The Digital Journalist
Nuts & Bolts
January 2004

by Bill Pierce

Is photojournalism a “personal service industry” or a “symbolic analytic” profession? Actually, it’s either. The choice is up to you.

In a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich looks at the growth areas of the job market.

One area of job growth is personal services. Unlike some jobs, they can't be replaced by machines. They can be nurses or cabbies or security guards. And in most cases their pay is stagnant or declining.

Another area involves "identifying and solving new problems... They're lawyers, bankers, financiers, journalists, doctors and management consultants." Reich calls this type of work "symbolic analytic" because much of it has to do with analyzing and communicating through numbers, shapes, words, ideas." In most cases these folks do well financially.

Is photojournalism a "personal service industry" or "symbolic analytic?" Actually, it's either. The choice is up to you.

If you think that the ability to operate a camera is the secret to success and that you are on the cutting edge because you can operate a digital camera - you are in a personal service industry. Knowing how to operate a washing machine doesn't make you a clothing designer. Knowing how to turn on the stove doesn't make you a master chef.

This doesn't mean that you won't get work. I mentioned before in this column that several years ago the boss at a small paper said that he was no longer going to hire photographers. He was going to hire people to run the cameras.

He had to bring in a "photographer" to photograph the football games. But, outside of that, people seem to have been adequate.

You can get work as a digital camera operator. It's just that your pay will be appalling. To move beyond that you have to provide customers with something special whose quality they don't feel they can get elsewhere.

This is sad because in the past photographers have been able to work successfully as generalists. The photographer's specialty was taking good pictures. Will McBride, Gene Smith, Werner Bischof and Bill Brandt didn't limit themselves to one kind of photography or one subject in order to be successful.

Today, whether you like it or not, if you are successful, you will probably be identified with telling one kind of story; you will be a specialist, an expert (Tyler Hicks - war; Doug Kirckland - glamour; David Kennerly - politicians; Elliott Erwitt - dogs; William Wegman - dogs in costume) even if that story is only one facet of what you do and do well.

Sometimes you choose to put most of your efforts into one subject because you understand it and it fascinates you. Jim Nachtwey - war; Sebastiao Salgado - a little harder to pigeon hole, perhaps the downtrodden; Garry Winogrand - even harder, perhaps the surreal stuff in front of us all that the rest of us didn't see. At least, if you are a commercial failure, you'll have an interesting life.

Lucky people. They discovered what fascinated them and was important to them. There's a little bit of luck involved. Who, when they are starting out, knows what really fascinates them? It's a bit of a guessing game. But you have to look beyond our common bond of a fascination with the photographic process.

Those who are fascinated by the tools of the trade (and they are fascinating) are well advised to keep photography as a hobby unless they can get a job within the community that develops, manufactures and sells the tools of the trade.

When it comes to educating yourself as a photojournalist, avoid schools that spend all their time teaching you how to operate cameras. Deal with those schools that teach you about what is in front of the camera.

And remember that your specialty may not be defined by the subject in front of your camera. I had a friend who was an amazing street photographer, but there's not a big demand for that in the world of commercial journalism. But, boy, could he organize. Send this guy ahead of you into a war zone or media event (often quite similar), and when you arrived you had accommodations, communications, transportation, local experts and a reserved table at the best restaurant in town.

I have two fine-art photographer friends that earn money as printers - old-fashioned, silver, paper-in-chemicals printers. If you are a custom lab and that is the extent of your services, you're dead. If you are a custom printer:

(1) The longevity of silver prints is established. That makes them a staple in the world of photo collectors.

(2) Right after the printing press, hand-illuminated manuscripts became very popular. They remained popular for over 100 years. Hey, they were different; they were prestigious; they were a specialty item seen in the homes and institutions of the powerful. My friends probably have a decade to produce the prestigious.

But their real expertise is their ability to understand what a good print is. When they choose to change processes, that skill will move with them and continue to support their photography.

Of course, you can't hide your light under a barrel. First, literally hiding a light under a barrel is a very strange thing for a photographer to do. Second, figuratively it results in unemployment. Thus: the agency, the web site, the promotional CD, the gallery show that ends up costing you money, the free copies of your published work and the dreaded socializing with possible employers.

Take a look at Here are the first two items on the list - the agency and the web site. There's not a slouch on the list of photographers; it's got some of the oldest young photographers I know. Look at the subject material - war and other distant and/or difficult societies to which to gain entrance. Couldn't be too much competition. Why, these pictures should sell themselves. Dream on.

Robert Reich says that the successful group among the growing work force is the one that is involved in "identifying and solving new problems." That sounds pretty much like the photojournalist who has just landed at some airport and started on another story. But, in the world of the photojournalist (who always seems to be out of town), you have to sometimes remind folks that you identified and solved yet another problem.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer