Jim Colburn - Don't Ask
October 2002

What They Didn't Tell You at J-School

One of the best pieces of comedy to come out of Monty Python's Flying Circus was a sketch called "The Four Yorkshiremen." It showed a bunch of old guys sitting around and reminiscing about how tough things were in days gone bye. They kept trying to one-up each other with wild tales of poverty and oppression and it went on and on until the final line that went, "And if you tell that to the youth of today, they won't believe you."

It's not like that today. Thing's aren't easier, they're harder. Especially if you want to be a photographer. If you're a young photographer in the new millennium, just starting out, trying to find your way and build a career I have one thing to say to you.

You poor, dumb bastard.

What were you thinking? You really should have picked a better decade to begin your quest for fame and fortune because right now is just about the worst you could've chosen. Oh sure, it would have been tougher being a photographer in the late 1700's....but not by much.

You can still try working your way up the newspaper food chain by starting out at a 10,000 circ weekly in Wyoming, then moving to a 30,000 circ daily in Florida and so on, and so on, and so on..... until you manage to claw your way into a shooting position at that major city daily just weeks before the joint operating agreement dries up and you're out on your ass in a strange city.

It used to be that there was another way. It used to be that an adventurous youngster with talent and drive could go the agency/freelance route. If you were good enough you could find a decent agency to represent you, get you some assignments, sell your stock photos and take your telephone messages. You would've been nurtured in a way that is almost inconceivable today.

If you did your part and came up with some interesting story ideas a good agency could pitch the story to a few magazines in a few different countries and get a guarantee from each one. Those guarantees would add up to be enough for a month in South Africa documenting the plight of (fill-in-the-blank) or a week in Aspen documenting the skiing mishaps of some class A (and class B) celebrities.

A good agency could, and would, pay you an advance against future sales. It might not have been enough for a luxurious life but it would have paid the rent.

A good agency would even go 50/50 with you on a project that both you and they thought was worth while and then try to make the sales after you came back with the goods and a few good stories about lousy hotel rooms and thieving cab drivers.

A good agency would take the long view and calculate that if your pictures made everyone a profit in a year (yup, twelve months, not one) that would be good enough.

I know a young guy named Ben Lowy. He's an excellent photographer and he can get by in a few languages. He's intelligent, erudite and is just crazy enough to want to take pictures of things that most folks try and avoid, things like war, conflict, oppression. In the 70's or the 80's he'd have been snapped up in a second by any one of four or five agencies and sent out to the latest hot spot to get some seasoning, make some money and take some damn fine pictures. The sort of pictures that you'd look at and make you understand things a little more. He's just come back from a month in Israel with some amazing pictures (after having the crap beaten out of him by some West Bank settlers) and he's looking for some decent representation. If you know anyone looking for an excellent shooter with hustle please let me know. I'll pass the word on to him.

I would like to be able to greet him without saying, "Ben, you poor, dumb bastard. what were you thinking?"

Jim Colburn
Contributing Writer

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