Lessons Learned in Photojournalism School
January 2003

by Dirck Halstead

Austin, Texas, January 1, 2003- It was less than an hour after the Associated Press broke the story that the University of Texas at Austin was dropping its undergraduate photojournalism program that my phone began to ring.

Friends and colleagues who knew I had accepted a post as lecturer teaching Advanced Photojournalism at UT wanted to know what was up? Was this a surprise? What did I think about this outrage? What was I going to do?

Let me say, when I had meetings with the Journalism Department staff last spring, one of the things they told me was that they intended to phase out the undergraduate program in favor of a beefed-up graduate program. The reason being their experience had shown that the courses aimed at a photojournalism degree were generally a disappointment. They felt that too many students saw the course as an easy way to get a degree. After all, how difficult is it to take pictures? Graduate students, on the other hand, had some experience in the real world of working for publications, and having committed resources to continuing their education in the field would be much more focused.

How all this will be implemented is still under discussion at the University. There are some real problems involved in shutting down a program that has spawned a dozen Pulitzer Prize winning photographers. There is a delicate balance that exists between the undergraduate and graduate courses. In order to maintain the infrastructure such as labs and equipment, tuition money is crucial. It is one thing to get cash flow from hundreds of undergraduates, and quite another to rely on the much smaller numbers of graduate students. Also, many of the graduate students depend on jobs as "teaching assistants" serving the undergraduates. Without those jobs, many graduate students would not be able to finance their education.

I have been a photojournalist for more than 40 years. By the time I entered Haverford College, I had already been working for several years with the local newspapers while attending high school. I had been the photographer and an editor on my yearbook. During the summer before college I photographed my first foreign assignment for no less than Life Magazine. It never occurred to me that I should take photojournalism in college. College was for exercising my mind in critical thinking. I needed English, languages, philosophy, and history. These courses helped lay the foundation that would support my endeavors for the rest of my life. After college, I was lucky to begin my career as a photographer with UPI, working for $58.19 a week in Dallas. That was the real start of my photojournalistic education.

In those days, up until the latter part of the '80s, we enjoyed the golden years of photojournalism. There were the great magazines like Look and Life that had what seemed to be a limitless capacity to run photographs and photo essays. Wonderfully talented young photographers such as Douglas Kirkland and Neil Leifer could win staff jobs in the big time.

The environment that all young photographers face today is vastly different. If you have been reading these pages regularly, you know just how hard it is to make a living, even by the most practiced professionals. Although there are more magazines and newspapers on the stands today than ever before, the actual space they are willing to devote to photo stories, and the rates they are willing to pay, have shrunk to unprecedented levels.

In her statement about the undergraduate photojournalism program being dropped, Lorraine Branham, the new Director of Journalism, said it was prompted by changes in the news industry. There are now fewer jobs for photojournalists who take only still pictures, while there is a growing need for photographers who can shoot video as well, and edit digital images and videos for websites and other media.

She is correct. The face of the entire communications industry is rapidly changing. The one thing that everyone agrees on is that nobody knows quite how it is going to turn out. As Brian Storm, the Director of News for Corbis says, "the smartest minds in this business are lost."

One of the reasons for all the confusion is that many organizations have truncated the wisdom tree in their own newsrooms. The traditional cycle of young journalists coming into a newsroom and being coached by veterans, taking advantage of the vast institutional knowledge has to a large extent been lost as megacorporations hurry their older employees out the door with buyouts. Increasingly, these moves have resulted in bad decisions, and a loss of long-term purpose.

Into this mix come thousands of young graduates from photojournalism schools, all desperate to get that first low-paying intern job. As I have told my students, most of whom have applied to at least a dozen newspapers for such a job after graduation, "The problem is not getting an internship, but where you go after that."

Few students have given any real thought to considering the long-term hurdles they will have to negotiate if they want to actually make a living from photojournalism. They have little idea of the competition they will face, and have no plan on how to distinguish themselves in this environment.

In my first teaching semester almost all my students were seniors for whom this course would be their last undergraduate one in photojournalism. I reviewed each student's portfolio and found the class divided almost equally. Those who had good yet unfocused portfolios and those who did not even approach advanced amateur, let alone professional status.

My original intent was to quickly move the students into advanced issues: how to come up with ideas, how to translate ideas into photographs, how to create business plans, understanding the cost of doing business, how to market themselves, and how to translate stories into multimedia vehicles with writing and sound and post them on the web. Instead, I had to spend nearly half the semester teaching far more elementary skills such as composition and lighting just to bring the weaker students up to a level where they could start to move forward with the better students.

At the end, they all accomplished what I wanted them to accomplish. They did the multimedia stories, and created their own online magazine.

No one failed the course. But the reality is that with one or two exceptions, who actually showed improvement over the semester, at the end their grades largely reflected the levels they were at when they entered the class. The good got better - the weak remained weak.

The weak concern me the most. Because if they truly want to enter the profession, they are the ones who will be more likely to take any job they can get, work at any rates, give away any of the rights to which they are entitled, and in the process make it that much more difficult for the good to hold the line of professionalism.

Where we need to focus our teaching skills is on the minds of mature professionals who understand the challenges they face. They are the ones who will benefit from the specialized education, and hopefully will be able to bring their own ideas, based on learning and experience into a profession that desperately needs it.

© Dirck Halstead

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