The Digital Journalist

Bill Pierce
Nuts & Bolts

"Tell Your Own Story"

Bill Pierce

A number of us at The Digital Journalist received the following email.

"Hello! As a high school senior, I am very interested in pursuing the field of photojournalism. I am curious about your collegiate education, and was wondering if you could advise me on any majors and schools that I should consider if pursuing this field. I would appreciate any help that you can offer, and look forward to hearing back from you soon. Thanks again, -Michelle."

I think all of us get asked this question enough that it is appropriate to answer it in public. This, of course, is my answer and many will disagree with it.

Above all, do not major in photography or photojournalism in college. If you can find some working stiff who makes a living from photojournalism, get them to teach you about the craft of photography and maybe a little more.

I went to college, but my photography teachers were a dentist who was a photography fanatic, the local Associated Press photographer, David Vestal, when he was still teaching in his New York loft, and W. Eugene Smith who let me hang out in return for some work.

The best photo course I have ever come across in a college was a no credit, elective at Harvard that rotated teachers every year. The two teachers that I knew were Susan Meiselas and Gilles Peress, photographers who could teach any of us, not just those starting out. Neither was pursuing a teaching career; they had no interest in tenure. They were just two overqualified photographers passing on what they had learned and then moving on to take more pictures.

The two best photography schools I ever went to were the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan. They were so good because they not only had photographs, they also had painting, sculpture, sketches, engravings, water colors, silk screens, and a bookstore.

So what are you going to study in a regular college? (1) Study how to think. (2) Study what will be in front of the camera. There's a reason for the infinity mark on the lens. There's a lot more in front of the camera than there is in the distance between us and our camera.

Among the majors that fill this bill are: architecture, social science, modern literature, classical literature, English literature, modern physics, religion, art, history, political science and a few hundred others. Classes that might not fill the bill are: raffia and basket weaving. Those are about the only two I can think of. Metal working and kitchen skills can actually be quite useful to a photographer.

There is also a hidden advantage to a broad, non-photographic education. Visual journalism is changing. Neither I nor a high school senior have any idea where that form of journalism will be when they start their professional careers in a few years. The arena in which I played, magazines, has changed. The long-term assignments which were a real learning experience are gone. Publications now put those together with pictures from various agencies. Even those agencies which put photographers on long-term assignments, or assignments about important issues, are being diminished. Television news does well, but competes with its own tabloid and celebrity journalism. Who knows where the Web is going? Wherever a young photojournalist goes to find good work, it's not going to be where this old photojournalist did.

Right now, I put my faith in books. This is where I see the good photographs. But no one ever did a book in two weeks. And very few photographers have made money doing one. Books are about a lifetime of photography. Use your craft to make money. Use your job to gain access. And be one mean, evil son of a bitch who takes his own pictures, not his employers (although I suggest you do this as covertly as possible, and, in the office, always claim to be "just doing your job for the employer you love"). Then, when some time has passed, do a book or a DVD or some new publishing form that connects directly to the viewer's brain. Whatever it is, tell your own story.

Bill Pierce