Sorry, But You Can’t Talk Me Out of a Future in Visual Journalism

Two years ago, as I sat on the sidelines of my very first college basketball assignment — Northwestern v. Indiana — I glanced over at the photographer sitting next to me and found myself scrambling to find words to strike up a conversation.

His press pass read “The Associated Press,” and my D90 and 18-105 mm kit lens paled in comparison to his two professional Canon cameras and fast prime lenses.

My memory of our exchange is a bit hazy now, but I recall expressing how fun I thought shooting for the AP must be.

Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a rhetorical question backfired when he shot back, “It’s not that great.”

That quickly put an end to the conversation.

Negative Vibes

My chat with the AP photographer hasn’t been my only buzz-kill encounter with professional photojournalists. Striking up friendly conversations with other photographers from large agencies, I quickly gathered that my outlook on the future of photojournalism was too optimistic for their liking.

“Learn video,” one told me.

Another, chuckling in that “life is tough” sort of way, suggested that I was sensible for also pursuing design and keeping my options open.

I don’t dismiss this kind of advice out of hand. That would be unwise. These photographers have been in the field for years, and their opinions have value. The best way to learn the business is from those who are currently experiencing the changes and the struggles.

That said, I maintain my optimism and refuse to feel discouraged.

Call me naïve, but as an aspiring visual journalist who loves photography, I refuse to believe the industry is so grim that it’s not worth pursuing.

Shifting Mindsets

I think it is largely a matter of shifting mindsets. You can no longer take a traditional approach.

Sure, you shouldn’t go into journalism or photography for the money — but that’s never been the primary reason people went into these professions. You can still find a way to make it.

My peers and fellow photographers at Northwestern have shown me that the possibilities for visual journalism are many and varied. You just have to take initiative and be creative.

Take on different assignments. Don’t limit yourself to just one publication or speciality. Explore the possibilities and pave your own road.

While I have friends who brand themselves as landscape photographers and others as portrait photographers, most of us take photo assignments from multiple publications, offer to take headshots for performing arts students and explore different opportunities.

We create our own business models, jump at every chance to expand our portfolios, and take an entrepreneurial approach to the future.

Full Speed Ahead

I am a strong believer that our society is more visual than ever. For all the discouraging blog posts out there, there are twice as many posts about new technologies that offer more opportunities for photographers than ever before.

With the rise of tablets like Apple’s iPad and high-resolution screens, online publications will feature photographs more prominently — and the color on these tablet screens is absolutely stunning. Stories will always need accompanying photographs, and some stories are simply told better with photographs.

With less than one year left in college, I am frequently asked questions about my future: What do you want to do after you graduate? Do you know where you will end up? What is your dream job?

These answers required less thought when I was five — ballerina, teacher, astronaut. Today, my answers tend to be filled with “um’s,” “I don’t knows” and long-winded explanations that last far longer than the standard elevator pitch.

But I know that I will pursue visual journalism in some shape or form, whether that be photography, design or interactive graphics. I am confident about that.

Regardless of how difficult and unpredictable the future of the industry may seem, my camera remains attached to my hip for most of the day because there is nothing like the thrill of photography for me. That’s why I choose to focus on the endless possibilities ahead.

11 Responses to “Sorry, But You Can’t Talk Me Out of a Future in Visual Journalism”

  1. I have wondered for years whether unhappy people go into journalism or if journalism makes people unhappy. But I walk into my classroom every day and look across a field of smart, bright, engaged faces and know that, regardless of what my former colleagues say and believe, there is a future in visual journalism.

    It may involve video, it may involve PR, it may involve something else. But I know that my students will figure it out. I have faith.

  2. Mark, that first sentence hits the nail on the head ... it's the classic chicken and egg, isn't it? I was a newspaper reporter for six years, then went into marketing. I became a happier person without really realizing what was happening or why. About three years after I switched professions, I was invited to a going-away party for an old friend from the newspaper who was leaving town. I brought my new girlfriend to this party, who had never met any of my old newspaper colleagues before. After we left the party, she said, "I'm really glad you're no longer doing that; I've never had so many depressing conversations in a two hour period." That doesn't mean you can't be a journalist and be happy; it just means you should never feel locked in to something that makes you unhappy. No matter the storm clouds around the profession, I have no doubt that a smart student like Emily, focusing on the big picture, will figure out a future that works for her.

  3. Hey, good post!
    My whole live I controlled my life with bad thinking and when I started dreaming about a career as an photographer I told myself that i can´t do this i won´t do that.
    I´m right now in the middle of a learning process about how much I can do without ruling it out in the first place and I´m hoping this process will never stop.

    Someone told somewhere on the interweb "Do the best you can do at what you are the most passioned about and you will find someone who will pay you for this"
    I didn´t found them jet but i´m optimistic to find them some day...

    Have A Nice Day

    P.S.: I met these people like this AP-photographer too. The don´t are passioned and something tells me they never were perhaps because if so they would have moved.

  4. Great stuff. Sums up a lot of my feelings.

  5. Hi all
    Never let anyone stop you from pursuing your dream. I'm in my second year of a photography degree and lost count of how many times I've said to my self "how can I make money at photography" I've now stopped thinking that and just started working harder and taking more pictures and slowly things are happening. So keep at it and don't listen to anyone who complains about the industry, without following your dream what else do we have in life.

  6. I am glad I am not the only one that feels this way, and I certainly think it's time to stir up the pot and find new ways to revitalize the industry.

    Martin, Adam, Marc, Scott and Mark -- It's great to hear what others have to say on the topic. Everyone has a dream or five thousand and I think it's important to never let them fade without giving them a hearty shot.

    Marc -- Keep looking, and best of luck! Journalism and photography no longer mean the standard, traditional careers we once thought of. There are so many ways to translate these fields that I certainly hope you will find a place that allows you to keep doing what you love.

  7. Great post, Emily. As you perfect your skills as a visual journalist, you might also look for ways to acquire entrepreneurship skills. Join a professional organization, read books about freelancing, visit business-oriented websites, and search out classes. You'll probably do fine if you can solve your clients' visual-communications problems and make a profit doing so. Good luck!

  8. Hey Emily, I feel the same way. I'm graduating next semester as a visual journalist and a lot of people and professional photojournalist have discouraged me but I have friends and professors that keep my hope and inspiration going strong. Its true, we do need to become versatile. So don't give up and keep on shooting. PS, I started with a D90 too, go full frame!

  9. i dont know... call me a pessimist must the industry simply doesn't pay enough. After interning forever or making very little, you finally get that big break at a major paper, which tops out at a very low level for being a professional at the "top" of the industry as a staff photographer. look around. newspapers and magazines are either consolidating into syndication or going out of business all together. The local paper here in Denver went from 2 major papers then one bought the other then combined it into one. the paper is smaller then ever and hasn't turned a profit for years. Used to be at a major even there were dozens of paid photographers now - the AP guy gets the shot and all the papers use the same image.

  10. the big difference between dreams and grubby reality is often the fact the latter needs food.
    And most newspapers aren't paying enough for food any more. Locally, one paper here pays (and gets) freelance photographs at $15, all rights. No mileage reimbursement, tax coverage, health benefits -- it's barebones basic nothing.
    And that's the way things are.

  11. Yes photo journalism for professional (making money from it) is dead for sure. But photo journalism for free is getting bigger.

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