This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time. While I’m just starting out in my own career and have a long way to go, I’ve learned some valuable lessons that i’d like to share. Here’s a list in no particular order of personal truths based on my own experiences and others that have helped me. I don’t take my own opinions as gospel, so take from them what you will. Hopefully there’ll be something in here that’ll be useful to you.
Note: This post is about advice on a more personal level. I have another post coming up for more practical tips regarding getting into photojournalism. I’ve also made a list at the bottom of this post of working photojournalists all over the country that are doing great work while highlighting some of their work throughout this post. See if one of them is near you and see how they shoot places that might be familiar to you.
There is a place for you, no matter what kind of shooter you are.
No matter what kind of a photographer you are, there is a place for you in this industry. I didn’t know that for years myself though. I thought for a very long time that photojournalism was one thing only; LIFE magazine style photo essays; structured storyboards from beginning to end, focused on one subject that you spent days, weeks or even longer working on. I always felt this underlying pressure that If I wanted to be taken seriously as a photojournalist, I just HAD to do that kind of long form work. The problem was that I didn’t really want to. Even though I appreciated and admired other photojournalists who did, I preferred short stories and daily assignments. I had convinced myself though that that wasn’t “real” photojournalism; that what I did wasn’t “good enough”. I wrestled with this completely self-inflicted guilt of not feeling like a true photojournalist for a long time. It took years of different experiences and conversations with others to learn that it was actually okay to not want to be a social documentarian, and that the term “daily shooter” wasn’t something to be ashamed of; to realize that there was in fact a place for me in this industry.
That’s not to say that I’m still uninterested in photo essays, In fact I’m more interested in them than iv’e ever been. The point I’m making is you should never, ever feel like you have to force yourself into shooting a certain kind of work or adopt a style that isn’t yours because you think it’s what people want or that it’s the only way editors will take you seriously. I still remember being told by a staffer at a paper that different interns would come in and shoot in a way that they thought the editors wanted, when really the editors chose the interns because of the fact that they saw things differently. Be honest with yourself and embrace the kind of work that you really want to do, because that’s the work that editors want to see. I remember another editor telling us that they didn’t care what it was that you wanted to do. That if you wanted to shoot something like a series of dressed up dogs they’d still take a look at it. So do everything you can to express your own vision in your work, and I promise you, there will be people who WILL appreciate it.
It’s okay to not know what kind of photojournalist or even what kind of photographer you want to be.
I didn’t know that I wanted to be a photojournalist when I first picked up a camera. I got my start in shooting landscapes, and kept shooting them as I got more involved in photojournalism. I particularly loved panoramas and long exposures; not exactly hard hitting photojournalism. It turned out that my love for long exposures and other aspects of landscape such as color and composition were ideas I could bring to the way I shot photojournalism. No matter what kinds of other photographs you enjoy taking, there are aspects that you can apply to your own shooting. More than that, many photojournalists have other passions that they funnel into their work. Think about those other passions and interests you might have. Ask yourself how they may better inform your personal vision or what kind of work that you gravitate towards. Give yourself the space necessary to grow and experiment. Master the technical aspects of your equipment and pursue a deeper understanding of how you see and what you are drawn to.
looking at the work of others can help.
Check out NPPA’s monthly clip contest entries to see good work from all over the country. Go see if your college library has some books on photojournalism. Check out photo websites like the image deconstructed. Look at Time.com’s Lightbox, or the week in photos from various publications. It’s never been easier to see and admire good work.
It wasn’t until I spent a lot of time actually looking at the work of photographers I admired that I began to move away from my own narrow view of photojournalism. The way Alex Webb used color, Damon Winter of NYT used light or Matt McClain of WaPo used composition. I loved how these photographers could take anything from a general news story or an everyday element of life and could turn it into something that escaped the daily news cycle and stood by itself as something memorable and beautiful. I remember one photo in particular that, silly as it may sound, changed almost everything for me. It was a photo McClain took of a church that was building a pipe organ. He shot it through a cutout in the shape of a cross in the doorway. Seeing the photo now I think it’s still pretty clever, but when I first saw that photo it made my mind explode like a supernova. Through seeing images like that and others, I started to consciously grasp the concept that photojournalism could be and is so much more than just documenting a subject or event. That there is in fact a deeper language to the medium; of not just seeing light, color and symmetry but actually feeling them as viscerally as one feels emotions. Ever since, Iv’e been addicted to finding those kinds of images in the day to day; those little moments where humanity is shown and in which light, sound and motion intertwine with one another. I truly believe that there can be just as much magic in an everyday moment as there is in a major news event. It doesn’t happen all the time, but that’s the goal day in and day out.
Professionals shoot awful photos (too)
I spent my first couple years starting out looking at the work of other young and talented photographers. I’d count on my fingers the number of years between their age and mine, to the point that I felt like if I wasn’t on the front page of the New York Times by the time that I turned 21 i’d be a failure. Looking at the work of others stopped being constructive and just became self abusive. All i could think about was how much better those shooters were than me. I truly felt that the work they did was something I couldn’t do myself; that their vision was something inherent in them, not honed through years of learning and practice. I didn’t understand at the time that the problem with looking at only the highlights of other peoples work is you begin to assume that they’re always shooting great images, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I was at a workshop where a photojournalist who’d been working for many years gave us a presentation of an assignment that they shot for the New York Times. We were able to see their entire take from that assignment, and I saw that a whole lot of those images weren’t good. In fact, some of them were just awful. If any of us are being honest, there are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of photos we take on our assignments that no one will ever see (or at least we hope not). But I think it’s important that newcomers know that there’s a lot of truth to the saying that “most people only see 2% of an artist’s work. ”
It’s a marathon, not a race.
Sure, there may be some prodigies of photojournalism, but the vast majority of the people who work in this industry are people who just refused to quit. Even when you reach a level you’re proud to be at, there’s still more to learn and even more bumps in the road to overcome. you’re going to have times when you feel insecure no matter how good you get; times where you wonder if this is what you’re really supposed to be doing or if you even have what it takes. The answer is simple: you do. As one photographer I listened to said “if you spend your time wondering about where you’re going to be ten years from now and try to plan it all out, you’ll freak yourself out and defeat yourself before it can even happen. All you have to do is focus on the next picture; about the assignment today and what you’re going to be doing tomorrow. If you do that every day, I promise you that the rest will take care of itself”.
So go out to shoot, even in the times when you don’t feel like it or don’t have a clear idea of just what it is you’re going to photograph. Look up different photo exercises you can do. Petapixel has a slew of articles to get your mind going. It’s hard to really notice your vision developing from one day to the next, but if you put the time in, step back after a month or a year, and you’ll be almost sure to see a clear and discernible difference in your work. After all, the moon isn’t moving fast as you look at it, but it still makes it to the other side of the sky each night.
You can make great work anywhere.
There is fantastic work being done every day by photojournalists all over the United States in areas large and small. That’s because there is an entire world of photojournalism that goes beyond the daily news cycle or the major national stories. You don’t need to live in a big city or move to a different country to create compelling images. Great moments are everywhere, and the more you shoot the more you will intuitively recognize them around you. Check out some of the work of people I posted below, and seriously, check the monthly clip contests of NPPA. Take note of how many of those great images are of moments that happen in your own town or city.
Rejection and disappointment happens, and that’s okay.
If you do this for even a little while, you’ll be rejected, whether it’s for pitching a story or applying for an internship, staff position or workshop. Sometimes the rejection hurts a lot, even after it’s already happened times before. Iv’e been a finalist for internships and staff positions at more than a dozen publications only to end up not being chosen, and no one feels pride about the dozen times they almost got the job. Sometimes it’s hard to not take it personally as a referendum on your work or even yourself. Trust me, its not. There are a lot of reasons for why you might not have been the one chosen that have nothing to do with you.
It’s also important to be happy for other people, even when that’s the last thing you feel. Earlier this year, three months after I’d been laid off by the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota, I applied for an internship at another paper in the region. My lease was up in a month and I knew i’d have to go back to DC if I didn’t land something, so I did everything I could to get it. I even offered to drive the couple hours to get there to meet everyone in person. I spoke with their editor, went on a ride along with one of their reporters, was given a tour of the city and the paper itself, and then met up with the editor again the next morning. I was so sure I was going to get the internship I even mentioned I was looking at apartments. I drove back home without an offer but was convinced I’d get one.
And then I didn’t. Instead I was told that they offered the internship to a college student.
Was I disappointed? Yes, deeply. but I also understood that it was going to be a great opportunity for the person getting it, even if that person wasn’t me. Iv’e had my opportunities, and this one was theirs. You might forget it sometimes, but you’re not entitled to anything no matter how skilled or qualified you might think you are. It’s important to be grateful for the things you’ve already been able to do and to be happy for the successes of others. Recognize that this is not a competition and that we really are all in this together. Yes, It’s okay to feel depressed and dejected at times. It happens. But you can’t let those feelings fester into sustained bitterness and resentment. It helps no one and only hurts you.
You might not change the world, but you can effect someone else’s.
There are plenty of images that come to mind as examples of imagery that moved many and reshaped public opinion; the Vietnam Napalm Girl, the Iwo Jima flag raising, the falling man on September 11th or the body of toddler Alan Kurdi on a turkish shore. The list goes on. We all hope to make such impactful images at some point in our lives, but really, the greatest gift that this profession has to offer is that it allows for the ability to make little differences each and every day, whether you’re starting your first entry level staff position, shooting a class assignment for school or just working on your portfolio.
And just because a certain assignment or subject may not matter to you doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter to someone else. That restaurant shoot? It means a lot to the owner of that restaurant who just opened and is trying to get people through the door. That charity organization profile? It means a lot to the people that have been doing their work for years without being publicly recognized. Another night shooting another high school football team? That team captain is carrying a copy of the paper to show his friends and his parents are sharing those photos on facebook. You have no idea how much of a difference you might be making, even with something as simple as sending someone a feature photo you took of them. For all you know they hadn’t received a photo of themselves in years. No matter what level you’re at, you have the ability to make this kind of difference every day. That’s something to aspire to, and that’s something to be really proud of.
I really hope you were able to gain something from this post. Feel free to post any questions or comments you might have, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading.
Various working photographers whose work I admire in no particular order. Of course, the amount of photographers who’s work I admire is longer than this list, but for practical reasons I’m keeping it a reasonable length.
Taylor Irby, Manhattan Mercury
Adria Malcolm, American Reportage
Jabin Botsford, Washington Post
Josh Galemore, Casper Star-Tribune,
Jessica Christian, San Francisco Examiner
Brontë Wittpenn, Billings Gazette
Sam Owens, Evansville Courier & Press
Manuela Montañez Guerra, NYC & Bogota
Joe Ahlquist, Rochester Post-Bulletin
Charles Mostoller, Philadelphia PA
James Tensuan, San Francisco, CA
Dorothy Edwards, Naples Daily News.
Andrew J. Whitaker, Southeast Missourian
Scott Strazzante, San Francisco Chronicle.
Stuart Palley. Southern California
Nic Antaya, Grand Rapids Press.
Kevin Hume, The Storyteller Studios
Joe Lamberti, The Courier-Post
Nicole Hester, Natchez Democrat
Shaban Athuman, Bowling Green, KT
Dougal Brownlie, Colorado Springs Gazette
Dominic Valente, The Daily Herald
Ryan Michalesko, Southern Illinois
Megan Farmer, KUOW Public Radio
5 thoughts on “Advice for aspiring photojournalists”
Hi, Craig, Your journalism is amazing…you have come a long way in developing your expertise in the field of photography and we are so very proud!!
Great article. That McClain church photo is spectacular! Thank you for the list at the end, too.
Craig, haven’t had the chance to meet you before but we share many friends in common. Love this blog and what you have to say. Though I’d hope I’m past the aspiring stage, I’ve struggled with so many similar things and still do. So much of this I needed to hear.
Molly, seems we were both at TID this year but missed meeting each other, haha. It really means a lot to hear you say that, really. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my post. Admittedly, I didn’t know how what I wrote would be received, so I’m really glad that it seems to have resonated with other photojournalists. I think it shows that even though we might all work apart from each other, it doesn’t mean that we’re alone. Cheesy as that might sound. I’m really glad it was able to do something for you, so thanks again.