Photojournalists Must Not Give in to Desperation

I thought I would be a photojournalist forever — traveling the country, maybe the world, documenting little and big moments for all to see. And everything was going according to plan, until the layoffs at my newspaper and others went into high gear a few years ago. I began to wonder if the future I had hoped for was still possible.

The long hours were hard, and the pay was worse than a schoolteacher’s, but the experiences gained by witnessing such a diverse spectrum of life were priceless. Ultimately, though, I just couldn’t handle the quarterly threat of being laid off, and the growing realization that moving up the professional ladder was becoming impossible because those jobs were being eliminated.

When I quit my job in April 2008 at age 31, I was senior to 75 percent of the newsroom. That sounds promising for graduating students, but it was also a sign that retiring from the profession that I loved was about as likely as winning the lottery.

So I left newspapers to work for myself as a wedding photographer, and now many of my former co-workers and friends are envious of my perceived job security in this bad economy. But it wasn’t easy, and while I have no regrets I am still cautious about the future.

Find a Path That Will Work for You Now

I continue to see staffs shrink week by week, and the company I left recently filed for bankruptcy. I continue to hear a lot of college students and recent grads complain on and other sites that they can’t get a job or work and are desperate for a solution to the growing problem. They want the future that I wanted, but the present situation has changed so much that they either can’t get started or are afraid to because there is clearly no job security.

The only answer I can offer is to find a path that will work for you now, and remember that nothing is guaranteed and everything can change. Be true to yourself and what you are passionate about and be wary about trusting your future with anyone in the media business.

People often ask me about the choice I made. I tell them that wedding photography is not the answer for every photographer laid off from a newspaper or magazine. It does pay better than a staff job at nearly every newspaper, but the hours are longer and the stress higher than your daily assignment work. There is a lot of work involved that keeps you in front of a computer for more hours than behind your camera. You have to be a good business person, too. And it can get a little lonely sometimes.

In addition, freelancers are starting to see the same cutbacks and shrinking income that staff photographers are seeing, so it’s a little risky to be on your own right now. Frankly, finding a job in a completely different field might be a better choice, while keeping your passion alive by shooting for yourself or as a part-time freelancer. I know some photographers who are putting down their cameras entirely and investing their time in their families or other hobbies.

Blame the economy or the universities for turning out too many students, but the fact remains that there are not enough jobs for everyone — staff or freelance. Photography has always been a competitive field, but now talent no longer seems to be the deciding factor and that is discouraging to everyone. As more and more people work for free, or really cheap, everyone is worried about their jobs while questioning the future of photojournalism as a whole.

Unless you are within a couple years of retirement, you may have a hard time waiting out the changes to come.

Desperation Helps No One

With so many photographers leaving their staff jobs to shoot weddings or go freelance, those markets may become saturated and see similar problems. That is already starting to happen at places like AP and Sports Illustrated, where freelancers who have been working for them for over a decade are beginning to to see the same cutbacks and shrinking incomes that newspaper staffers have been experiencing.

This is not happening as a result of the pool of photographers improving. It is happening because desperate people are willing to accept less pay, and that is hurting everyone.

Newspapers and other media groups are starting to realize they can get a photographer to shoot an assignment for under $200, without mileage or benefits, so they lay off more photographers and hire more freelancers because it saves them money. The quality is usually not as good because the experience level is lower, but more and more companies are willing to accept the trade-off.

I know how tempting it can be when the bills are coming in faster than the checks to take a job for less just to have it, or lower your rates because the economy is struggling, but I encourage you not to take this route. It will only hurt you — and all of us — in the long run.

I do not have the answer on how to save the newspaper business; I wish I did. But if there is one word of advice that I can offer, it would be to remind all of you that if you enter the freelance world you should not sell yourself short and settle for less. If you do, it makes us all worth less.

5 Responses to “Photojournalists Must Not Give in to Desperation”

  1. Staff pools will shrink probably until they vanish completely.

    In the future, I doubt very seriously that any significant number of staff jobs will exist for any creative professional.

    Picking up a camera, regardless of talent in using it, and saying, "I'm here, hire me" isn't going to cut the cake anymore.

    Wanna be in local journalism? Forget the local paper. Start a blog covering local events from a photographic perspective as you would at a newspaper. Find a way to monetize it. No one said this was going to be easy.

    No one except the appointed and anointed at the very top are going to get away with being 'just a photographer.' Offer a service related to photography that makes you the guy to hire.

    As much as it kills me to say it, photography has never been a lucrative field. Nor has journalism in general. It probably won't be. It's one thing to want to live comfortably, but be real about things.

  2. I feel for the kids today coming up in the business. It really is the best of times and the worst of times.

    The technology is mind blowing, especially if you're old enough to have pushed Tri-X to 1600 and beyond to photograph high school sports. I stopped shooting for daily newspapers before the luxury of not stepping into a darkroom was a reality.

    It's really so easy to make "good" images today that everybody thinks they are a photographer, which hurts the true photographers out there trying to make a living. Uncle Harry, they think, can do as good a job as you covering their wedding. Good luck with that.

    For those left at newspapers in the coming years we'll probably see a "camera" come into play, where stills will be plucked from videos. Shoot stills if you only need them, but capture everything in video for other events. The "camera" will be a hybrid. The 5DMKII is the first step in that direction.

    From a creative POV I'm not sure I would want to be that kind of photographer. The challenge of seeing and capturing THE still image moment is all the fun.

  3. Senior to 75% of your newsroom, at 31? - Was your newsroom a college paper? And wedding photography, seriously? You consider weddings your only other option?

    Guess you don't know there's a whole world out there, 'ey? You sound whiney - like you've got kind of a bad attitude about things, ANYWAY ...

    What about photojournalists who get all bummed out (depressed) because they've seen and covered like ump-teen different war zones and are burned out AND having difficulty finding consistent work because budgets are shrinking?

    Boo hoo, honey. Cry me a river and then STEP ASIDE, please. You are oblivious.

    I'm sorry to be so negative, but this is a pathetic column. You don't have enough experience to be advising people. Ok, so you covered 9/11, some sports, a hurricane, but so what?

    I can't believe Black Star published this piece. This exemplifies the downward spiral you speak so "knowingly" of, my dear.

  4. Les, good for you for having such a tough attitude. But to suggest that many photographers (particularly newspaper staffers) have not gone through, and are not now going through, the kind of emotional turmoil that Heather has faced is ridiculous. Heather worked at the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., a decent-sized paper, and 75 percent sounds about right to me.


    "Scott Baradell edits and contributes to Black Star Rising. A former newspaper journalist and executive for Belo Corp., Scott is an accomplished brand strategist who leads the Idea Grove agency. He has nearly two decades of experience working closely with professional photographers, both as a journalist and as a corporate photography buyer."


    Why aren't you just letting the comments play out without picking us off? It seems a little unethical. And it seems like you are defending both her and the Daily News. Frankly, I've never heard of a newsroom where 75% of the staff were younger than 31 years old. You missed my point, Scott.

    "But to suggest that many photographers (particularly newspaper staffers) have not gone through, and are not now going through, the kind of emotional turmoil that Heather has faced is ridiculous."

    Emotional turmoil? Good god.

    I never said that. YOU JUST MADE A LEAPING INFERENCE (to the entire quote). Hell, it's not even an inference. I was referring to one person: Ms. Hughes. That was clear in my printed words.

    This is HER column, not yours. I got it the first time around, Scott, just in case you can't read into the deep sarcasm of my words.

    Ms. Hughes is speaking VERY broadly about the entire photojournalist stratosphere, when, in fact, the horizons are much, much broader than shooting weddings. Photojournalists have a lot to be depressed about these days, but SHE VOLUNTARILY QUIT A PAYING PHOTOJOURNALIST GIG. Didn't she bring some of that "emotional turmoil" on herself by quitting the paying job she had?

    And what has she really been through? I'm still trying to figure that one out.

    I think your response underscores one of my points: Your words are exemplary of the lack of experience in this column. You'd do well to do some more research and look beyond the borders of your own state, or country. (I'm an American, too.)

    And you'd do even better to not get so offended when readers (hit viewers) voice their opinions here. Isn't that why there is a comment section?

    I'm only the third commenter. And you're getting this touchy already? For someone who supposedly has nearly two decades experience in journalism, your skin sure is thin.

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