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An Open Letter to Students Contemplating Photojournalism
December 2002

by Paula Lerner

I have been a working freelance photographer for going on 18 years, starting out soon after college in 1985. I was inspired by taking an undergraduate course called "Photography as Sociological Description," taught by Barbara Norfleet A few of my predecessors as students in her class were Susan Meiselas and Alex Webb, both of whom went on to pursue notable careers in photography and who are now affiliated with Magnum. My final project for the class was a documentary photo essay on an immigrant Portuguese family living in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, and after doing this work I found I was hooked. I was taken with the beauty of the medium, and with the immediacy it offered as a storytelling vehicle. After graduation I decided to take the plunge into the field of photography and have never looked back.

When I started out back in the mid 1980s, I could look down the road at people who were then the age I am now and see a viable career path that would enable me to make a reasonable living doing what I love. I could shoot editorial stories as a freelancer for newspapers and magazines, and cobble together a decent living on the stock and resale it generated. I had to have some corporate/institutional and advertising work in the mix, but I could still spend a reasonable amount of time doing the storytelling I loved, or at least doing something close to it. Seventeen years later as I find myself at mid-life (I'm now 43), I am saddened to see that this career path has all but evaporated. Photography is not the only field thus affected: I know friends and peers in academia and medicine that face similar paradigm shifts in their respective industries. Freelance illustrators and writers are also in a similar bind.

At this point in time, the harsh reality is that good staff jobs at newspapers are drying up, and the rates paid for freelance editorial work have not changed much since I got into the business nearly two decades ago. Rights-grabbing contracts without commensurate compensation for the increased usage are on the rise. The cost of doing business has in many cases finally outstripped the ability to make editorial work a viable main livelihood, as the back-end fees editorial photographers depend on to survive get squeezed and the front-end fees have been eroded by inflation. Many old-time industry hands feel that the situation has forced them into a kind of mid-life crisis that has been imposed from the outside, calling for them to reinvent themselves in order to stay in the game.

So given this less-than-attractive landscape, what's a new, young photographer, fresh out of photojournalism or art school to do? I often get phone calls and emails from newbies asking for advice on how to break in to this profession. I try to be honest, saying that the scene is not very pretty and it sure ain't what it used to be. Having said that, I also try not to squash the hopes and dreams of young people aspiring to do what they love.

There is no one, single answer as to how to find one's way through this thicket. And as the industry changes, there are no longer any well-established paths to suggest, only individual examples of solutions. Be prepared to get yourself a big machete and have a good deal of energy to hack your own path. Develop marketable photo-related or back-up skills that will pay your bills and pay off your student loans. There are many ways to solve this problem, but it will take energy, stamina and a driving will to find ways to hang in there. There is simply no room for anyone without a good dose of tenacity, but that is one thing that has not changed. Having a passion for the work and the willingness to see it through has always been a requirement.

For myself, the path I'm taking involves doing enough commercial work to buy myself the time to pursue my own projects. This has become very difficult in the current economy, and my challenge has been to find enough business to survive. One photographer I know whose documentary work is highly regarded shoots ad campaigns in order to support himself, his family and his book and film projects. Another photographer I know makes his living largely from shooting stills as part of movie production crews. Still another photographer I know has turned to the technological side of photography for a livelihood. Many photojournalists have found a niche earning their living shooting weddings and events. All of these solutions work, but only for the individuals who have blazed their own trail, and each path presents its own unique set of challenges and difficulties. Lastly, there is no dishonor in having a day-job that is unrelated to photography, but that allows you to pursue your own work on the side. Remember the example of the influential author Franz Kafka: he had a law degree and was a loyal employee at an insurance institution by day, yet produced what is arguably some of the greatest literature of the 20th century by night.

The trick is to find the energy and discipline to not let go of your dreams and to find ways to make them happen. You will be responsible for finding your own path and for overcoming the obstacles you encounter. Maintaining the passion and commitment to go forward can be a daunting task. No one said this would be easy, but then not much in life that is worth doing is.

Good luck and God speed.

© Paula Lerner
Vice President, Editorial Photographers

Since 1985 Paula Lerner has been a Boston-based freelance photographer working primarily for national and international magazines. Among her clients are Smithsonian, People, Time, Newsweek, German GEO, Stern (Germany), Focus (Germany), Panorama (Italy), and AERA (Japan). She also does corporate and institutional photography for a wide variety of clients, including Agfa, The Commonwealth Fund, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Paula's work involves photographing people in all walks of life, and has taken her from the rain forests of Brazil to the back roads of New England. Her assignments range from stories on cancer patients, factory workers, and corporate executives to profiles on eminent scientists, authors and performing artists. Her photographs have been selected multiple times for publication in the American Photography and the Communication Arts juried annuals. In 1998 her photo essay "A Widow on Welfare: An Untold Story" won First Place for Issue Reporting in the prestigious 55th Pictures of the Year competition.

Since 1999 Paula has been active in promoting good business practices among
photographers and an advocate for fair contracts from publishers. She is the Vice President of EP (Editorial Photographers), a non-profit group that maintains an internet discussion forum on the business of editorial photography and has more than 3,500 subscribers worldwide.

Paula's work is represented by Aurora & Quanta Productions, an international photo agency founded by Jose Azel, and based in Portland, Maine.

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