Notes for Aspiring Photographers
December 2008

by Joshua Wolfe

"It's too bad. If this were a decade ago I would have said, 'give the kid an assignment' and sent you down the hall with something. Then I would have sent you upstairs to Life magazine; they would have made you an apprentice and you'd be on your way to a career. Now, I've got nothing to give you." A little over two years ago Don Delliquanti, an assistant photo editor at Sports Illustrated, gave me that less than uplifting news. I, like most every young photographer trying to make their mark in New York, made the rounds of the magazine photo departments. Sports Illustrated is one of the more generous to the collection of kids that walk through their door, but in some ways, with the current budget cuts, the rounds appear to be more an act of futility than a step in building a career. To make it worse the financial crisis has lead to a situation where budgets are being cut further, magazines are folded at a greater speed, and newspapers are shedding staff and closing bureaus by the day.

The question, at least from the younger photographer's perspective, is, what does this do to the traditional methods of building a career? The short answer is that it fundamentally changes the strategies required. The long one is more complicated. Making one's name as a magazine or newspaper photographer is harder than ever for all the reasons described above. It doesn't make it impossible but it does make it harder. Anecdotally, stories abound of j-school graduates bouncing between several internships before realizing there are no jobs, and a look at the staff working at a bar in NYC or any of the Apple Computer repair stores will turn up scores of people possessing degrees in photography.

NGOs and foundations as sponsors for long-term projects was a second avenue many photographers pursued. Unfortunately, foundations and NGOs are going to be tight on money until stock prices again rise. Foundations in the U.S. are required to spend 5 percent of their assets every year. If their endowments have shrunk, so does the value of that 5 percent. If there is less money available I guarantee you the chance of a photographer being added to the budget is going to go down significantly.

Then there are the small "bread and butter" jobs that are harder to land. The quick corporate job for their newsletter has been replaced with a marketing assistant using a point-and-shoot camera. My worry is that as budgets get cut, more of the work will be passed off to that marketing assistant.

Looking at the market trends one might want to go to medical school, but there are still opportunities for young photographers. It is still important to approach all of the above sources. Work can be found from these sources, but it is harder to cobble together a living. The second and more important strategy in the market is to approach and create new sources of funding. Given budget cuts, it might make more sense to target companies that don't traditionally hire photographers than to send a mailer to magazine editors. There are always plenty of smaller design firms and independent designers who hire photographers only once or twice a year. Reach 20-30 independent designers and you have a career.

Too few photographers seek growth areas in the economy. Avoid cars, insurance, financial and pretty much anything else that is tanking. But why not look at the second stimulus package Congress is putting together and target organizations getting the money? Is there a major infrastructure project in your backyard that just got a big earmark? Where are venture capital firms putting their money? Add the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal to Advertising Age when looking for potential clients to target.

For editorial, new media is still fairly unexplored territory for photographers. The New York Times recently ran a story on small Internet publications. They may not have huge budgets but they also represent a potential market for photographers. Many of these publications haven't traditionally used photography but that doesn't mean you can't convince them of its value. I just added one of these publications as a client.

I've always joked with aspiring photographers that photography is a career of long hours, little pay, no stability, and generally a sacrifice of comfort and ease in the search for photos. If after hearing all that you still want to be in the field, you belong in it.

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© Joshua Wolfe

Joshua Wolfe is a documentary and editorial photographer who splits his time between NYC and Washington, D.C. At 25, he is the youngest member of GHG Photos, a new picture agency specializing in environment, nature and climate change, [], and has worked for a variety of magazines, advertising and educational clients. He has focused on climate change for the last several years and is the co-author of "Climate Change: Picturing the Science," being published by WW Norton & Co. in April 2009. Josh will serve as President of GHG Photos for the first year.

To learn more about Josh, and GHG Photos, read last month's Q&A interview with him: