Do you think photojournalism, as it is now, can survive with the "expected" death of newspapers? Do you think it would be foolish for someone to attempt to make it in photojournalism at this point in time?

(I ask because I want to be a photojournalist, but I'm worried. Worried that I'll put time and effort and money into trying to be one, and then "something" happens and people start buying a significantly fewer amount of pictures than they do now, or photojournalist jobs start disappearing, or something else that scares me.) — Asked by roavl

Hi Jesse,

Thanks for asking this question and let’s start with a giant caveat: 

While I’ve published photos, I am not and have never been a photojournalist. Instead, my photos were “good enough” to accompany whatever story I reported at the time.

What I will say though is that I have a number of friends who are photographers and I want to tell you their stories. 

Before I do though, let’s get a harsh reality out of the way, and that reality runs like this: as much as traditional writers bitch and moan about a digital world passing them by, photojournalists currently hold the the shortest end of the editorial stick. The market for dedicated photographers on particular stories has, unfortunately, contracted.

Instead, many news organizations demand that a single reporter heads out with an arsenal of devices when covering a story. This can mean pen and paper, camera, video camera and audio recorder. And many — but certainly not necessarily all —  can produce “good enough” content that the newsroom can run.

Add to this images that come through via Creative Commons and citizen journalism reports from hot spots around the world and newsrooms are, and have been, sourcing their visual needs to those outlets rather than sending traditional photojournalists.

All of which is to say that the outlook for a traditional photojournalism career looks grim in an age where “good enough” images are created via smart phones and used with regularity.

That, Jesse, is the negativity that I’d like to drop on you today. 

But I’d like to counter that with some positivity and perhaps some strategy as well.

First, let’s look at who we are and who we are is a story-telling species that’s also very much a visual species. Yes we want to know the facts of the day. We also want them wrapped up in images and understandable graphics that translate the news to us just so. 

So there’s this tension going on in the newsroom right now. This tension is between using the “good enough” photo, using this image posted to the social network from the event that wants to be covered, and sending someone like you in. 

You’re a control group though. And if you can get the gig and we send you in, we know what we’re going to get in return. We know we’re going to get kick ass images that we’re going to run and be proud of and our audience will pass them around and say Jesse’s a kick ass photographer who helped us understand the here and now so much better than we otherwise would have understood it. 

And you will be thanked and praised as well you should be.

I don’t want to undersell the disruption going on in photography though so let’s talk strategy. Getting thanks and praises does, after all, require getting the gig in the first place.

I’ve mentioned that I have a number of photographer friends. Here’s by and large what they did in the early parts of their careers: they shot both advertorial and editorial. They assisted established photographers who’d gotten the big accounts with the big agencies and they made their money and saved their money so they could take lesser paying editorial jobs. 

You know what else they did? They learned every camera and every lens they might ever come across on every shoot they were a part of. They also took time after long 12 hour days to go out and shoot images of their own. Some of them were then able to sell those images to stock house in order to get some recurring revenue during the weeks and months when they weren’t on commercial jobs.

They also learned audio and video and how to edit that audio and video.

And then they used those skills and that knowledge and applied it to newspaper and magazine work that they also really wanted to do.

In a sense, and out of necessity, they became multimedia journalists and entrepreneurial journalists. And while photography is your foremost passion, take the time to learn these other skills. Take the time be a “good enough” videographer and writer and audio producer. And if you have some time and patience, throw in some code and graphics work as well. 

We can’t excel at all things, and I’m not advocating a mediocre generalism, but we have the capacity to be excellent at more things than we generally give ourselves credit for. Sure, you’ll suck at each new thing you try. But we all suck at each new thing we try. 

We just need the courage to keep on trying until we suck less and actually become competent and then good.

Jesse, the world of photography is going through radical upheaval. But within that upheaval is opportunity as well. A photojournalist’s career is going to be totally unlike what it was a generation ago but the world needs its images.

And when you get your foot into an editorial door. And you bring this diverse skill-set with you, your photography will begin to shine. And as it shines, your editors will start leaning on you more and more to go out and shoot more images.

You’ll still do many tasks across many disciplines but slowly you’ll angle towards that which you love.

You ask whether it’s foolish for someone to try to make a career in photojournalism right now. 

Flip that on it’s head and ask instead, what career can I make as a photographer and a journalist, and how do I get there? — Michael

PS., If you don’t know their work, I highly recommend looking at the portfolio of MediaStorm which has been doing groundbreaking photojournalism multimedia reporting for a number of years now.

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