During our week in Washington, D.C., we met very talented and inspiring people who shared their time and a great deal of advice and insight accumulated through many years of working in the field as photographers and editors.
We met with people from a wide variety of outlets: newspapers, magazines, wire services, government offices, public radio and freelancing. Though what they talked with us about a wide range of topics illustrating their points with specific examples from their own careers or the work of their outlets they followed several common themes: The importance of professionalism and professional relationships, the need for attention to detail, value of photography, the ability to adapt, having a diverse skill set, and above all a passion for what you do.
Professionalism and building relationships are important to people looking for work in any field but in the thick competition of photography and it’s increasingly freelance market it is paramount. Professionalism ranging from being a pleasant person to work with to making sure that all parts of the job are done in a timely manner are the things we heard from editors as things that draw them to photographers that they will come back to again and again with work. The absence of such things are also what we were told were the quickest way to get off the list of photographers an editor will go to with work. We know that the industry for being as big as it is small enough that everyone hears about your successes and failures. Professionalism is almost synonymous with your reputation and should be given attention as such. Communication is important because many photographic assignments require complex coordination. Just to get the assignments however you need to be in the front of the mind of editor as someone who is reliable but as someone they remember.
If professionalism like fulfilling an assignment in a timely manner is paramount then what comes next is attention to detail. Attention to detail is essential to create a perfect frame, what can separate two great shooters is the attention to detail that they put into the things behind the photograph. The most common area mentioned as a place that attention to detail speaks volumes is the caption. Just to get as much information as possible was a thing to make yourself stand out; phone numbers subjects can be contacted at to confirm names and spellings, or the name of the family dog in the picture. To make an error in the caption, or in a cover letter, is a sure way to be left with a workless future. As one editor put it so plainly: “If [we see] you don’t care about your own work why would want you to do our work?”
The conversations we had with editors about the value of the photography was probably the newest topic, but as many of us head out to lily do work for hire, arguably the most important. Once we got past the basic “Do not give photographs away for free” line we came to the more unfamiliar world of contracts with all their legal jargon of rights and reuse and embargoes. The first thing to consider about contracts is who retains the copyright and to exactly what images: just selects or the entire take? Another thing is to determine how long and where they can be used: in perpetuity in any current or future medium? just for the assignment? or if you will get paid for reuse? Whether the images will benefit you beyond the fee for the assignment is important: will you get paid for reuse? can you sell the images to another outlet after the embargo expires? Only after asking those questions can you begin to consider whether the assignment fee covers your work.
We talked a lot about a need to know multimedia but it was framed in a way that most students don’t consider: It’s just the newest tool in a profession to which a rapidly evolving technology is the key component. What really hit home was listening to a newspaper veteran talk about multimedia and the other technologies he has worked with in his thirty year career, and that his friends that are not in business anymore mostly shared the fatal flaw of not being able to adapt. With so much change currently in the industry it takes a lot to think that once we have been in the business for even five years things will look radically different. What we can take away about adaptability is that when the new technology comes around you try to be on the cutting edge of it sometimes making it up as you go along. We saw that in many different ways from outlets figuring out how to get images to work on tablets and websites to people who have been in the business for many years showing us what amounts to the early trials with multimedia.
Something we had all heard before but needs to be mentioned is the importance of having a diverse skill set as a way to differentiate yourself. Some skills are very technical like being able to shoot and edit multimedia, or being able to write well. Other skills are more objective like being able to see the world in a different way, or knowing how to incorporate different mediums to tell a story.
With graduation just around the corner for myself and others on the trip our schedule was obviously set to show the different ways that photography is used by outlets that might not necessarily be perceived as a venue for images. We also met with a lot of people who used freelancers and gave us insight into the character traits and skills, like communication, that they look for when picking a freelancer as well as very logistical things like do they have the gear to do this? and are they in the right place geographically to do this.
Above all we were reminded the most important ingredient to succeed in such tough circumstances: loving visual story telling. Not every one came out and said it literally but in someway; whether the way that they talked about the work they did, their personal investment in a story, or the way they got into the work people did for them we got the same message: “You really have to love it.”
On our final day of visits we met with staff photographers at Reuters bureau in Washington Larry Downing and Jason Reed.
Despite the majority of the work they do being based in still photography for the wire service they talked with us about their award-winning multimedia projects.
What I thought was really interesting was the difference in the way that these two photographers viewed the importance of students learning multimedia and the one liner, “you need to be able to shoot video”, we hear constantly. For them it was still important to use it as another way to set yourself apart but also because “it’s fun to develop yourself… put yourself outside your comfort zone.”
The enthusiasm both Reed and Downing had for multimedia work and exploring it really reminded me about where we are in history of the medium. Everyone is still trying to figure out what to do with the tools we have. They talked about doing somethings that they admitted were gimmicky but if they were mindful of that and it was more important to try new things.
Being still photographers for a wire service they are not expected to do any multimedia, instead they are doing it mostly on their own time using personal gear, and that shows a lot what they get out of producing multimedia. However it also has benefits for the photographers in that it gets them looking at stories and shooting differently, the awards provide some finical reimbursement and the buzz benefits their employer by driving traffic.
Above all they emphasized the importance of continuing their education: You never stop learning, they reminded us. To get started in multimedia they recommended that we start with easily digestible story something simple, but more importantly to take away something more than a portfolio piece something that we learned or tried new.
It was inspiring to end the trip on a positive note of the opportunities that technology has afforded us, or as Reed told us: Don’t wait for permission [or] someone to validate what you want to do.”
Thursday started the with a visit to the Corcoran Gallery of Art to see the acclaimed WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath. It was a great exhibit to see; if you find the time catch it in New York.
Then it was off to visit Linda Epstein at McClatchley-Tribune. Epstein emphasized how important communication with editors as being one of the most important things to do. Not only to show that you are interested in working for them but also for very practical reasons to like letting them know that yo are out of town but are in another area.
She advised that beyond showing that you are interested in working for an editor showing that you are interested in work itself. Being self motivated is an important trait to an editor she told us. Also another important part of a photographer’s network is a mentor to show your work to and get feedback.
One important thing she told us was to not underestimate the value of your work and sell your time short, but on the flip side not to over sell yourself and come up short on an assignment. It would be preferable to recommend someone else to do a job you can’t handle because that makes you look more valuable in the eyes of an editor while showing you know your own abilities well.
From McClatchey headed to National Geographic to meet with alumnus Ken Geiger who is deputy director of photography at the magazine and Bill Douthitt, a senior photo editor.
What I really enjoyed about being at the magazine was seeing how things work at such a high level of photography. The considerations of doing such work is entirely different than some of the issue that other organizations we had visited with. Mostly what was extraordinary was the large amount of resources invested in each piece. “The key to our stories is time in the field.” we were told as we heard about how some projects take years to complete.
Beyond the time investment there is the sheer amount of research making sure that everything is set from pitching the story to many editors doing as much as possible before hitting the ground. The other is the amount of technical research like building things to solve problems that don’t yet have solutions. We got to see the basement shop and it was a Mecca for the gear heads in the class.
The other thing that was interesting was how fickle of a process that story boarding the magazine is. Geiger explained that even once the entire magazine is well into layout stories that have been waiting many months for publications can be sometimes cut to afford a more cohesiveness to the magazine. The other great dedication to having a polished magazine we saw was the amount of work they had dedicated to making sure that color was correct in the issue.
The other thing that I found especially interesting was the way that a one hundred and twenty five year-old publication looked at the use of new technology like iPads and the web to tell their stories in different forms. We had heard from Spencer Millsap one of the multimedia producers the night before but Geiger told us that a huge focus is how to coordinate the magazine’s stories across all platforms.
Our Wednesday was a long day starting out in Reston, Va. with a big group of editors and shooters at USA Today.
The first person to speak with us was H. Darr Beiser, one of the paper’s five staff photographers. Having been at the job “since the first paper rolled of the presses”, he remind us of the change that we will see over our careers. “I’ve had to evolve” he said, well talking about how the adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is flawed and that learning new technologies is the most important component to the longevity of your career.
We also heard from the other staff photographer based in D.C., Jack Gruber. He was brimming with an energy that revealed his passion for visual journalism as he spoke about personal investment and exceeding the expectations of an assignment if the expected would sell the story short. “Your name goes underneath it” he said while talking about taking pride in one’s work.
The many editors talked about some of the things they looked for in a hire whether for a freelance, contract or staff position; above all attention to detail, especially in places that don’t see so important, like in resumes and cover letters, or including the name of a dog in a caption. “If [we see] you don’t care about your own work. Why would want you to do our work?” asked one.
Besides an attention to detail the biggest differential in high-level portfolios are the characteristics of the photographer. Things like enterprise, hustle, attitude, and coming with ideas.
When it comes to the photographs themselves they urged us to consider how much work is done in the logistics stage and how little time is spent making pictures. They said they look for freelancers who they can trust to use their time best to make the most out of a limited situation.
From there we headed back to the city to AARP to meet with Director of Photography Michael Wichita and RIT alumna and photo editor Lindsay Leger.
It was a refreshing and interesting visit not only because our hosts were so personable, but what they were doing was so focused on the future.
As with many of conversations before we talked a lot about the relationship between editors and photographers. Wichita told us how he appreciated photographers who didn’t simply fulfill the assignment but had a way to see it differently telling us “If I had always done [only] what my editors and designers wanted I wouldn’t be here.”
Inspiration was also one of something he cited as very important. He urged us to look at as much photography as we could, admitting when he was younger he would buy any magazine he could get his hands on. Though to not just limit your inspiration to photography but music and books and sculpture. Looking at the world is important because a photographer doing a simple story with their own take on it, or a story that adds to the conversation is what makes a young photographer stand out to him
What also was interesting was the way that Wichita spoke about social media not only AARP’s expansion into the realm with things like instagram and others. A smart move as the people entering their 50+ demographic are better and better acquainted with technology. But the way he used social media as a tool for himself to continue to expose himself to new work but also to find new photographers even in one case when he needed someone for an assignment on older afghans working.
Our trip to the Associated Press was marked by the inspiring conversations we got from Assistant Chief of Bureau for Photos at the Washington Bureau, David Ake, and RIT alumni and Staff photographers Jacquelyn Martin and Evan Vucci.
The advice they gave talked about a lot of things that we had heard about captions and professionalism we had heard already but what they really focused on was the amount of work we would have to do, the amount of sacrifices we would have to make, and the amount of mac and cheese and tomato soup we will nee to be able to tolerate.
Ake talked with us about working and what he thinks young photographers should be doing all the time: be ready to shoot, becoming familiar with your gear, and shooting. Having your gear at all times is important because if you want to hustle you have to be ready to drop everything and go straight to breaking news. Know your gear is important because the reality is editors need someone who will be able to deliver every time regardless of the circumstances, Shooting always is important because you need to learn how to see light
Jacquelyn’s advice also could easily be distilled: 1) First you have to walk in the door: As obvious as it sounds sometimes it is easy to forget that if you don’t start who will. 2) Give things a chance: Sometimes you might look at an assignment or a job and wonder why you would ever want to do that but don’t discount something until you have tried it. 3) Persistence: Jacquelyn told us that she sent out over one hundred job applications before hearing back from the Associated Press. 4) You really have to love it.
Vucci talked about he made it from school where the first few years he was a mediocre student before he chose to make sacrifices, stopped playing baseball and dedicated himself to shooting as much as he could his senior year. What separated him was that he knew he had to be a much better shooter and that would only come with more practice. Also that he never turned down a fair assignment, which gave him the reputation of being reliable.
After the AP we headed to meet with a group of photographers who vary in jobs and points in their careers.
The first was Jim Loscalzo, a photographer with the European Press Agency. Loscalzo talked with us about to add value to your position, and the credibility of photography as content all well doing the documentary work that makes photographers dreams. His advice was to establish your reputation as someone who pitches story ideas and to be self motivated enough to work on it if it gets rejected. He encouraged doing the research and secure permission from your subjects before asking your editors to do the piece and that an email gives you a platform to thoughtfully and concisely make your proposal. Finally to make sure that you have the research done so editors understand exactly what they are getting into.
Next we heard from Mary Calvert. Calvert talked about her project on rape in the military the Canon Association des Femmes Journalistes award and it was evident that she was intensely passionate about her work and that project. She talked about how she found the project hidden in the news and that the newspaper and public radio are often places to find the kind of under-reported stories that attract her. Although she admitted she never recoups the financially what her long-term stories cost her she continues to do them for the internal reward of reporting the issues. “I provide a mirror for society exam itself.” She also talked about how she subsidizes the cost of some of her projects by her freelancing and working weddings. “It’s not an occupation” she said “It’s not something you do it’s something you are.”
We also heard from Jahi Chikwendiu, a staff photographer at the Washington Post. Jahi was such as treat because he just exuded passion and enthusiasm. His story of coming to the Post by way of a math degree was inspiring because it showed very pointedly the power of loving photography. When asked what turned his passion from teaching math to photojournalism he replied, “I have passion period. I chose to pour passion into [photography]”
We also heard from freelancer Lucian Perkins. He showed us a piece from a documentary film project he is working and also his book he produced about the Washington, D.C., punk scene that he photographed during the summer of the 1979 while interning for the post. It underlined the importance of keeping your archives together and well organized.
Before heading home for the day we heard from Spencer Millsap, a multimedia editor and producer at National Geographic. What was so interesting about Millsap was his hand in the interactive multimedia component of the magazine, specifically the iPad app.
Tuesday began earlier in the morning with a trip to the United States Institute of Peace to meet with the institute’s sole photo editor Carol McKay.
The institute is housed in a beautiful work of architecture just off the national mall. The sun coming through the lofting ceiling and large windows created a serene and monumental atmosphere befitting the pursuit of world peace.
McKay spoke with us at length about how she ended up at the institute, which was a journey through many different publications and experiences driven by a desire to be better. It was best summed up in her explanation of the reason she left an Oklahoma paper to head to Reagan’s White House “What can I learn from this?” She talked about how she learned from her many positions, the editors she learned from at her early positions at papers in Milwaukee and Louisville, and later in higher education while at Indiana University.
The work she does at the institute editing and cataloging some 30 years of the organizations thirty or so years of archives highlights the importance of learning skills involved with photography beyond shooting and editing. Specifically gaining skills on the technical side of photography becoming acquainted with content management systems, scanning negatives and slides, and photo editing with an eye towards what will be relevant in the future all combine to make a skill set suitable towards archiving.
One of the two other visual people at the institute we met was a Digital/Media Assistant Steven Ruder. Ruder, only a few years out of school and from a photography background, was easily relatable. He talked a lot about how a diverse skill set that included, writing, photography, and graphic design allowed him to approach a relatively new field, that of social media, and hold a position solely based around that one pursuit.
One other skill that Ruder recommended was learning to communicate with non-visual people to explain what type of visuals are needed, why they are needed and what it takes to produce them.
From there we headed to NPR where we saw Coburn Dukehart and RIT alumnae Emily Bogle and Chloe Coleman.
The most interesting part of listening to Dukehart speak about the history of NPR’s photo department. It is mind boggling to hear that six years ago the department consisted of Dukehart, the editor and one videographer. I haven’t thought about the oddity of radio dealing with photos since I first heard about the NPR photo department my freshman year, but today the peculiarity struck me not in it’s paradox but the significance of even giant organizations having to think about diversification of their talents and telling stories in different ways.
We heard more of the same things about freelancing and professionalism. Local shooters are getting assignments formerly given to travelling staff photographers and that about all professionalism, the quality of your work, the quality of your communication matter almost equally, and that relationships with photo editors are important because job recommendations usual travel through the relationships between photo editors.
We got a tour of the new NPR headquarters and got to see the sprawling newsroom that houses the inner workings of the many programs that my classmates and I respect. One of the high points of the all around awesome visit was watching the taping of a Tiny Desk Concert.
The final person we saw before leaving NPR was Multimedia Editor Kainaz Amaria. It was an inspiring note to end on. Amaria was nothing but enthusiastic, and gave us a lot of frank advice about what we will need in the future including professionalism, web presence, and hustle.