The Essence of Good Photojournalism
July 2003

by Tom Hubbard

I voluntarily retired from daily photojournalism early. I was 48. I burned out. Here's why.
One factor was the three photo directors, one a year for three years. Until then, I was fairly autonomous. I did assignments and had time to do things on my own. I marketed my self-originated stuff in the newsroom. I knew which editor liked what so I did pretty well.

The photo directors changed that. Everything went through them. My initiative was transferred to them. And, each photo editor wanted a different style. I felt like a chameleon, expected to change colors every year.

And, I thought too much. I figured out that the essence of good photojournalism is the interaction of a empathetic photographer with the scene. I know most people must operate within organizations, but EVERYTHING beyond the photographer and the scene detracts from the integrity of that interaction.

I've always thought of photojournalism as a creative thing. I didn't think of myself as a catcher of news, like a butterfly collector with a net. I thought the world deserved more than, "This happened." I tried to satisfy the last of the five W's, "why," in my photos. The "why" takes presonal reflection, so journalists respect "why" but ignore it. I didn't think of myself as an order taker or assignment doer. It was me and the subject and, "May I tell the truth this time." Anything else offended me.

My next thought was, I go through my professional life being directed by the one group in the newspaper who knows the least about photographer. That is reporters. No offense, I have tremendous respect for good reporters. They are just not qualified to direct photographers. They are trained to find what they can report in words. They are blind to visual concepts.

Reporters can cover five years in an hour interview. It takes a photographer five years to cover five years. The newsroom is arranged for the life cycle of reporter's stories, not photographer's. The intriguiging thing is, it's not a story at the beginning of the five years. This means, photojournalism must anticipate news in advance. Put another way, photojournalists have to spend time on stuff that is NOT news. Because, it's always too late when photojournalists cover assignments.

During my final years as a photojournalist, I did two Documerica assignments. This was a national environmental project by the Environmental Protection Agency. This project had a lot of detractors but it did document the environment in the 1970s. It's a prized possession of the National Archives. Well, my first day as a documentary photographer, I wondered what to do. Nothing (news) was going on. I made a profound discovery. There are a lot of interesting things happening outside of news. I was never completely satisfied with news after that.

Finally, one day, I was sitting on a gym floor waiting for some cheerleader tryouts, talking to a photographer from the other paper. I said, "You know, I fear coming into work the day before I'm 65, not knowing what I'm going to do that day, and getting either a good assignment or a bad assignment."

(I know, make something good out of every assignment. I considered a bad assignment one with a concept so out of whack with reality that I was forced to lie to maintain the concept or do a photo that would be considered a failure.)

I quit with no plan except to get a master's degree. I freelanced for the master's year and three more years. I did OK because I was known in the city from my newspaper years.

I accepted the job teaching in college. The first year of teaching is so busy I forgot shooting. I had about a three year "photographer's block," as in "writer's block.

One day I saw a nice picture situation, got my camera, and was back in business.
For about 10 years, I did year or longer projects. My "canvas" was everything photojournalism misses. Photojournalism has turned photography into photography of exceptions and tragedies. The whole, rich panorama of the human situation is ignored. My mission was to leave some little visual record of what my era looked like.

I did; a hospital, children's pre-school, a city intersection, and Ohio county fairs. These were all black and white in the 1980s and 1990s. I made only 11x14 prints, and exhibited them. Ohio fairs is in a restaurant in the art district of town now.

I learned to do long-term assignments when shooting for a daily, and I learned how phoney many seemingly serious assignments were. I might be intrigued by something on a daily assignment. I would go back, intending to do a longer term essay on this subject, and it would not be there. They only did it for one day, for newspaper coverage. I'm talking everything from neighborhood centers to yoga centers to scientific experiments. I learned journalism deals in quick hits, genuine or not.

I've learned in retirement, you must administrate yourself. Someone else has always done that before, in school, work,. Even some leisure groups set agendas for you. I had done some "News Photographer" stories for Jim Gordon over the years. I got busy and did a series Jim called "Travels with Tommy." These were great fun. I visited photojournalists I admired and who each had a unique perspective on photojournalism.

I'm sure Jim won't mind me saying this. We struggled. I wanted to include what Jim called my "philosophy." Jim wanted objective reporting. I've always felt that what is really important about photojournalism can't be covered in a straight wireservice objective report. A photojournalist's thoughts, opinions, likes and dislikes, even whims, dictate what the photojournalist sees. I'm not a scientist, but the world of science agrees on this. Journalism is the only blind pursuit which worships this kind of objectivity. Photojournalism and photojournalists must pretend objectivity, but the important elements in every great news photo are not objective. The last of that "News Photographer" series may run soon.

Right now, I'm not doing any news or documentary photography. I'm doing abstract digital art. It may or may not be any good. A newspaper critic told me it has potential. I'm calling on galleries. Soon, the world will tell me whether I'm onto anything.

I'm looking for an interesting life subject that I can photograph over time. I have some ideas to consider.

If you've read this far, I have something else to share. I started photography as a hobby. I did it as a hobby and then freelance until I went full-time. One account was a weekly "society" newspaper. That weekly became a newspaper, attempting to do many things, from being in-depth to being a supermarket tabloid before its time.

This paper published in Atlanta in the 1960s. I was the photo editor and only photographer. I did more photo assignments weekly than the 26 photographers for the dailies did. I figured this out counting clippings.

This experience taught me something that most photojournalists never get, total reliance on my own initiative. I had to find every subject and photograph it. I did not learn, in school or on the job, to wait for an assignment. I didn't have to please an editor. I was the editor.

(Modern photojournalism has lost or never had this total initiative. Everyone else has filled the vacuum, editors, reporters, graphics, PR, etc. Photojournalism has tried to complete everyone's agenda but its own. It's lost respect because its only contribution has been, "We're doing a great job doing what you tell us to do." The industry has figured out it can buy obedience cheaper on the day rate market.)

A photojournalist on this list said he wanted assignments to fill his day because he didn't want to waste an hour or so between assignments. I did the opposite. I could fill my working day with meaningful photojournalistic activity, from research and checking out situations, to actual shooting. I figured assignments distracted me from doing my best work.

It hasn't always made life easy, but I've never lost that beginning lesson. After beginning my photojournalism career as photo editor/photographer, it's always seemed weird to wait for reporters to tell me what to do.

The Washington bureau chief of my paper, who I had worked with daily when he was in the newsroom, introduced me once to another journalist. He said, "This is Tom Hubbard. He manages to do his own thing ... and get away with it."

© 2003 Tom Hubbard


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