A student came to see me recently and asked an intriguing question: what is the best way to prepare for a career in photography? This student is in my Introduction to Visual Communications course at the University of South Carolina, but she has never taken a photography course. Her current interest is in photojournalism.
She is trying to decide among the various pathways open to her: major in Visual Communications in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, major in Media Arts in the College of Arts and Sciences, plan for continuing education as a graduate student, find internships and assistantships, take seminars and workshops, and/or develop skills in Web, multimedia, and publication design.
Whew! Where to begin? There was a time when, at least so it seemed, the pathways to a career in photography were more limited and thus simpler. You either went to school for a photographic education — for example, at the Art Center  or Brooks Institute  — or you tried to land a job as an assistant, stringer, lab technician, or part-time photographer.
In either case, the emphasis was on gaining as much technical, practical, and (hopefully) artistic training as you could absorb. Make pictures, have your work critiqued, soup film, make prints, schlep equipment, run errands: this is probably a familiar litany to photographers of, as they say in polite company, “a certain age.”
Are things different today? Well, yes and no. For example, the student who came to see me asked if she should buy a better-quality camera to replace her point-and-shoot. In days past, this would have been a simple question to answer: yes — if you want professional-looking results, you need professional equipment.
But today’s point-and-shoots are great learning tools, especially if you can manually adjust certain features, such as slow shutter with flash. And, more to the point, perhaps an inexpensive video camera, to complement her point-and-shoot, would be a smarter, more useful investment. So, even before taking her first photography course, this student has some choices to make.
Now, what about programs of study? Every program has its merits. Ideally, anyone with an interest in photojournalism should have a well-rounded liberal-arts education. Telling today’s stories — whether in visuals or in print — requires the ability to understand, distill, and present complex information.
Training in photography, video, print and Web design, and various software applications is essential. Graduate study, whether in journalism or in allied fields, is often helpful. For example, Sebastiao Salgado , the great photojournalist, has a master’s degree in economics. Frans Lanting , a distinguished wildlife photographer, has a master’s degree in environmental economics.
Internships and Workshops
I have always felt that working as a photography intern or assistant is a great way to bridge the gap between school and a career. The problem, however, is that the duties of an assistant require skills that are sometimes different from those taught in many photography programs. For example, in addition to knowing various types of cameras and computer software, assistants need to be familiar with all sorts of lighting equipment, from portable strobes to massive studio lights.
Assistants also need to know how to use the favorite knickknacks — a.k.a., grip equipment — that photographers tend to accumulate and cannot live without. Finally, assistants need to be problem solvers, cheerful and upbeat in the face of any catastrophe, real or imagined. (And they should probably work out in a gym, to prepare for schlepping equipment.)
Seminars and workshops can add vital components to even the most thorough college curriculum. Most liberal-arts degree programs specify how many hours students need in general-education courses — English, humanities, social sciences, etc. — and how many can be devoted to their major. With today’s ever-expanding fields of knowledge, it may be impossible for a student to receive all the photography and visual-communication training he or she desires within the confines of the university.
That’s where seminars and workshops can help. For example, the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops  offers dozens of specialized photographic courses, and the Maine Media Workshops  has developed a curriculum specifically for young people, which includes courses on digital photography, filmmaking, and Final Cut Pro.
Taking Pictures vs. Solving Problems
But the real answer to the career-path question is this: what else, besides photography, can you bring to the party? After all, as I constantly remind my students, everyone today is a photographer. Everyone has a camera. Images are everywhere, in many cases free (or nearly so) for the click of a mouse. In this environment, what is the value of professional photography? What skills and resources can you offer that clients will be willing to pay for?
On the first day of classes, I ask my students this question: “What do photographers do?” After a long discussion — which usually starts with one or more of them answering “Take pictures!” — we come up with this formulation: “Photographers solve visual-communications problems for their clients.” That takes more than just a camera –that takes training, expertise, and, above all, vision.
Chances are, most of my students will find jobs that require them to do much more than “take pictures.” The best of them will become problem solvers. They may be involved with creating still photography and/or video (or hiring photographers and videographers), designing publications and Web sites, and producing multimedia packages and DVDs. They may also be called upon to write captions, press releases, articles, and produce infographics. Whichever pathways lead to developing skills in all of these areas, those are the ones I hope my students will follow.