Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A day in my life….

I was asked by a friend and colleague to write a short essay to present to a high school class about careers in photojournalism. I can't tell which was funnier, the fact she wanted me to write an essay or the fact that anyone would be telling students to go into journalism.... After I stopped laughing, I wrote this. Poor kids.

A day in my life….

So, what’s your day like? Is it the same thing every day? Do you do the same routine five days a week and live for the weekend? Do you meet the same people over and over again? In some ways, my job as a photojournalist at The Huntsville Times is like any other job. In many ways, it’s not like any other job.

It’s the constant deadline, I think, which makes my job a little different. We are a morning paper – people get the paper on their driveway before 6:00 am every morning, rain or shine. To get the newspaper on the driveway by 6:00 am, our photo deadline is about 10:00 the night before. All my work has to be finished, every day, by 10:00 pm. Also, since the website is constantly updated, editors expect photos as soon after they are shot as possible. Sometimes, I do have projects which are due a few days off but those are few and far between. I mention the importance of deadlines because you just don’t have time to redo a photo or go back and wait for better light. You have to get the photo and make deadline. If you can’t do this, you won’t be working at a newspaper more than a day.

This deadline seems intimidating to some, but to me it’s more like a heartbeat to me. You finish your photos, edit them, format them for the different computer systems, write the captions, and upload them. Every few minutes a deadline passes for a different section of the paper. By the time the paper is out, the next deadline is already on its way. After a while, there is a certain routine. Like I said, it’s like a heartbeat. Some days, days full of breaking news – murders, accidents and weather, it seems the heartbeat is fast. Some days, like waiting for a trial outcome, it can seem like the heart is hardly beating. But, once the deadline passes you start all over again for the next day.

So, what is a typical day like at The Huntsville Times? I usually get 2-3 assignments when I get to the paper. One might be to photograph a portrait of a doctor at the hospital. The next might be a politician campaigning in a neighborhood. And the third could be a baseball game or a track meet. At any time during my shift I am on call for spot news, which could be anything from a car accident, a shooting or even a bank robbery. Sometimes, I think of my job is very much like a nurse, a paramedic, or a firefighter when the unexpected pops up in my day.

We have seven photographers at The Huntsville Times. We all rotate through different work shifts a day shift, night shift, and weekend shifts. We also travel to cover different events like college football, rocket launches, and political campaigns. In Huntsville, the U.S. Army and NASA have a huge impact on the community. We often have assignments on the army base and different NASA projects. I have met more generals and astronauts than I can count, some really cool and some not-so-cool.

It’s the unexpected which makes my job as a photojournalist such a great job. Its one thing to come away from a planned event with a nice image but it’s a different game to get a good image from a breaking news scene. It’s important to have the skills and be able to “see” for both situations. In a planned event you have to deal with lighting, the subject, and the location. In a news event, everything is fluid and changing by the second. You have to think on your feet and get the photos quickly because the news might be over before you can say “click”. But, I think, a good breaking news photos is one of the most rewarding things in my career.

As a photojournalist, it’s important to remember you are a journalist as well as a photographer. You are using your images to tell the story, whatever the story may be. Whether you need to get one image to tell the story or a handful of photos to cover an event, you are telling a story. The magic of photojournalism is when your photographs become something more than just a picture. If you look at photographers like Robert Frank or Walker Evans you can see how their work, documentary photojournalism, is now seen as art. Take some time to look at the photographs of Robert Doisneau and see how he captures the moment. Or, look at the work of Annie Leibovitz, when she was working at The Rolling Stone and even her later work. In her portraits she can show the essence of the person in one image. It all comes back to using photographs to tell the story, that’s the essence of a photojournalist.

As for a typical day as a photojournalist, I’m not sure there is one. It’s also what I like most about the job. I’m never sure what I’m going to be doing from one day to the next. Most days, it is the usual: mug shots, press conferences, or high school sports. The trick is to try and make the everyday interesting. If you have to shoot the corporate executive for the 100th time, try and use lighting to make it interesting. If the assignment is a baseball player, try and use a different angle or a different lens to capture the moment. If it’s a mug shot – well, mug shots are mug shots. On some days - every now and then - you get the tornado, plane crash, or even a Shuttle launch. Those are the days that make all the mug shots worthwhile.

If there is one key – after you’ve mastered lighting, equipment, and Photoshop – to being a good photojournalist is to remember it’s about the person. It’s people and their stories that make photojournalism special and different from any other kind of photography. If you can connect with your subject and learn a little something about them or their life, if you can get them to let you in, that’s where you will find the compelling images. It’s also where you’ll find the stories. Once you use your photo skills find compelling images and use them to tell a story, you’ll be a photojournalist. If you can find an outlet for these stories, you’ll be a photojournalist with food in your belly.

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