The photojournalist

by Patrick O'Brien

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Image: 2011 Latuff

I read this comment on a photography Forum back in 2005 — advice from
a grizzly old photojournalist to a young man starting out. Impressed by the
post’s simple, direct message, I kept a bookmark . . . the advice is timeless:  

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Remember that you are a journalist, not a photographer. The camera is your tool, and that’s all it is. Besides being a photojournalist I also often worked only as a reporter, writing but not photographing. I have no recollection of the brand names of pens, notebooks or audio tapes I used.

So don’t get hung up on trivia as a photojournalist. Knowing the basics of good exposure and composition should be like breathing. Spending too much time on an internet photo forum trying to learn this stuff is like taking breathing lessons. Don’t do it. Spend your time on what’s difficult for you.’

Keep in mind also that being a journalist is not merely a privilege or even a right, it is an obligation. If you are an American you do not enjoy First Amendment freedoms — you *fight* for them every day. It’s difficult to enjoy something that you must constantly struggle for but that’s the way it is. The First Amendment is sacrosanct. Without it everything else will collapse.

Never fall for the misguided notion that there is a difference between the “press” and everybody else. Everyone is “the press”. In an ideal America it would be possible for a dying reporter or photographer to pass the notebook or camera to an ordinary person and know that the story would be told. In the real America, unfortunately, people are timid and ignorant when it comes to protecting their own rights. But never let yourself be deceived into placing yourself in some exalted position simply because you may have a better seat at the big events and possess some inside knowledge.

You’ve got to be able to relate to living creatures to make it as a photojournalist. If you can’t carry on a comfortable conversation with an old blind man, a teenage girl, a baby and a puppy with equal ease, you’d better start practising. Because chances are good that your first several thousand photos will be of grip-and-grin trophy and parchment passing, cheerleaders, grumpy indifferent bastards on some city council or zoning board, sticky babies at parades and puppies at the animal shelter. If you can make those shots fresh without feeling debased, then maybe you’ll be ready to photograph a crime, accident or fire scene without making the victims and their families feel debased and exploited.

And if you can do all that you’ll be a better photojournalist than I ever was.

Best wishes.

Lex Jenkins
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