Getting Started in Photojournalism
Jim McNay, Brooks Institute of Photography, NPPA Past President
Contemporary photojournalism, whether done with the traditional still camera or the more modern multimedia tools of computer and video camera, is still one of the more interesting “I-don’t-work-in-an-office” jobs aspiring visual storytellers can pursue.
This profession also allows one to work from almost anywhere, whether that be one’s hometown, one’s own country, or from any particular location in the world. If photographers can get to the stories and content they want to cover, they can do this work from anywhere.
What qualities are most important for those who want to pursue such a career?
A desire to be “out in the world”: The storytelling photographers do takes them into the community. That could be the local community where a photographer makes his or her home. It could also be the world community. The options are endless, depending on how far afield the photographer wants to work.
But the key is that the storytelling photojournalists do, whatever tools they choose to use, are not at home in their studio or apartment. The work is out in the world with people. Unlike the world of fine art where the aim is for the photographer to tell their story to the world, in photojournalism the photographer/storyteller concentrates on the story of other people.
Technical proficiency: Whether one is a documentary filmmaker, a multimedia storyteller or still photography photojournalist, the tools today consist of electronic cameras and computers. Film and videotape are gone. Pictures are captured on digital media. The darkroom is gone. Today computers serve as the digital darkroom and as video editing machines.
Photographers need to be willing to learn the essentials, buy the key gear they need, and then keep up with the evolving technological changes. New software, improved cameras, hard drives and computers come flying at working pros with increasing speed requiring upgrades and significant additional investment at least every 18 months, probably every 12 months.
Understanding of and a commitment to ethical standards: With the vast degree of image manipulation visible in advertising, television commercials and the special effects in movies, it is easy to assume “anything goes” no matter which part of the visual world one works in today. Such is not the case for the photojournalist.
Photographers who cover the world and its stories are much more in the mode of, “Record what you see, present what you saw.” Yes, pictures and video are adjusted electronically to make this plain to the viewer. But the concept of not manipulating images to alter their meaning is still in play for the modern photojournalist.
Persistence: This comes from a drive to get the story. Photojournalists, like writing journalists, are often told “no”. The most successful journalists just don’t accept the most recent no as the final answer. The best journalists press on without being obnoxious about it and just continue to pursue the story with the next phone call, the next request for an interview.
This same persistence comes into play when it comes to breaking into the business and then once in, to advancing up the ladder. Moving from one publication to another, one company to another or climbing the ranks to the “better” publications or video outlets takes time, energy and often, repeated visits to show your work.
Is formal education important?
The debate about whether or not a photographer needs a formal education goes back as far as the invention of photography. The best suggestion is for students to look at all the options and then choose the path that works for them.
Self-taught: Throughout the history of art, students have learned their craft by taking on a strict regimen of work by themselves. They become artists or photographers by doing art and photography. For some, this is an effective method. The key is probably the term “strict regimen of work.” The combination of technique plus artistic vision has to come from somewhere.
Professional sports photographer Brad Mangin notes, “Hard work and paying your dues is still a good way to separate yourself from the pack and get on everyone's radar as a good person to hire for a given job or freelance assignment.” Says Mangin, “Being the son of an old-school basketball coach I was brought up with a philosophy that hard work and respect for the veterans were traits that would be rewarded in my future.”
With the Internet, on-line courses, software manuals and a vast array of professional workshops, being self taught may be more accessible that ever before. For those who learn best on their own, this might be the most effective method.
College training in photojournalism: Many state universities and art institutes offer formal college degrees with photojournalism majors. The advantage here is a set of progressively challenging courses over time; instructors who act as coaches and mentors to take students to the next level; and an array of like-minded students who share a vision in which students can compare work and ideas. For students who like a focused, structured environment, a two to four year immersion in a formal program might be the best solution.
College training in other subjects: There is a thread in journalism that suggests one need not train in journalism or photojournalism per se. Using college to learn about the world through the study of other subjects is the recommended path. These voices insist photography and journalism can be learned later. In the beginning, they say study government, politics, international relations, sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, English, foreign languages or any number of other subjects that will prepare one to work out in the world. The theory here is, if you can think and if you can write, you can probably find work if you’re good.
Whatever the approach, the key will be to assemble the necessary skills to be an effective storyteller with the kind of camera or current digital tools one aspires to use to tell the stories one wants to tell.
How important are multimedia and video?
Wherever one gets it, entry-level photographers can no longer just think of themselves as “just” still photographers. Still photographs are part of the content package that includes slide shows with music, recorded audio of the story’s subjects, narrated audio, and eventually, video story telling. Once can begin with still and audio slide shows while in school. This will help carry a photographer into the video world.
Naples Daily News staff photographer Lexey Swall notes, “The Naples Daily News has gone to a ‘web first’ philosophy—meaning that the website is where we put the stories and photos the moment they are finished.” She adds, “Then the web acts as a ‘news service’ for our print edition, where ideally, we will do more in depth coverage of a given story and hopefully not regurgitate what people have already read on the Web.”
This approach is one sweeping the printed media industry as magazines and newspapers “move to the Web” which is now seen by managers as the new profit center for those companies that produce “content.”
At the Journal News in White Plains, New York Deputy Managing Editor for Presentation Larry Nylund, says “The list of qualifications we look for in a photojournalism applicant just got a lot longer.”
“The photo department in now known as the multimedia department,” Nylund says. “We are looking for talented people who can step in with the skills needed to tell visual stories in many different ways.”
The photographers in Nylund’s department contribute to the newspaper, magazines, weekly tabloids, a television station and a Website. Photographers carry still and video cameras, laptops, cell phones. The company now has video and audio studios.
How does a candidate display his or her work?
This is the key element that allows the visual storyteller—whether still photographer, multimedia storyteller, documentary video filmmaker—to show at what level they are capable of working.
Still photographers should start building a collection of solid stand-alone single pictures. They should be technically proficient, display excellent color correction skills on the part of the photographer and have complete caption information. Eventually these photographers will want to move beyond single pictures and take on longer stories and projects as their skills advance.
Documentary video filmmakers should begin with short storytelling projects, perhaps in the 5-10 minute range. After honing their skills with projects of this length, they should expand their storytelling over time to projects in the 20-30 minute range. Here solid skills of shooting, gathering audio and editing must be shown. For a portfolio on a DVD, students should have a 1-2 minute “trailer” for any longer project. Editors will look at a summary such as this, which may get them interested in the longer piece. They probably will not commit themselves to a 20-minute film unless they already know your work or you have won an award of some significance.
Multimedia storytellers can start with simple slide shows of still pictures set to music. As one’s skills grow, learning to gather audio in the field is a necessity. This insures the audience can hear the voices of the subjects in the story. It also opens the door to more sophisticated and complex story telling on the part of the photographer.
How important are captions?
For those showing still photographs accurate, correctly spelled caption information is still considered a must. This may go away as more projects are shown in a multimedia environment. However for the foreseeable future hiring editors want clear, clean, communicative captions that are spell checked and grammar checked.
Recent errors such as the following are career killers:
Having a caption on a photograph of a horse that refers to a circus clown. This is the wrong caption on the photo and suggests a lack of care on the part of the candidate.
Having a project button on a portfolio that reads, “Inida”—and then having to explain this is “India”, misspelled.
Having the opening page of a Flash Website open with the words, “Sit requires Flash” —when actually, the photographer was warning the viewer that the Website required Flash and was inviting the visitor to download it if they did not already have it.
How does one get internships?
Whatever one’s chosen educational path, in the end photographers and visual storytellers have to be able to show they can produce work of sufficient quality to attract the attention of editors and hiring managers. That often comes down to a portfolio or video “reel” of one’s best work. Students often put this together in school. However it happens, this is the key element those who hire want to see.
Often editors are looking for the most talented potential intern they can find. On some occasions, that does not mean it will be the most polished photographer.
“I like work that shows originality of thought rather than what may be the most polished, says San Jose Mercury News Director of Photography Geri Migielicz. “I'd rather have an intern who is full of questions on the team than one who thinks they have the answers.” She adds, “If the photo department is to be supportive of learning, you have to have critical thinkers and those who strive for original solutions. At times it means failing now rather than settling for safe. In the long run, the investment will pay off.”
Besides class assignments and self-assigned projects, the entry-level photographer or video documentarian sometimes gets a chance to prove him or herself through internships or assistantships with professionals. Work with individual photographers or filmmakers is often like the age old apprenticeship experience where one turns oneself over to a master and learns by first watching, then doing. Magazine interns often work in the office and soon learn the culture of the modern magazine world. Initial work doing low-level tasks can evolve over time to taking on greater responsibility throughout the internship and eventually becoming an integral part of the publication’s workflow.
Students who want to shoot pictures or video and who want to see their work in front of an audience will seek internships where these opportunities exist. Newspapers often give student interns the same assignment and deadline responsibilities as staff photographers.
Though he now shoots for Sports Illustrated and Major League Baseball, Mangin started in newspapers and still believes that gives new photographers great training. “It has always been my opinion that magazine editors who hire freelancers to shoot sports want to hire journalists who know how to tell stories with their photographs. This is why I always stress to get a start in newspapers where you can learn to become a complete journalist and prepare yourself for more opportunities in your future.”
Videographers at small televisions stations might learn the ropes in the newsroom or by editing. Before the end of the internship they can be shooting stories for broadcast if their skills are in place.
While it takes a basic portfolio or reel to get hired, the aim is to add significant new material to the portfolio over the course of the internship.
What are the steps to an internship?
To get an internship photographers often find it helps to mount a campaign. For students, this is like taking on one extra self-designed course called, “Getting my first (or next) internship.”
This means assembling a portfolio of excellent work and figuring out where you would like to intern, or where it would be most appropriate for you to intern based on your experience. In addition applicants will need a resume and a cover letter that introduces them and makes their case to be selected as an intern.
At the Palo Alto Weekly, Chief Photographer Norbert von der Groeben sees many photographers seeking their first internship. And he sees a lot basic mistakes, sometimes called “rookie errors” by professionals.
Among these beginner errors are misspelling the name of the hiring editor. Worse yet is to get their gender wrong.
If a candidate is fortunate to get an interview with the boss, von der Groeben says appearance is the next hurdle. “Dress correctly for the interview” he says. “No jeans, T-shirts, gum or bottled water. Wear a nice clean shirt or blouse and slacks.” This is so basic, even for beginners says von der Groeben, that he has been know to escort poorly dressed candidates straight out to the newspaper’s parking lot, telling them to come back when they are REALLY (italics) ready to work—as a professional— at the paper.
How can I maximize the job interview opportunity?
Job candidates know they will be asked questions during an interview. Concord (N.H.) Monitor Photo Editor Dan Habib urges applicants to think about what they will be asked—and what they want to ask—during the interview.
In the first instance, candidates should be able to speak about why they want to intern for this particular organization. Also, what can the intern candidate bring to this organization as an aspiring journalist or storyteller?
Having questions for the organization’s interviewer is also smart. What is the daily routine of the job? Is it office bound or can interns get into the field? Is the work of interns published in print, on the Web or broadcast on the air? What were the duties of the previous intern?
Habib encourages intern candidates to speak about their own needed areas of growth. This shows insight into the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses and an ability to analyze their own work.
Von der Groeben says, “If you are lacking sports or news photos in your portfolio be honest and say that you need to work on that and you want to learn. Make that a goal for the internship.”
How important is this process of the internship hunt? In Concord, Habib notes five of the last six people he has hired have interned at the paper at some point.
What are the intern “do’s” and “dont’s?”
Because journalism is a small industry where everyone knows everyone, even beginning interns must be on top of their game as best they can every day.
Simple honesty goes a long way, says von der Groeben. “Once you get the internship keep your commitment,” says. “ That means if you first get an internship at the Palo Alto Weekly and next day the Los Angeles Times offers you their internship, call the Palo Alto Weekly back and be honest.” When someone is straightforward about a great circumstance like this, von der Groeben says chances are he will get behind the student taking the larger opportunity.”
On the other hand when interns try to worm their way out of what they have promised, that is another matter. “If you say you want to work weekends, don’t change your mind once the internship gets going and ask for weekends off,” says von der Groeben. “That makes everyone from the photo editor to the newest person on staff unhappy with you,” he adds. “That can make for a very long summer.”
At the San Diego Union, Senior Editor for Visuals Robert York swears he has seen it all. He has several suggestions for candidates who land the internship.
“Never give anyone the finger in traffic while you’re in a company car,” says York. “Make double sure you don’t give a retired navy admiral the bird. He’s smart enough to figure out who you are and call your boss. It never ends well for you or your finger,” he concludes.
If as an intern the company gear suddenly goes missing, York counsels, “Never claim that the gear you lost was stolen by angry gypsy dwarves at the circus,” he says. “If you want, we can provide you with a list of acceptable, staff-tested, far-fetched excuses. Surprisingly, angry gypsy dwarves didn’t make the cut.”
And as a photo manager who has seen interns arrive late and leave early because the dog they brought on assignment with them needed special attention, York adds, “Never bring your dog to work.” He flat out says, “Don’t bring any pets to work. Don’t bring them on assignments with you. Don’t let them p*e in the studio. It never ends well for you or the dog.”
What about following-up?
Once the interview is over, smart candidates will follow up in the subsequent weeks and months. Remember: Getting an internship or assistantship is a campaign.
First, craft a hand-written thank you note to the interviewer expressing your appreciation for their time and the opportunity to interview with their organization.
Then at least every one to three months, send an update of your work to the organization’s hiring manager. Show them you are still interested in working for their organization. This will also allow you to show them new work as you grow and develop as a storyteller.
How do I get feedback?
A critical part of this process is for aspiring photographers to get as much feedback as possible. Students in class can do this with instructors and visiting professionals when they come to campus. Photographers without these possibilities should approach professionals whenever they can. E-mail and telephone requests work well. Seeing professionals at low-cost one-day workshops often allows one to hear from several pros at one event. Workshops that extend over a week or more allow in-depth analysis and review.
It is not unusual at some time in a career to encounter a critique one might characterize as The Wood Chipper. That is, a photographer shows work and in a matter of minutes feels he or she has been chopped up and spit out of a C-shaped tube into a bin of tiny wood segments destined to be mulch. This happens so often to photographers at the start of their careers it should be considered an official rite of passage. Committed storytellers will know one critique is not the definitive word on one’s life.
The question becomes, is this the last critique, as in the last one you had recently, or is this the Last Critique, as in you are planning to give up your aspirations to be a storyteller. The second option essentially guarantees the game is over. But if this kind of brutal review is just another in a series of moments of feedback along a career path, this photographer has a chance to persist and succeed.
One of the best ways to get a critique and to start to build a relationship with a professional is through the NPPA mentorship program. This one-year program links photographers with veteran pros for dialogue and critique aimed to improve the photographer’s skills and broaden their understanding of the industry.
NPPA offers critique programs for both still and video members.
How important are business skills?
Another leg of an aspiring visual storyteller’s arsenal is some understanding of the marketplace. With so many photographers choosing the freelance path of the independent contractor today, often the ability to survive is based more on understanding marketing, copyright, business law, contracts and finance than on capturing an image.
The most successful storytellers today understand how to create the content and how to market the result.
There is the capturing of the image, and there is the selling of the image. There is the making of a book and then the selling of the book. There is the making of the documentary film and there is the marketing of the film.
How about covering war?
Traditionally many journalists have jump started their career by finding a hot conflict zone offering an insurrection or civil war. With several months of gritty coverage a writer or photographer might make their reputation in a way that would take years if they worked their way up the ranks at home.
Some photographers find this a fruitful path. However in the areas where full-blown armies are going at each other, the risks are substantial and may not be recommended for individual photographers without major organizational backing.
Freelancer Max Becherer rotates in and out of the Middle East regularly with major news organizations. He notes, “Coming in to cover Iraq at this stage of things is extremely difficult and expensive. That is why only the largest organizations are able to even try to do it.”
An enterprising storyteller has to think about what new information they will capture as part of their being on this scene says Becherer. “If all you want to do is embed then the trail is well worn,” he says. “As soon as you step off the plane you are in the battlefield. Actually being able to report on Iraqis or outside of the bases is a totally different ball game.”
Other locales of less intensity, but of no less journalistic importance, might be a better starting ground for the conflict zone novice.
What about compensation?
It has long been said that no one goes into journalism to get rich. While one might get rich, for the most part it does not happen. Most of the time people go into storytelling fields for other reasons.
Part of the issue here is that photojournalism and documentary video filmmaking have always attracted more people to them than there are formal jobs in the field. In short, this field is extremely c-o-m-p-e-t-i-t-i-v-e. But this has always been the case, going back to the earliest history of photojournalism. It looks like an easy, fun job. Fun it is, though not so easy. But many people are drawn to the field with varying degrees of skill and sophistication.
Clearly one cannot be stupid about money and expenses. One has to be sufficiently attentive to make a living. One must generate income above and beyond one’s expenses. Starting out that might mean having a day job while one polishes journalistic skills. Actors and musicians know this process. It can work for photojournalists too.
However with that in mind, people in journalism and storytelling often find the real compensation from this profession from the elements above and beyond just the paycheck. It might come from doing something different every day. It might come from a range of traveling and having new experiences in different corners of the world—or in one’s own community.
A storyteller might have a certain commitment to saving the oceans, to preserving the Amazon rainforest, to doing stories on refugees from conflict zones. Often storytellers set up a balance in their life between these projects and more commercial work, with one funding the other. The resulting work is both profitable and meaningful for the storyteller.
Those who will do well in the days ahead will mostly likely be those who combine their still photography efforts with multimedia presentation skills. Ideally, that will lead photographers to add video storytelling to their skill set. Photographers who have a solid understanding of the still camera, the computer and video storytelling are the photographers who will best set themselves up to prosper in the ever more emerging digital world.
For those who love video, perhaps the highest compensation will come from getting their documentaries on television. Compared to other outlets, this can be one of the more lucrative venues for storytelling if one has that interest.
Seek to have the widest possible skill set. This includes work with a still camera, computer, audio and video tools. Be as complete a storyteller as possible with the range of tools available.
Special enhancements are equally valuable: Learn to write stories and proposals; learn one or more foreign languages; learn to compose music, an especially valuable skill as one moves into the multimedia and video world.
Storytellers should keep in mind they will be studying at least three topics as long as they pursue this career: 1) New technological developments, 2) the process of telling a story that communicates clearly, and 3) the copyright law. These are subjects that become the ordinary, on-going “homework” of the working professional.
Most likely creative people will have several if not many jobs over the course of their career. The days of being a photographer, a videographer, an editor or “just” one of anything are gone. Versatility combined with perseverance are the qualities that will keep storytellers working through this century.
Answered By: Mr. Troubled - 5/14/2007