Many other young photographers are asking me for advise on how to start working as a photojournalist. I will describe my own path into photojournalism here and give some general advice that may be useful.
I started as a photojournalist by going to an art school where I had a major in photography. They taught all kinds of photography and I started out there to become a fashion or landscape-photographer. After attending the classes of reportage and documentary photography I was quickly hooked. Unfortunately my school was not a specialist in teaching this kind of photography, as the teachers only knew the basics. So I went to a seminar of VII in London and also contacted other Belgian photographers to show them my portfolio. This is how I met Bruno Stevens for the first time. I went to his flat in Brussels and he had a look on my images. The teachers in my school loved all of my images and never made any negative critic (what made me very happy but didn’t really help me in improving). Bruno was the first to say that my pictures were okay but that I still had a long road ahead of me. I remember that afternoon exactly. He asked me: “which photographers do you like?” I answered “the photographers of VII” (as they were the only photojournalists I knew). He was quite shocked that I didn’t know more photographers and gave me the advice to go to libraries to look at all different photography books that I could find.
So the first advise: * If you are going to be a photojournalist, you should have a good working knowledge of the history of photojournalism and of the medium’s iconic images. Look at other photographers work and find out why a picture works in terms of composition. As you study images, you should think about where the photographer is in relation to the subjects, study how he or she has managed the light and the angle of the camera. Is the photo effective because it is compressed with a telephoto, or opened up with a wide-angle lens? And how did they get access, how will you gain access to a similar situation?
One year passed by and I knew that I wanted to be a photojournalist. I decided to try it out, contacted a small German NGO in Haiti (I chose Haiti for the interesting history of the country) and I could stay with them in Port-au-Prince for a month. I paid a little money to stay for this period and one of their workers showed me around their hometown. I decided I wanted to take pictures of children in Haiti and show in which circumstances they live there. So I walked around not really knowing what I am doing but at the end it showed that this was the right thing to do. I took pictures every day - nonstop.
I came back from Haiti and though my pictures where not good. I made a small selection of the 20 best ones (in my opinion) and went to Perpignan to the Festival “Visa pour l’image”. I took my portfolio on my computer with me and started to show it to photographers and picture editors. I just asked everyone I could find to look at my pictures and the response was great. I got many critics and learned a lot from it.
Advise: *go out and shoot as many pictures as possible, make a selection of the best and don’t be afraid of showing it around to as many people as possible.
On my last evening at Visa pour l’image I talked with Claudia Hinterseer, the manager of Noor (the agency that was just created two days before). I asked her to do an internship at their office in Amsterdam and she was immediately excited about the idea.
I came back from Perpignan and the next term of my school was about to begin (it was early September). I asked the teachers if I could go to Amsterdam for 6 weeks starting in November. Not all of them were happy about the idea because I would skip so many classes - but I was one of the best students of the year so they agreed that I could go.
In October I saw an advertisement of a workshop on the website www.lightstalkers.org. It was called the Ironbound workshop and held in New Jersey by the photographers Donna Ferrato and Philip Jones Griffihts (if you don’t know them, check out their work!). I decided I would try to apply just to see if they would take me as a student (knowing that I could never afford the high price). One week later I got the answer: yes they would take me. I was so happy but sad at the same time as I didn’t have enough money. My answer to them was: “I would love to participate in your workshop but I cannot afford the high price, I’m sorry.”
One week before the workshop started, I got a reply back: “if you are still willing to participate we will give you a 50% discount”. I fell from my chair, yelling and crying – it was a wonderful feeling. I found a cheap flight ticket and one week later I was in New Jersey. I still don’t know why they gave me the discount but I think it was because they didn’t have enough students.
*Advise: Try every opportunity – you never know how lucky you will be.
The workshop was okay but I spent more time talking to Philip Jones Griffiths than going out and shoot. One evening I sat in front of my computer and looked at my Haiti pictures (the ones that were not in my selection of the best), when Philip passed by. He saw them and asked “hey, these pictures are brilliant – why are they not in your selection?”. He sat down next to me and together we looked through the 2000 pictures I had shot in Haiti 3 months ago (it was also Philip who put the picture into my selection that was later awarded “Unicef picture of the year”). I learned a lot on that evening about how to make selections, what makes a picture good and what makes a good story or essay. One evening while we were having dinner, Philip leaned over the table and whispered into my ear: “you have to continue because you are a photographer”. I smiled – it made me proud and I was happy.
I talked to Donna and Philip about my school and that I was not happy there anymore. They didn’t teach me anything anymore and the other students were not as motivated as me. Both agreed that to be a photojournalist you don’t need a degree. The only thing that counts is your portfolio. So I knew what to do…
At the end of the workshop Philip asked me if I would like to assist him in the coming months. Of course – no question – I said YES!
I returned to school told the teachers that I would stop the course and that I would become Philips assistant. Many of them were happy for me but some just didn’t react at all. This was disappointing but I knew I made the right decision.
It was the beginning of November and time to go to Amsterdam to intern at Noor. The 6 weeks were very helpful to learn all about the business and marketing that is behind it all. It is much easier than I expected – you can just contact the editors saying: “Please read my introduction text and have a look at my picture story.”
So I tried to create a little list of contacts of picture editors by asking friends, Bruno and Philip for contacts and I sent my pictures around. Tina Ahrens from GEO wrote me back “Hey Alice, I really like your pictures. Unfortunately we will not run a story about Haiti in the next months but I will nominate you for the Unicef Award.” - YES great jupii (a german word for yeah ).
*Advise: Find an internship to learn about the business and marketing of photojournalism and then convert the theory into practice.
I didn’t sell my pictures at that time but photo-editors started to see them and to know my name and work.
I was already in London working for Philip when I sent those emails. I arrived at December 28th and started scanning, spotting and ordering pictures for him the next day. It was an amazing time. I spent so much time with Philip listening to all of his stories and jokes. I am so thankful to have known him. I learned a lot from his good sides but also from his bad sides (for example his chaos that I don’t want to bring into my pictures). It was a short time but very intense – probably one of the best times in my life. Philip was very ill and died in the middle of March 2008.
I was very sad but continued, as I knew that it was what he wanted from me: “Shooting real pictures for real people”.
I started my project about witchcraft in Europe. When I was on my way back to Haiti I stopped in New York to photograph witches there. My second time in Haiti was not as successful as my first trip. I didn’t really know what I wanted to shoot. I was still sad about Philips death and also had other problems at home… Still I went out a lot to shoot and did my best. From Haiti I went to Miami, where I continued on my witch-project and from there to Columbia to study Spanish.
*Advise: Try to combine trips so you can save a lot of money
After this long trip I came back home. In September I went back to Perpignan where my picture were shown in one of the evening shows (everyone can apply and send their pictures in). I also went to the Eddie Adams workshop and participated in some other competitions.
*Advise: Participate in competitions to get your work know. Don’t expect to win – if you don’t it will only make you sad. If you do it will make you even happier.
Now I started a online-Master in documentary photography at the London College of Communication. I am doing it to get help and support while I am traveling. I can recommend this course to anyone. I can also recommend putting yourself together to a small group of photographers that help each other. I did the same by joining the collective “Out of Focus”.
Questions that are important to answer before you start or while you are shooting:
Why are you shooting for?
Why are you at this time in exactly that place?
What should be the final result?
What is the history of the country you are in?
If you know that half of the job is done already.
One more important thing: There is a difference between an essay and a story: a story has a beginning and an end. It is like a written article or a book. You need an opening picture that shows the place as well as some detail shots. Than pictures that show exactly what is going on and the best is to have a good closing photo.
An essay is different. It is more taking pictures of the same topic.
So what I shot for the NYT was more a story and my “Growing up in Haiti” on my homepage is an essay.
A few more very helpful advises from photojournalist Michael Kamber that he posted on the website www.lightstalkers.org:
To be a photojournalist, you should be informed. I’m was appalled at a group of photographers who showed up in Haiti a few years ago, but did not know who the Duvalier’s were, or know even the most rudimentary history of the country. These countries are not there for you to practice photo-tourism and have an extended holiday. These are people’s lives you are documenting. Be knowledgeable and show respect.
At the very least, you should read the front page or lead web stories each day from either the Washington Post, LA Times or NY Times. The New Yorker has the best long-form journalism in the English language. I read it every week.
A second language is probably the most important skill you can acquire—far more important that the latest camera gear or a diploma from a photo school. It takes time, but you should speak at least basic French or Spanish in addition to English. Arabic, or a language spoken in China, would be an excellent choice also, especially as I write this in 2007.
I began my “career” by photographing street demonstrations in New York and taking the pictures around to newspapers and wire services. There was easy access to what was happening, which is important when you’re starting out. And even the pictures I was not able to sell helped me to build a portfolio. I also began, almost immediately, to work on long-term projects.
I cannot overstate the importance of long-term projects. Rather than run around taking hundreds of pictures of dozens of subjects, it is much better to spend a few weeks or a month with a family, or a group of people and get to know them. Your pictures will reveal your commitment as subjects become comfortable with you. Choose your projects carefully. There are hundreds of important projects out there waiting to be discovered and photographed. Photo editors know the commitment behind this kind of in-depth work, and they respect it. A good photo-essay on one project will be remembered and will help to get you assignments.
You are going to have to promote yourself and your work. If you’re afraid of rejection, find another line of work. You have to take your work around, or send it out to editors constantly. Most will turn you away. That’s the nature of the business. Get used to it and don’t take it personally. I was crushed in 1985 when Fred McDarrah, an editor at The Village Voice, spent 30 seconds flipping through a portfolio I had spent months creating, then dismissed me with a flip of his hand. It took me a long time to get my courage up again, but I eventually did “break in” to The Village Voice, then a major photo publication.
So you must be persistent. And remember that editors are extremely busy. Expect them to take a few minutes to see your work, not more. They don’t need to see hundreds of photos on many subjects. Show them 20 or 25 photos they will remember and you’ll be much better off.
Notes on technique:
When I am photographing, I often approach my subjects and explain what I am doing, then ask permission to take their picture. In the ideal situation, I will spend hours or days with a subject; they become comfortable with my presence and I can capture what I want. Sometimes I will carry a small album with my pictures, which I will show to people. This helps them to understand who I am and what I’m working on—there is some give and take. People always want to feel that you are not there to exploit them. Be sensitive to this.
In a news situation I never ask permission, nor do I do anything to alter the situation as it is happening. Likewise, if I am on the street and see a moment in time that would be destroyed by my asking permission, I shoot without asking. I feel that this is my art and I have the right to practice it. I do not pay my subjects—it is unethical and makes it impossible for those who come after you to work without paying also.
Notes on equipment:
There is no magic camera that will make you take great pictures. Use what works for you. Develop a system that is reliable and that you are comfortable with. Never, under any circumstances, go on a major assignment with brand new equipment that you have not used. I don’t care if it is the latest and greatest. Often there will be glitches and growing pains, you don’t want these when you’re under the gun.
For two decades I used primarily Leica rangefinders. I’m now doing a lot of work with Canon digital EOS models, mostly a 5D and a 24-70 zoom lens. In Africa, where I’m based, I always have a Hasselblad for portraits and usually a Leica as well. I still believe in film but have to acknowledge that for a newspaper photographer, it is impractical at best.
I’m a bit of a “techie,” I carry a lot of gear when doing long assignments and am always experimenting with some new piece that will give me an edge. I know photographers far better than me that walk around with one battered body and a single lens and do great work. I hate flash and avoid it at all cost. Other photographers who I admire shoot with flash all the time. There is no right way to do it. I would say that a low light lens, preferably a wide-angle f1.4, or at least an f2, is a good investment. I shoot at night frequently, and here in Baghdad I am out with soldiers on night raids inside homes—flash is out of the question.
There are exceptions to what I wrote above: in a combat situation, I do not carry a lot of gear. Usually one camera and one lens. Under fire is not a time to be fumbling with gear. Shoot what you can with what you have.
I will update this as I get new ideas and suggestions and post it on my website, Kamberphoto.com
Some of my recommended materials:
Eugene Richards, Cocaine True,
Luc Delahaye, WinterRiesse
Robert Frank, The Americans
Gilles Peress, Telex Iran
Mary Ellen Mark, anything by her.
William Klein, anything you can find.
Harlan County, USA, a documentary movie by Barbara Koppel
My American Girls, a documentary video about a Dominican family
Anything by the Maysle brothers.
Anything by D.A. Pennebaker.
Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel,
Joan Didion, anything she’s ever done.
Michael Herr, Dispatches,
Guy Trebay, In The Place to Be,
William Finnegan, Cold New World,
Anything by Charlie Leduff or Barry Bearak in the New York Times.
George Orwell, anything he’s ever written; Down and Out in Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia, are particularly good.