Photojournalism has been around for almost 150 years, beginning with the innovative work of Jacob Riis and Carol Szathmari and gaining popularity with the rise of magazines like Life and National Geographic. It is a branch of photography unlike the rest. It requires immense skill, daring, persistence, and incredible passion.
The most successful photojournalists are the ones who aren’t afraid to push their way through packed city streets, who can’t go through a day without snapping a picture, and, in some cases, who will ride bareback on a camel through a war zone because they know that’s where the story is. Finding and capturing that story is all the motivation they need. They put up with long hours and less–than-optimal conditions, either because they love what they do or because it’s who they are.
In many cases, such a thing can’t be taught. You have to have the gumption necessary to cold call or e-mail an editor repeatedly, because you believe that you have what it takes to make this a career. There’s no way to soften this. Successful photojournalists are thick-skinned individuals who are confident in their work and perform well under pressure.
Not everybody has what it takes, certainly, but there are plenty who do, and if they would put their minds to it, they would be able to not only have a career but also produce something brilliant. Here are some pointers for those who are willing to try it.
Learn how to tell a story
Although it may seem obvious, the importance of storytelling can’t be emphasized enough. Photojournalism is photographic journalism. Instead of using pen and paper, or any of its modern digital adaptations, you are using a camera, but the effect is the same. You are telling a story. The photographs you take should be visually compelling, and the viewer should have a good idea what is going on without the need of a caption. Photojournalistic images are dynamic, vibrant, and strong.
Vary your inputs
This may come as a shock, but many photojournalists do not have a degree in photography. They’ve studied journalism, art, social sciences, and so on, while simultaneously taking photography classes. Why do they do this? Because they know that to tell a story properly, they have to know about things—things other than photography. This knowledge ensures that they will not only have the necessary technical skills to take a photograph but also know what the right photograph is to take.
It’s a common misconception that you have to have a degree to work as a photographer. You don’t. Many successful photographers started their careers without ever attending a college class. The important element here is information and being able to mold that information into a compelling story through images. Read everything you can get your hands on, go to museums, and talk to people to gain a wealth of knowledge that a university alone could never completely provide. Vary your inputs, and develop an insatiable curiosity. In time, this curiosity will lead to answers, and you’ll be able to capture more meaningful images.
Editors look for well-rounded individuals, people who have a unique perspective on life. Sure, it’s an absolute necessity that you have photographic skills—that’s your foot in the door—but if you want to stand out from your competitors, vary your inputs. Being in the know is more valuable than you might think.
Focus on people
If your favorite things to photograph are birds and trees, then photojournalism is probably not the place for you. In this field, your focus is on people. Most often, the images that get featured in newspapers are the ones that show a person, or group of people, interacting with a scene. Although there are some exceptions to this rule, it is, in fact, a rule.
This is one of the reasons why photojournalism requires a person to be dauntless. People in certain situations do not like having their pictures taken. You have to ignore them, and get that picture anyway. They will hate you, but your editor will love you, or at least he or she will publish your photograph, which is what you want.
The first step toward becoming a photojournalist is to get out of your house and start shooting. If you live near a city, go through it and walk around, capturing people as you see fit. Go further by talking to them, asking them about their lives, and then snapping a portrait. This is basic practice without the pressure.
Remember, photojournalism is the visual documentation of the world, a world full of people.
Learn from others who are already doing it
Odds are, if you are reading this article, you are not an experienced photojournalist yet. That’s fine! Everyone has to start somewhere, and you’re already taking the right steps in that direction. In fact, because you’re willing to learn, you’re ahead of the curve. So, what do you next?
Do some research, find someone who is out in the field, doing what you want to be doing. Ask them how they started out and if they have any advice. Listen, really listen, to what they have to say. Don’t open your mouth unless you’re asking a question or for clarification. If you’re humble and seem genuinely curious, they’ll be more honest with you, and they might even bring you along sometime. If you don’t approach it this way, they will probably see you as a competitor trying to steal their secrets. Courtesy and humility will go a long way in this phase.
Get facts straight
You don’t need to have writing skills like Charles Dickens to be a photojournalist, but you do need to be able to tell a story, and one of the most essential ways to do this is to get your facts straight. Carry a notepad with you everywhere you go. Write things down..
Get your work seen
If people don’t see your photos, you won’t get paid for them and you won’t get published. First, set up a website that holds your portfolio. You can register a domain name for less than $20 in most cases. Next, put some thought into the layout and copy. This is the face that you are going to show to the world. You wouldn’t show up to a job interview in sweatpants and a baseball cap, but that’s what you are communicating with a sloppily constructed website. Don’t know how to build or design one? Find someone who can. It’ll make the difference between landing jobs and starting a new career.
Second, submit your work. Contact anybody and everybody with media connections with your ideas and photographs. You need to build a network of people who know you exist, people that will help get you assignments. Once you find the first job, the next one will be easier. If you do a good job, eventually the word will get out, but it starts with you. You have to make the first move. In most cases, you’ll have to cold call and e-mail editors, many of whom receive hundreds of communications like yours daily. Don’t let that affect you; keep trying. You never know who you’re having an impact on, and your persistence might be what persuades them to hire you.
Also, you can apply for an internship with a magazine or agency, and in between trips to get coffee for everyone, you’ll be learning the tricks of the trade firsthand.
Don’t take No for an answer
Persistence. Persistence. Persistence. This should be your mantra. You should be fearless, not easily dissuaded, “no” is a word you will learn to ignore completely. This is a competitive field, and that competition should drive you. Hundreds of people with similar aspirations to yours are desperate to break into the field, but if you keep at it, you’ll have a shot.
Keeping that in mind, you should always be in the middle of the action. If you see a crowd, get to the front of it. Stay on your toes, don’t hang back and hope the opportunity will present itself, you have to go meet it. You have to be quick and confrontational, with a keen eye and sharp senses. This will ensure that your photos are quality, and that assignments keep coming your way.
Photojournalism is not for everybody. But, if you love working strange hours, seeing new places, and never knowing what to expect, then a career in photojournalism might be right for you. If that’s the case, you have a difficult but rewarding road ahead of you.