Letter to Students Contemplating Photojournalism
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