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10 Things to Know Before Getting Into Photojournalism

The life of a photojournalist can look fascinating for aspiring shooters, and in many ways, it truly is. Getting paid to travel and photograph, to witness history unfold, and to change perspectives through visual storytelling is a wonderful and fulfilling way to make a living. But it isn’t all that you see on social media, and it certainly isn’t easy to get there. If you’re considering joining the ranks, it’s important to understand some things about an industry undergoing some hefty transitions.

10 Things to Know Before Getting Into Photojournalism

Amanda Mustard is an independent photojournalist based in Bangkok, Thailand, and previously Cairo, Egypt. Mustard has contributed work to clients such as Associated Press, New York Times, Outside Magazine, National Geographic PROOF, WIRED, Bloomberg, The Smithsonian, amongst others. Mustard is an advocate for the protection and sustainability of the freelance community and gender equality in the media industry. Using the Drobo 5D3, Mustard is able to protect and store her work.

1) It’s not about the camera, it’s about the eye.

If you want to be a photojournalist, it doesn’t require the most expensive camera. Start with what you have, or something lower end – learn absolutely everything about how it works. Invest more in training your eye, than the equipment. Only when you can understand exactly what the limits are for you of your current body, is when you should upgrade.

2) You have to stand out.

It’s not enough to just be a good photographer anymore. In this digital age, everyone has a camera in their pocket, and the public’s understanding of professional vs amateur gets cloudier with each passing year.  You need to develop a strong personal style to cut through the noise.

3) Your strongest stories are most likely the ones you know best.

Many photojournalists make the mistakes of chasing big news stories that everyone else is doing. But in an oversaturated visual market, this is no longer the way to stand out – nor is it financially viable for most. Consider your own perspectives and experiences in the world, and how they can lead your storytelling in a way that offers access or insight that others cannot. It might be a lot closer than you think.

4) Photojournalism has a diversity crisis.

Antiquated cultural and hiring practices continue to keep jobs in the hands of Western men. Over the last few years, a discussion has begun to acknowledge this, and some efforts are being made to amplify and bring critical new perspectives to the stories we tell. Check out Women Photograph, Natives Photograph, and Diversify Photo for a start.

5) You must be as good of a business person, as you are a shooter.

Things like knowing what to charge, how to negotiate, and how to read contracts is critical for being a professional and making it in this industry.

6) Rejection will be your co-pilot.

A tiger is fed by caretakers at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

Embrace it! Pitch, pitch, pitch, and pitch some more – there might be 30 rejections before you get something, but every try will get you closer to that win. Ask for feedback on your pitch while writing it, or after it was rejected, and learn from those tips.Research the publication thoroughly, as well as the editor you want to pitch. Do your homework – did they recently publish something similar? Is your story a good fit for them?

7) Very little of your time as a photojournalist is actually spent photographing.

When it all whittles down to it. Researching, building contacts, getting access, billing, chasing payments, managing your archive, editing, marketing will take up most of your time. Oh and, rejection. The freelance hustle isn’t for everyone – and that’s okay.

8) The safety of both you and your work is critical.

Good health/emergency/equipment insurance coverage. Personal protective equipment for conflict work. Memberships to press organizations for credentials. Expenses to use the safer transport and lodging. Marketing management for your work. Reliable data storage systems, like the Drobo, for safeguarding your archive. It’s all part of being a responsible professional who can protect both themselves and their work.

A child in the Mokattam neighborhood of Cairo, Egypt.

9) Photojournalism ethics are not the same for other types of photography.

Photojournalism ethics are absolutely critical. Each year there are new scandals of desperate or lazy accounts of photo-shopping, staging, or misrepresentation of images. It won’t fly, and does a disservice to the foundation of what photojournalism is – to present the truth. Make sure you thoroughly study and understand ethics before you get shooting – see NPPA and World Press Photo’s definitions for a start.

10) Photojournalism will not get you rich

In World Press Photos 2016 State of the News Photography report, 85% of 1991 professionals said they made less than $40,000 a year – and many are probably well below that line. Newsroom budgets have plummeted, equipment and insurance is expensive, income is unpredictable and gigs are scarce. Before you start, consider how you will manage on very little income for your first five years. Make a plan to have a side gig or other primary income, shoot weddings or commercial work, live in a place with low cost of living, or save up accordingly before you jump. Even some of the most famous photojournalists of our time can’t afford the new lens or body they need. We’re all in the same boat, even if some are afraid to admit it. Plan wisely, budget accordingly – and you really, really have to want this.

Protestors lie on the ground during the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ demonstrations in Hong Kong’s Central business district.

The changing landscape of photojournalism can seem daunting – but there’s incredible space for innovation and redefinition amidst the uncertainty. It might take some resourcefulness to get there, but the more you know before you jump, the better your chances of navigating your place in it. What we can count on, though, is that there will never be a shortage of stories to tell.

 


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