I apply for a position as a newsroom copy aide-which I did shortly after. I eventually received a callback once an opening occurred, and began working there in June 2012. I worked as a copy aide for almost two years; sorting mail, delivering morning papers to the various news desks, keeping the newsroom printers stocked and other various basic tasks. In short, it was the most entry level position possible at the paper. But through that job I was able to get a true glimpse of how newsrooms operated and get to know the photographers, reporters and editors on a face-to-face basis, and soon, I began receiving assignments from various desks for everything from covering the opening of bars and Batalá performers to Local Living profiles and the annual doggy day swim in DC’s public pools. It’s unlikely that I would have ever had the amount of opportunities that I did with the Post had I not worked there initially as a copy aide.
Understand what you’re getting into.
While I am no less hopeful over the future of photojournalism, it isn’t easy. It’s important to accept the possibility of taking a job in this field only to find yourself out of one within a year. While I now work as a freelancer, I have worked as a staffer for two newspapers, and was laid off from both. The newspaper industry has been shrinking for many years now, and while the largest publications will most likely continue to survive, local news outlets will continue to suffer layoffs and consolidation into the future. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities. There are still groups across social media such as Facebook that continue to post up new job opportunities and internships every way. Despite the beating that the industry has taken over the last couple decades, there are STILL ways to make it work.
There’s no shame in having a day job or doing side gigs.
Because of this reality, there aren’t many photojournalists left that can still make a living completely off of purely editorial work. Many supplement their income with commercial work such as events, weddings, corporate headshots, assisting other photographers, teaching classes or conducting workshops. While some get lucky, it takes a lot of time to reach a point of total self sufficiency through freelance-and that’s okay! Doing whatever you can to get to that point doesn’t make you any less of a photojournalist in any way. You’re a photojournalist whether you work every day, once a week or once a month. The time between each assignment doesn’t detract from your skills and experience. I’ve been a photojournalist for over ten years, and it’s only been in the last six months that I’ve made it to the point that I can work as a freelancer full-time. While doing all the freelance jobs I could for the Washington Post from 2012-2014, I was working in their newsroom as a copy aide. When I returned to DC from my internship with the San Francisco Chronicle, I eventually took a job at my favorite camera shop ProPhoto in 2015, and worked there while doing whatever assisting and other commercial gigs that I could until I moved to take a staff position at the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota in 2016, and in 2017, the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia. When I was laid off from the Gazette-Mail in 2019, I moved back to DC and returned to work at ProPhoto to pay my rent and other bills while slowly getting back into freelancing until being furloughed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Through a mix of unemployment insurance and the steadily increasing amount of freelance work I received throughout the dumpster fire of a year that was 2020, I was able to stay on my feet. It’s only this year that I’ve finally been able to make the jump to full time freelance, and I still take on all the side gigs I can.
Place yourself in an area that isn’t already saturated with media.
Working in smaller markets will often give you vital experience in the abc’s of being a working photojournalist, as well as grant you a perspective of areas of the country that you may not have had before working solely in major cities. Additionally, There is a stereotype that to be successful one should be in a major metropolitan area. That may have been the case before the age of social media, when the range of how far local stories would travel typically went as far as the local daily’s circulation. This is no longer the case. I was in South Dakota as the Dakota Access Pipeline protest in neighboring North Dakota was at its peak; a story unfolding as far away as can be from any major metro area. I often wonder if that story would have become as big as it did had it occurred over 20 years ago before social media made it possible to see things happening in real time from every corner of the planet. And about 8 months into my time at the Charleston Gazette-Mail in the Spring of 2018, teachers and school personnel across all 55 counties of West Virginia went on a statewide strike. The state capitol was teeming with striking teachers and school personnel pressuring state legislators and the governor to meet their demands. Their eventual success was the beginning of a wave of education strikes that would spread across the nation. As a staffer for the local paper, I did everything to cover it as best as I could, and because my apartment was directly across the street from the state capitol, I was often there past my daily work schedule.
Like many other newspapers, the Charleston Gazette-Mail had a contract for sharing content with wire services-in our case, the Associated Press. Because of this, my work was immediately distributed all over the place-landing in many of the nation’s major publications both online and in print. I’m quite sure that my images would never had had that level of use across media outlets if such a major news event were to happen in a media-saturated region like, New York, Washington DC or California. I’d just be another contributor in a very large pool of shooters, and so the amount of my work distributed would be drastically diluted simply by the amount of other content provided by others. It’s because I was providing images on a daily basis from an area in which there were so few photographers that my work was so widely distributed, and it was also as this was happening that I started hearing from publications that I had never worked for, such as Politico Magazine, Huffpost, AP and ProPublica.
Publications will hire freelancers especially in areas that are typically outside of their range, as the cost of hiring a freelancer is typically lower than the cost of expenses of sending one of their own staffers. If you find yourself in the interview process for a staff position, make a point of finding out whether or not you will have the ability to do freelance work for other outlets while still working your staff position. I deeply value the fact that my paper allowed me to do so.
Lastly, I’m grateful for my time in West Virginia because of the many things that it taught me. Among other things that there’s far more to a place than mere first impressions or what you may have heard from someone else, which is why it’s so important that local news outlets continue to provide the vital coverage that they do in these areas. The things that happen in small communities are no less deserving of our attention and efforts than those in larger ones. Media is an ecosystem, and much of what eventually reaches the headlines of major outlets begin life as a headline in a local paper after a lot of digging by journalists working in their own communities daily. You may not know their names, but we all benefit from their work.
Know what to ask when you have that interview.
It’s important that you have questions ready for the editors if given the opportunity of an interview. This will save you time and misunderstandings later. For example, While I was still at my paper in South Dakota in 2016, I decided to accompany another reporter to cover the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline protest in North Dakota-while I was off the clock. Unfortunately, this act was not received well by the paper itself, and subsequently upon my return I was told that, for various reasons, no photos that I took while off the clock would ever be published in the paper. Because this was a fundamental issue for me, I realized that I should have discussed this with the paper prior to being hired. In any case, I made sure to put this question to the editors in my interview with what would become my next paper in West Virginia. And again I repeat- ask whether or not there is a clause in the hiring contract against working on assignment for other publications-as is common with certain publishers.
Don’t be afraid to say no.
Given the state of the industry, a lot of us may feel tempted to accept a job or internship in a place we don’t want to be. When every job or internship seems to have a host of applicants, the idea that someone might choose to refuse a solid opportunity anyway may seem strange.
In 2016 after graduating college I applied for and was eventually offered a six month internship at an MLIVE publication in Michigan. For various reasons, I changed my mind and turned down. Since then, I’ve now seen other people take on stints at that location who have done a fantastic job; making great work and learning a lot. I have the feeling that my path would have taken a very different turn had I chosen it. However, there were factors at play in my life at the time that ultimately led me to choose to not do it. It wasn’t an easy decision, and it’s one that I admittedly felt quite a bit of guilt for after the fact. In an industry in which many opportunities are fleeting with many people vying for each one, it almost feels downright arrogant to turn one down.
But If something isn’t for you, then it isn’t for you. It’s better that that opportunity go to someone who really wants it vs someone lukewarm about it. Regardless of how dire the overall situation of the industry may appear at times, new opportunities still arise. Had I taken that position, I never would have moved to South Dakota to work at the Rapid City Journal; nor would I have had the experiences I had or made the friendships I made as a consequence. It could have been that once the internship ended that I immediately took on another internship or position elsewhere, perhaps ensuring that I would never have applied to the position at the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, and subsequently, arrived back in DC as I did.
Getting the shot is only part of it.
You can be doing this for over 10 years, and still make basic mistakes-the misplaced card reader, the memory card that you forgot to format, the low battery you forgot to recharge or forgetting to clean the dust spots off your sensor that show up in a published photo. Mistakes will be made, and it’s important to do everything that you can to prepare and ensure that they happen as seldom as possible. I may have learned to be consistent and minimize the number of times they happen, but I admittedly only learned how to do things consistently right by consistently doing them all wrong first. Missed deadlines, caption mistakes, arriving late-you can be the best photojournalist in the world, but none of that matters if you can’t get in the photos on time or place the wrong name to someone’s face in a photo caption one too many times. Do it once and you may get an earful from a disgruntled editor, do it more times and you may not get called back for another assignment. The details and little things add up, and matter just as much as the photos you actually take. Arrive early whenever possible to both allow yourself time to get familiar with the setting, and to find good people that you can not only make images of but offer to the reporter as sources if you’re working with one. For editing quickly and submitting; image presets in camera raw, as well as metadata templates for your images and setting up code replacements in Photomechanic beforehand will save you a lot of time-especially when working assignments like sports. Make it a routine to unpack your cameras, place your batteries in chargers and format your memory cards once you’re done at the end of each assignment. Creating for yourself a consistent workflow is one of the best things that you can do for yourself and ensure you keep getting called back for that next assignment.
Pitching stories: Inspiration comes from all kinds of places.
I want to write a post dedicated just to pitching, but it’s worth writing a small section about here for now. For most of my career thus far, pitching stories was something I was terrible at. As much as I loved reading them, I couldn’t come up with my own to save my life. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve realized that a lot fo times, story ideas can come from many places; whether that’s passing by something interesting and taking a moment to walk up and ask some questions, or even from just some google searches at home.
As an example, last year in Spring 2020, I was looking for places where I could go and take some nice landscape photos outside of DC. On one of my searches I just happened to come across Tangier Island, VA; a small, constantly receding island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay; home to a small community of watermen who still made their living off of their catches in the Chesapeake. Tourism accounted for the rest of the Island’s income-which was at that time completely frozen with all tourism ferries halting operations and the local businesses that catered to such tourists closed down. After doing a little more reading, it was easy to see why. With such a tight-nit community; one with many older folks particularly vulnerable to the virus, an outbreak on the island could’ve potentially had dire consequences. As there was an ongoing debate about balancing public safety with keeping the economy afloat, I thought that Tangier’s situation could serve as an example of how certain communities are approaching the pandemic. I pitched it around to various outlets before eventually pitching it to the DOP at HuffPost, who was happy to pick up the story. I ended up staying two days on the island making photos and subsequently helped co-write the feature piece.
What started as me just looking for places to escape to turned into a successfully pitched and executed story. Just as I had mentioned in my previous post of looking to your other photographic interests to inform how you approach your style of photojournalism, look inward to what other interests outside of photojournalism you may have to help inform and serve the stories that you may ultimately pitch.
Trust the Process: Don’t be discouraged or lose hope when life takes a turn that sets you back.
I laid this out more in detail in a previous post, but It’s worth writing about here as well. In the summer of 2014 I was riding high-at least I thought so. I had spent the last two years freelancing for the Washington Post, had attended the Eddie Adams Workshop, and had just finished an internship with the San Francisco Chronicle-all by the age of 21. But while things may have looked good for me on paper, I was personally spiraling downward. I had only just finished my internship when I was arrested and convicted for drunk driving.
The damage I did to myself and my career was undeniable. For over a year I had no drivers license. My freelance work dried up completely by the time I got back to DC, and rather than working at another paper as I had hoped to do the following summer of 2015, I was instead being driven by my parents to community service and the DMV to do group classes and counseling in order to get my license back. Even after getting it back, the damage I inflicted on myself continued to show. A year later upon finishing college I was accepted to an internship at a paper in Ohio, only to have the acceptance rescinded a few weeks before I moved there-the paper’s HR citing my DUI arrest as grounds for doing so. I then applied to an internship at a paper in Virginia, and was told shortly after that, while I was their first choice, they would ultimately have to refuse for the same reason. I felt absolutely helpless about my situation, and, given that I had now graduated and was facing the prospect of soon not being eligible for most internships due to no longer being a student, I was desperate. Around this time, I heard back from the editor who would eventually be my boss at the Rapid City Journal. I had applied to a staff position there a short while ago before being told that they had enacted a hiring freeze, and the editor was messaging me to let me know that the freeze had ended, and to ask if I was still interested in the position. I told him that I was, but was also upfront about my recent history in order to spare myself another protracted rejection should it prove disqualifying. Thankfully, because that was the only offense on my record, I was told I would still be eligible, and soon after I moved to South Dakota in late 2016 to take the job. While I was only there for four months before being laid off, it gave me the opportunity to press a reset on my career after more than two years of no freelance work whatsoever, set me up to take my staff position in West Virginia and ultimately, be where I am today.
I share all of this because life is never a straight line. There are highs and lows, and sometimes, the lows are so deep that you may come to doubt whether or not you’ll ever be able to overcome them. But I promise you, for however long it may take, you WILL overcome them. There was a gap of five and a half years between my last freelance assignment I did in DC and my first upon returning in fall of 2019. Two years later, I’m grateful to be in a very different place career wise.
The most important people you can get to know are your fellow photogs.
While it is important to network and get yourself on the radar of editors you may want to work for, the majority of new clients I have ever received were a direct result of another photographer that I know recommending me when they themselves were unable to do whatever assignment the editor called them about. This is a community, and it’s to your benefit and the benefit of those you associate with to work together as often as possible. Not only because doing so will be helpful to your career in the long-term, but even more so because we are a community of some really talented and wonderful people. I’m grateful for the many friends I’ve made throughout my career thus far. So what are some ways that you can go about doing that?
Workshops, Seminars and Portfolio Reviews.
The thing that makes workshops great aren’t the speakers, the lessons or even the portfolio reviews; helpful as they may be. It’s the opportunity to meet people who are in the same boat as you are; either just starting out and unsure as to how to move forward or someone whose reached a plateau in their career. There are a number of great workshops and seminars that happen every year, whether that’s NPPA’s Northern Short Course, the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, The Missouri Photo Workshop, The Mountain Workshop, The Eddie Adams Workshop, The Image Deconstructed Workshop, or WPOW’s annual portfolio review in Washington DC. I’ve attended all but the Mountain Workshop at least once, and each time I came away not only with new knowledge and valuable insight into my own work through reviews, but also with new friends-fellow photogs who are also doing everything they can to navigate this industry and be part of it all.
There will be ups and downs, and that’s okay!
No matter what level you’re at, inevitably you’re going to go through periods of having lots of work to having little to none at all. It happens to all of us, and there’s nothing abnormal about it. Nonetheless, the more days that pass by without any phone calls, that feeling of imposter syndrome may grow a little bit more and more. I promise you that another phone call is coming, and it’s going to pass. It always does at some point.
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, I thank you for taking the time to read it. I hope that there is something in it that has been helpful in some way to you. I Intend to write another one soon dealing more directly with tackling assignments themselves geared more towards those just starting out, and I’m looking forward to that.