Top ten keys to be a successful photojournalist (Part two)

I just wound up an interesting assignment in California. I wrote the first half of this two-part blog entry right after the first day of the project. Now that I have finished and I am writing the second half of the entry, certain points I wanted to share are even clearer to me than when I started.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst and always be adaptable

I started out with a very clear idea of what I wanted to see and photograph. All my projects start that way, with me hoping for the best. Having survived numerous projects that went very, very wrong, I try to make plans just in case the worst happens. Despite my numerous calls and emails, my first day on the assignment in California left me without any access to my first-choice subject. So I immediately defaulted to my “plan B.” In the end, it was good that this happened because my last day on the assignment, I returned to where I had photographed on the first day and I re-photographed some of the same situations with the new strategy that I had developed in the days between the start and end of the project.

I am intentionally avoiding discussing the assignment topic, because what I was photographing is not important. What is vital, is my having a “plan A,” where everything goes the way I want, backed up by a “plan B,” where I can get some, small part of what I need, under-girded by a “plan C,” which is scraping the bottom of the barrel of possibilities.

These plans are constantly shifting around in my head because I am triangulating between sources to find the information I need, as discussed in the first half of this top ten list. One source granting me access to a given situation may move my old “plan B” up the list of priorities, while another source’s denial of access or information may scuttle my “plan A,” which I thought was a sure-thing.

All my projects, like this one in California, also require pacing and stamina. In California I was reminded how big that state is, because it seems like I drove through most of it in pursuit of my story.

Learn how to appreciate all the various perspectives people hold on the issue you are reporting on.

I am not likely to agree with everyone I meet when I am reporting on/photographing a given subject or topic. In fact, by the end of a project, I usually have one pretty strongly held perspective on the topic. Nine times out of ten, that perspective is NOT the point-of-view that I started with. I tell my students, and try to remind myself, that ‘if your perspective on a given project does NOT change between when you start and when you finish, you probably are not working hard enough.’

The only way to develop a complete and well-founded perspective on any topic is to learn all sides of the issue. Some of the most useful things I learned while doing my project on the pesticide poisoning of farm-workers came from the farmers/growers, the folks who in theory, were the average farm-worker’s nemesis. After a while, I realized it was not that simple, that the issue was more complex than “bad grower vs. good farm-worker.” One grower actually placed most of the blame on the consumers of produce, when he pointed out that he used pesticides in response to consumer demand. To paraphrase, he pointed out that ‘consumers want produce that is beautiful, cheap and available year-round, which is only possible with the use of chemicals.’

Hearing that struck me like a bolt of lightning! Certainly, many farm-workers and especially their children, have been hurt by pesticides or killed by pesticide related illnesses. No question. But the blame for the use of toxic chemicals belongs not just with the growers who used those chemicals, but also with the consumers whose demands could only be satisfied by the use of those same chemicals.

Again, I could not easily agree with what often are opposing viewpoints, but I know that I am best served by hearing out all the perspectives.

Know who to blame and when to blame them

The first thing to do when it comes to assessing blame in a given situation is to be honest and look to your self. In California, like in most projects, I was at fault on two levels. On the first level, if something did not work out, nine times out of ten it was failure on my part to plan, call people, anticipate problems, etc. That is an internal finding of blame that continually makes me a better photographer.

In California, I was also taking the blame, from others to smooth over rough moments. When there was a failure to communicate between one of my contacts and me, even if the failure was theirs, I usually said it was mine. I do not care if they think less of me, as long as they help me with my work. Besides, why would I want to bruise their egos over simple questions such as whom owed who a phone call?

One way that I have learned to avoid blame that could be truly problematic was to know my limits as a photographer/journalist. One easy example is that I almost never shoot sports related assignments. When I was a newspaper photographer I learned I was a terrible sports shooter. For a couple years running, I was the laughing-stock of newspaper photojournalism in upstate New York because the only thing worse than my sports photography was my lack of interest in getting any better at it.

Keep your balance

In life, love, work and photojournalism, the key is maintaining your balance. Too much of anything is not good for you, as my mother would say. What I think she meant, in the case of photojournalism, is that there is a balancing act that goes on as I photograph, between imprinting my style on the image and communicating the story. I frequently have to balance between the “insurance shot” that shows what I need and the “personal interpretation” that bares my soul. Too much of either one usually ruins the image.

While researching my project in California, I similarly struggle between being the pushy New Yorker (my heritage at birth) vs. the mellow Californian (the culture I was raised in.) So much of life in general is about balance, so why would photojournalism be any different?

Cameras are the smallest part of the equation

Cameras solve problems. Nothing more. I use the gear I use because it solves the set of problems I confront when I am photographing (and especially when I am traveling.) David Burnett, whose recent work showcases a wide variety of different cameras, proves this point. His recent projects, using old press cameras or plastic-lensed Holga cameras show that he has no strong allegiance to any one camera and he knows when to switch cameras to solve a given photographic problem. In a business virtually built on having the latest and greatest gear, Burnett is a great role model.

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