Hello! I was just wondering how you got into the field of photojournalism/war photography and what tips you have on how to get started and approach it for someone who is interested in going into that area of work? thanks!
I got into it the most direct way possible for someone with no training or funding: I enlisted in the Marines during war time and
bitched *made myself extremely useful* until they put me on a deployment. When I knew I wanted to enlist, I spoke to a good friend of mine who was a recruiter (and therefore well versed in the available jobs) who, knowing me, told me there was one job and only one job I needed to ask for: combat correspondent.
That’s this guy’s^^^ job in Full Metal Jacket. I even worked for the Stars and Stripes Pacific desk like he did.
That is just one of basically unlimited routes to becoming a journalist/photojournalist. If that is of interest to you, they are in every branch and are usually called Mass Communications or Public Affairs. Go enlisted if you want to learn the trade. Officers mainly do PR.
I’m going to rub my hands together vigorously and attempt to distill what I know to be important into a straightforward list.
1) Learn basic journalism, AP Style, and English grammar. I’m blogging here, so I’m writing without form or style in order to communicate tone, but in most cases where you want your work to be picked up by larger outlets, writing in proper accepted English and AP Style is considered the bare minimum. Even if you only ever want to release photos/videos, knowing how to properly caption imagery can make the difference between your photos making it to the news cycle or not.
2) Learn basic photography. If you really want to diversify, learn basic videography. These both include editing and production. Visual media, now more than ever, is in high demand and is constantly evolving. I won’t even attempt to recommend any particular styles or “rules” for what should/shouldn’t be included. Learn the basics (how to operate a camera beyond what’s known as the “soccer mom” style, focus, composition, lighting) and from there define your own style.
3) If you want your work to get noticed, learn both journalism and photojournalism. Story telling is an art form that transcends mediums and the two skills complement each other. Most people are stronger in one area than the other. I am a writer. I have won awards for my journalism. My photojournalism has always ever only been mediocre. BUT the ability to produce good (sadly never great) photos and videos complemented my print work and undoubtedly helped my stories gain traction where they might otherwise have been lost in the media cycle.
***These skills can be learned in the course of a single semester of a junior college-level class or a solid dedication to learning from YouTube tutorials and a few journalism text books***
Sorry, journalism school grads. We got a three-month crash course in all of this before being put to work. Most journos learn on the job. That is where you will shape your own style, learn what does/doesn’t work, and really get your foot in the door. I met a National Geographic mainstay videographer who learned the trade by happening to live in South Africa during Apartheid and picking up a camera. That’s it. He just started doing it and learned as he went.
Which brings me to my next point:
4) Availability and mobility. I cannot begin to express how much of this work is luck and the hard work of consistently putting yourself out there on the off chance that you’ll get something good. You probably recognize this photo:
Look at all the photographers on the other side. Look at the face of the guy in the far right corner. That’s the face of a man who missed the shot of the century by sheer dumb luck. I went to Afghanistan but I had to prove myself as a correspondent and a Marine, and then had to damn near demand it because this was mid-draw down and we simply weren’t deploying as much. I was in Afghanistan by a combination of luck and will power. I put myself there and made myself available. I have since then turned down and missed many opportunities to go back out and cover things both here in the US and overseas because I am not available. I’m no longer active duty and I don’t have the personal resources to pack up and just go when and where the story hits. Frankly, I don’t have the time or the energy to dedicate to it.
Consider what’s around you: are you in a big city where there are a lot protests/parades/public events that attract media attention? Or are you in a small town where the local media is minimal, but you could make a killing covering the local harvest festival and high school sports? A lot of us live for those big world-changers. We want to be the guy who gets to share this with the world:
But I don’t think I can overstate the importance of learning the trade and cutting your teeth on the small stuff. Some of my best work came from the most mundane things imaginable (at least to Marines), and those mundane stories taught me the value of human-based story telling. They teach you how to look for an appreciate the little details that make a good story.
This event was boring. A Marine sergeant (and the general and sergeant major) was asked to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game. It’s something that happens all the time, all over the world, and every damn baseball game. It’s not like he was going to be in the game. The stadium was still only half full. The players weren’t on the field (most of them weren’t even in the dugouts yet). But the sergeant wanted to propose to his girlfriend at the game. Again, this is an event that is constantly happening all over the world. Capturing someone’s engagement photos is not exactly groundbreaking photojournalism. This is, all things considered, a mundane, every day occurrence that could be shot anywhere from Small Town, Okla., to Tokyo.
But I got this (and a series of shots to go with it) because I was committed to telling a strong human story and had the practice searching for great moments in the mundane. From her unadulterated joyous shock to the sergeant major cheesing like an idiot in the background, this is a good photo. This is one of my most popular posts on Tumblr, and I always find it a little bit ironic because I am not the romantic type. This is not my subject matter of choice. But it resounds with people and I reached an audience because I took my job seriously regardless of subject matter.
Ask yourself what is available to you, what you can you learn from that, and what are you willing to move toward.
5) My final point is to be willing to put yourself out there. This means being willing to approach people both for stories and to learn, to ask for help, or to simply ask what that other photographer is doing differently. This means being willing to physically put yourself out there, not only into the action but often in embarrassing/awkward places and positions in order to get a better photo. I had a good friend who said that if you aren’t embarrassed, then you aren’t trying hard enough to get a good angle.
This also means putting yourself out there to learn and try new skills. The best photojournalists I ever met were people who were constantly seeking out tutorials on techniques they didn’t know. You are going to trip up. You are going to fail. You are going to put yourself out there and come back with nothing but garbage because nothing worked. But that is how you learn.
I once covered a roller derby bout and was up on the railing of the banked track taking photos with a few other photographers, when the pack came around and slammed into the railing where we were. My friend was there watching and she said it was hilarious because these other (large) men around me all dove off the railing to get out of the way, but I stayed where I was, leaned back so that my lens was just barely out of the way, and continued shooting pictures. I didn’t care that I was about to get wrecked by about 6 muscular women in helmets and elbow pads. That instinct to get in it and keep shooting in spite of the chaos is probably a strong assist for anyone who wants to photograph, well, chaos. Behold one of many “I almost just got wrecked” photos as the pack passed me.
*this was one of my earliest stories and I did not yet know how to light sports photos in dim arenas. I still sort of don’t but my roller derby pictures improved immensely over the years. They improved because I continuously put myself out there, and put myself in the “line of fire” so to speak, in the name of getting better photos.
I am probably going to think of 5 more things to rant about later, but those are the biggest points I can think of right now. I hope this helps!