Top ten keys to be a successful photojournalist (Part one)

I am starting an interesting assignment in California. So far, it has been a lot of fun, but it has also been a great deal of hard work. To be honest, because I do not work on as many assignments as I once did, I was worried I would be rusty. In fact it has been quite the opposite. All the skills I developed over the decades that I was doing assignment work came back to me easily, a bit like riding a bicycle (or motorcycle.) Thinking about them led me to writing them down as a blog post.

(This is the first of two posts on this topic.)

Not only should you be on time, but show up early!

There are many important reasons to show up early for a given event/assignment. Right off the top, you should show up early to scout around the location to figure out where the light is good (or bad,) to make sure you actually find the place after the on-line maps get you lost and finally, to figure out the variety of places to position yourself during the event. I also like to arrive early so I can chat with the people working there, to hear what they think might be a good (or bad idea) for a photograph, to find out how the event unfolds and to see the preparation for the event (which can be as interesting or more interesting than the actual event.) I also try to stay after wards, if I can, because what happens after an event can be as interesting (and telling) as the event itself. The only reason not to show up early is so you can sleep later and if sleeping late is a big priority, you are probably in the wrong line of work.

If you are not good with people, think about getting another job!

Ninety five percent of the subject matter in photojournalism involves people. I am reasonably good with people, but not great. I have seen some masters at work. To me what makes them real masters is that they are experts at working with people. These masters just happen to be photojournalists. The best of these could talk a bear out of its coat and they certainly can charm their way into (or out of) the most difficult of situations. They are rarely lying or “pulling the wool” over someone else’s eyes. What they are usually doing is making their subjects comfortable, showing themselves to be trustworthy, etc.

In photojournalism, they are your competitors, so watch them, learn from them and hope you are as successful as they are at dealing with people. My friend David Grunfeld of the New Orleans Times-Picayune is arguably the best photographer I have ever seen when it comes to talking to people. He happens to be tall and handsome, but mostly he has an innate gift for connecting to other people. No matter whom he is interacting with, up or down the socioeconomic spectrum (as well as across ethnic lines,) he instantly makes a connection with the person he is speaking with. The best part, having watched him do this many times, is that he does it completely effortlessly and with no ill-intention.

While I was working this week, there were more than a few times I was ‘channeling’ David Grunfeld, trying to find the right tone to talk to and connect with the people I was photographing. One thing that I usually do, which is an honest part of my own process is to ask a lot of questions. In listening to the subjects as they answer, I learn a great deal about the topic and the person I am talking with. They get to share information on something they usually know (and often care) a great deal about. Plus, they get to be heard. Never underestimate the power of simply allowing people be to be heard.

Half of my success with my project on the pesticide poisoning of farm workers was because many of the people I photographed were in very traumatic situations and they simply wanted to be heard. They knew their children were dying, but they wanted someone to tell their stories. Not every situation I encounter is as dramatic as that was, but pretty much every person I meet and photograph wants to be respected and to know that their story has been heard.

Learn everything you possibly can about the topic/subject you are photographing!

The best photojournalism does not just show us what something looks like but rather it shows us what it feels like. This is especially true in the case of events, where it is easy to show what the place looked like. But, the best photojournalism portrays what it would have felt like to actually be there. That is a small but important difference. The only way to get the really telling images is by knowing the subject/topic inside and out, based on advanced research, when possible.

When I was photographing the complex interactions between Israelis and Palestinians, I needed to keep reminding myself that, based on my own extensive research, the important thing to photograph was not just the conflict but also the coexistence and even the cooperation between the two groups. The images of the conflict were the most obvious and easiest to sell/publish, but they alone were not a full and fair portrayal of all the types of interactions that happen between Israelis and Palestinians.

There is a whole industry of people trying to “spin” the way a given topic is portrayed in the media. To do photojournalism well, you need to understand that spinning process and keep it in perspective. The key is to know who is giving you the information, who they are working for and what is their agenda.

In the case of photographers, this often involves controlling access to a given subject and/or controlling the photographer’s position. I photographed candidate and then president-elect Reagan in 1980. His campaign and later his administration raised the photo opportunity to a high art, for better or worse. Controlling photographer’s access is done for both logistical as well as political reasons. The key is in knowing what is happening and how it impacts (restricts or enhances) your photojournalism.

I read up on the subject/topic that I am photographing in advance so I am prepared to photograph and to ask questions. I take what I learn from that questioning and my photographing and then do more research. If I can, I prefer to triangulate the information sources, meaning that what I learn from one source I raise with another source. With answers (or ideas to research) from the second source I go to a third source for further inquiry. Then I may turn back to my first contact to ask more questions based on what I have learned from the other sources. In a way I am crowdsourcing to get the best information possible, but in this case I am always at the center of the crowd, getting all the good information. In an ideal situation, like this week’s assignment, I have enough time to ask questions, go out and photograph, ask more questions, make more photographs, etc.

It is equally important to know when to share, and when not to share what you know about the subject. Though I was already an encyclopedia of information on the pesticide poisoning of farm-workers in California, I often learned more by simply asking questions and not revealing what I knew on the subject. Nine times out of ten, I would say something like, “I know a lot of folks are talking about the use of pesticides, tell me what you know about the issue.”

Know what’s been done before on the topic, person or event you are photographing.

In the world of magazine photography and fine-art photography you simply must know what has been done before on the subject/topic that you are photographing. The editors/curators who will see/use your work will already know how the subject has been previously photographed. If your work is not different (and better,) it will quickly be dismissed as bad knock-offs of other people’s work.

Most editors/curators will not be so crude as to call your work a bad knock off of other well-known work, but they will be thinking along those lines. If you know what they will be thinking, you can make/present your work accordingly. In meeting with them, be prepared to place your work in the context of what has been done before on that same topic. You will be well served by both knowing and being able to briefly articulate the differences and similarities between your work and the work of others who preceded you in photographing the same subject/topic.

In the case of newspaper photojournalism, this is slightly less important, but knowing how others have approached the same topic will help even in this case. I looked at a great deal of photography of farm workers before I started my project on the pesticide poisoning of farm workers. I wanted to know what kinds of people and places I was going to be seeing, what kinds of visual problems I would have to solve and what the stereotypical media portrayals were of farm workers. All of this greatly shaped the work I actually did when I was photographing, because I knew how those who preceded me had solved the problem of getting the situation in front of their cameras down on film (or these days, onto a digital chip.) I did much the same thing with my project on the complex relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. I was not looking to duplicate anyone’s existing images, but rather I was just trying to learn from their work.

Keep moving and if everyone is going right, go left.

One thing I never do is stay with one strategy for telling the story all that long. I will certainly compose an image and wait a long time for someone (or some thing) to come through to complete the photograph. But, after I have tried one strategy or perspective on a given topic/ subject, I will quickly try another. In an ideal assignment, I will have the time and the access to photograph the same subject from my standing height, from above like a giraffe and then from below like a dog. Similarly, if I can, I will vary the lenses I am using and the point of focus. After all, a photographer’s job is to use the available tools to direct the viewer’s attention away from or towards a given part of the subject shown in the image.

So if it looks like I am on a caffeine buzz when I am photographing, it actually means that I am experimenting with all the possible ways I might photograph the subject. Frequently I will try an idea out for an image and within a few pictures, it becomes clear that the strategy I had tried was not going to work, so I move on. Since so many of the typical photojournalist’s subjects are fleeting, this ability to experiment quickly and equally quickly disregard a failed strategy is very important.

I believe it was the great photojournalist David Burnett who said something like “When everyone else is going to the right for a picture, I go left.” I take that to mean to be careful of the herd mentality that dominates much media reporting, not just photography. The classic example is the rugby scrum of photographers at a given event all lined up in the same place. It takes courage to go the other way, but that is often where the better, more original image can be found.

(To be continued – This is the first of two posts on this topic.)

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