Change is a good thing. I hear that a lot, mostly from people trying to convince themselves that change is a good thing. Change is tough and seems to get harder the older I get. But as a freelance photojournalist, responsible for my own income, change is something I must embrace in order to remain competitive and keep the bills paid. In fact, we must all ask ourselves how to stay relevant at a time when amateur photographers are flooding the Web with images.
The Old Way No Longer Works
A classic career path for a photojournalist was to shoot for a school paper, intern at the local newspaper, serve some sort of apprenticeship, and, over time, build up a body of work that would motivate other publications to offer assignments. Today — with digital cameras, the Internet, and various Web sites such as Flickr all within reach of the person on the street — it is far easier for anyone to take photographs that find their way to newspapers, news channels, Web sites and other outlets, without the need to serve years as an “assistant.” Some of the most dramatic photographs taken during the terrorist bombing in London in 2005, for example, were taken with the cell phone cameras of those caught up in the blasts.
Where does this leave the professional photojournalist? Are we still having an impact on the public with repetitive images of starving babies in Africa, being held by their terminally ill mothers, while housed in a remote, dusty refugee camp? The power of such images seems to have diminished. Readers of Sunday supplements leaf through their magazines, glance at more grainy black-and-white photographs of these ongoing humanitarian issues, and hurry to find the Sudoku puzzle. What can we do to minimize the dilution of our trade by the burgeoning population of citizen journalists, while continuing to create effective awareness of world issues?
It’s Time to Embrace Photojournalism as Entertainment
Innovation comes to mind. There was a time when I would shun the term “entertainment” when used in conjunction with my work. I would prefer to think that I was evoking a strong emotion — shock, anger, sadness. But the change I have adopted is to rethink this. My aim is to educate my audience about an issue or topic that I believe needs to be highlighted. People are generally more effectively educated when the content is entertaining to them. Depending on the subject, getting a strong emotional response by delivering my content in a more entertaining way can actually be easier.
Many of the tools to do this are freely available to photographers to experiment with. I can create free slideshows at www.slide.com , add music, edit the theme, and host them on free sites such as MySpace, Facebook, TypePad, Blogger, or my own Web site. Audiences expect to have information delivered to them in a format that requires little effort to absorb. Video and slideshows are a great example of such a format.
Many companies are using these capabilities to deliver their marketing messages, news stories, public relations information and advertising to a rapidly growing Internet-based audience. Now is the time for more photojournalists to embrace this trend and carve out our own corner of this unique delivery mechanism to effectively tell visual stories that can have a significant and positive impact on the lives of others.
How does this benefit me? It helps to drive more traffic to my Web site, more inquiries to my photo agency, and more assignments my way. It extends an awareness of my work to a wider audience, not through marketing, although, indirectly, that is what it is, but through that same entertainment approach.
Creative Storytelling Is More Important Than Ever
Entertaining audiences isn’t just about using the latest tools, however. You must also be more creative than ever in crafting storytelling approaches that will appeal to a distracted public.
Who hasn’t heard of the runaway success of the book America 24/7 ? What was appealing about this book? It gave an audience an opportunity to take a look at themselves as well as comparing their lives with those of others in the United States. Comparison is a powerful approach to the development of entertaining photojournalism.
Another example of this is the book Hungry Planet  by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. Hungry Planet takes a look at the typical weekly consumption of families all over the world, and it is fascinating. A family of six in China spends $57.27 on mostly fresh produce and meats, while a family of four in North Carolina spends $341.98 on food that is 85 percent processed and packaged. Why are comparisons important? It is human nature to be curious about how other families, other cultures, religions, teams etc. compare to what we know of ourselves.
How might comparisons be effective in a famine scenario? How could a photojournalist produce a story that creates new impact, renewed awareness of issues being faced by millions of people, and motivate audiences to take new action? Instead of considering the situation in Darfur, let’s consider the hungry in America. I am not talking about the homeless and the poor. I am thinking more about the 30,000 people in San Jose, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, who rely on daily handouts of free food to support their families, even though they work, often at two or more jobs. Within a mile or less, those who have made their fortune from the technology industry live in multi-million dollar homes and drive $100,000+ cars.
Imagine a visual comparison here — those lining up for food at the local Second Harvest compared to those who have their own private chefs at home, or eat out regularly at restaurants with month-long waiting lists for reservations.
Opportunities Are All Around You
Where do you look for such stories? They exist all around you. Photojournalists do not need to travel to Africa or the Middle East to find subject matter that needs to be brought to the attention of the public. They can make a difference right here in the USA. And by considering an entertainment approach to photojournalism projects, not only are you increasing the likelihood of having a positive impact on your subject, but you are also broadening people’s awareness of your work and skills, leading to more assignment opportunities.
Comparison, context, juxtaposition. These are all essential tools in the photojournalist’s repertoire of skills. These tools will ensure that professional photojournalists remain an elite group of visual storytellers, limited only by their own imagination.