Sunday, February 06, 2005

Rick Gershon interview - Part B

Rick Gershon is the 2004 College Photographer of the Year. Please his bio and Part A of this interview.

What have you discovered about the profession that you did not expect?
When you're in college, it's really romanticized, and you're looking at James Nachtwey and Salgado and all these guys, and you're like, ‘Oh man, this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to get out there, and I'm going to be changing the world right off the bat.’

When you first get out to the real world and that doesn't happen overnight. You're photographing pet-of-the-week for the 15th time, and you're doing snapshots, and you're shooting another softball practice or another sportrait. It's difficult not to let that get you down. It's difficult to keep sight of your vision of what you're trying to do, and what you want to accomplish, and your goals. I think that's the biggest shocker. You got to get over that. You've got to keep sight of where you're heading, not just where you are.

I don't think there's anything that I've learned that I wasn't expecting. That's what I've experienced. It's almost like a let down. It's just all up here [in your head] when you're in college. You're thinking and every day you're just sitting there, but then when you get out of college, you're making money. You can't always do the things you want to do. You can't always photograph stories on AIDS in Africa or whatever. You got to do things to pay the bills sometimes. Plus you have to do things to earn respect.

When you're starting out, you're a rookie. That's the stuff you get to photograph. So, you got to pay your dues.

Another thing I tell students, is just not to give up. If you put your mind to it and you work hard and you really apply yourself, you can do it.

The University of North Texas isn't known for producing the world's greatest photojournalists. It doesn't have the history of the University of Missouri or Western Kentucky or Rochester Institute of Technology or Ohio University or any of these big schools have these years and years and decades of tradition of producing great photojournalists. We just don't have that. We don't have the resources for that.

Over and over again, I heard from people at The Morning News say, ‘You people just aren't ready. You haven't learned enough. You're not there. You're not anywhere near where the rest of the nation is.’

Some of my professors, I won't say who, told me, ‘You might as well just quit. Just because you have good equipment doesn't mean you can take good pictures. You're not natural at this,’ and all kinds of stuff. I watched a lot of students let that stuff – they quit. They gave it up because of that.

For me, once again with my football background, I've had coaches cuss me out and push me down over and over again. It does nothing but motivate me. I tell students not to give up, and to let that stuff motivate them. Don't give up the first time they're turned down to do an assignment, or they're told their work is horrible.

You just have to persevere. That's where your character comes into play. You can't let these people get you down. You have to persevere and keep sight of where you're going. A lot of students just give up because – in college in general, not to photojournalists – they expect to have a $50,000 a year job waiting for them right when they get out of college. It's not the way it works. You really have to work hard and persevere for that stuff. It can be done.

This College Photographer of the Year thing that I won, there's no reason anyone from North Texas shouldn't be able to compete with Western Kentucky or the University of Missouri. You have to really work hard and find people to pour into you and be relentless with it.
What's the future of news photography?
I think it's going digital for sure. That's no secret. It's already happened.

The thing they kept preaching to us in college was the idea of convergence journalism where video and still and writing and all that converges, and you have online stuff. I think it's here to stay. A lot of people say, ‘TV and video is going to phase it out.’ But I don't think that at all. The power of an image can never be replaced.

That's what I love about photojournalism over video or anything else. For me, I'm not in photojournalism because I fell in love with photography per se. I enjoy photography, and I'm falling more in love with it every day, but I'm in photojournalism because of it's ability to impact people. That's purely the reason I'm in it. The ability an image has to burn into somebody's mind and to change their life. That's the power that photojournalism has. It's an extremely powerful medium when it's done right.

I don't know if there will be any huge things in the future that would change it a lot.
How important is competition in the industry?
I think competitions are really important. Cheryl Diaz Meyer told me one time that competitions are like currency in the photojournalism world. I think it's very unfortunate too. It's good, and it's bad.

If you're a photographer and you enter College Photographer of the Year and you win it, it's a great thing. Everybody knows your name. It's something you can put on your resume. You're not going to have a really tough time getting a job probably. It's going to help you a ton.

But, let's say you decided not to enter in a contest. You're the exact same photographer with the same passion with the same focus. You're just not going to have some of the same opportunities. You're just going to have to work a little harder.

Contests in the journalism world are really a huge part of it. They play a big role in it. I think it's unfortunate sometimes – as a student especially – you can start to just shoot for contests. I think that can really skew the focus of what photojournalism is all about.

It's hard – like when I was in Africa – it's difficult not to take an image hoping it would play a role in winning a contest rather than focusing on the story and trying to impact people and change people. That's something that is hard to battle in the journalism world.

I think ultimately in contest, it's the photographers that aren't shooting to win a contest that win the contest. The ones who have a passion to communicate through their images and their stories, they're the ones that win the contests.

I would tell a student, ‘Don't shoot to win a contest.’ Shoot to do great photo stories for the sake of what the point of photojournalism is and do your best to get your work out there – that's what contests do.

It helps bring attention to who you are. It helps you get a job. It helps you get your stories out there. Sometimes you can't get them picked up by publications. If you enter and win a contest, more people are probably going to see it than if it went into a publication.

I hate when [contests] overshadow everything else the rest of the time.
Why enter at all then?
It helps you to grow. Contests push you when you are competing against other photojournalists. You're competing against yourself. You're trying to better yourself. That ultimately ends up serving readers better as well. You're becoming a better photojournalist.

It's like there's never a Super Bowl or national championship, and all you're doing is playing games. You don't have anything to shoot for or to aim at, and you're not getting any better. I think they serve a great role as far as that's concerned.

It can be encouraging to you. At the same time, it can get you down if you don't win. It just helps you to grow. They can be hurtful as well is what I'm trying to say.

[The assembly process] is good too because you learn who you are as a photographer. Where you're lacking. Where you need growth. Where you need help. What you need to get mentored in and things like that.

With my stuff, I spent months and months getting that entry ready. I had the photographs laid all over the floor. I'd lay them out in the order I thought they should go in. I'd live with them for a couple of weeks like that. Then I'd change them up and live with them like that. I really learned a lot about myself as a photographer – the things that I had struggled with, and the things I needed to grow in. You learn a ton. That process is very helpful.
Talk about Africa.
I went to South Africa to do a story on AIDS orphans. The director of our graduate department was going to do a media conference there. I wanted a reason to go to South Africa to do this story. He and I worked together so I would go and be part of this one-day conference, and I stuck around for two weeks afterwards on my own.

I hooked up with a family there and stayed with them. I made some contacts and did this story on AIDS orphans. I went around to a lot of different organizations that were doing AIDS-based work.
Is it important to shoot overseas?
I wouldn't go foreign because you think you need to go foreign to have a well-rounded portfolio or to win a contest because you're not going to take great pictures overseas if you can't take them here. That's what my professors always stressed.

I was told to start telling stories here and focus on making my images the best that they could be here. When this opportunity arose, and I knew it was a story that I cared a lot about and wanted to work on, I jumped at it. It wasn't that I wasn't doing anything here so I felt like I needed to go overseas to win a contest or make my portfolio better. It did help, but I think it was the story and the way it was told that won the contest or made my portfolio better – not just that it was in Africa.

There's a lot of great stories here. In fact, I don't even think it was the best story in my portfolio. I think the best story was a local story that I did here.

You can learn a lot by doing it as a journalist, but I don't think it's a necessity. I think [students] think they they've got to go overseas to another country to get a job or whatever, but that's just not the case at all.
An initial mastery of technical skills is very important. You're not going to get a job if your pictures are out of focus, and you can't compose a picture worth a darn, and you don't know anything about light and you don't know anything about exposure. I think you get to a certain level where those things become routine and they become second nature. You don't think about them as much. They just become an extension of what you're trying to communicate.

I think that's what you should shoot to get at, but there's a period as a young photojournalist that you really have to focus on learning that stuff because it's very important.

It's like learning the rules and being able to break them. You really need to have a mastery of that stuff and then it becomes a distant second to communicating and telling a story because it should be something that is natural. Something that you're not having to think about every second every time you're shooting. It's instinctive almost.
I don't like to in my stories. If it's absolutely necessary, I will. I love to use available light because I think it's very unobtrusive and natural and factual. In a story, blowing a flash in somebody's face over and over again is not going to allow them to relax and go about [their activity]. It's not going to allow me to get the candid moments and the quiet moments that I want. So, I don't like to use it.

I do use it a lot with the daily assignments, and it's necessary to understand how to use it. If I'm working on a story and there's no light, I can walk away and say, ‘OK, I'll get a better picture tomorrow when there's some light.’ That's personal stories.

When I'm working on assignment for The News, that doesn't fly. They'll say, ‘Why didn't you use a strobe and get a picture.’ So, I need to know how to use my strobe in any situation because it's very necessary. Sometime, you just must have it.
How's the job market look for you and your peer group in general?
I would hope that it would open up some. But right now, it's a pretty small job market as far as openings for positions. [It's] economy type stuff and just the competitiveness of photojournalism.

With digital photography there's more and more “average” photographers, and there's more photographers period because it's so much easier to pick up a digital camera and learn how to photograph.

If it weren't for digital, I don't think I'd be at all where I am today. That's one thing I'd like to tell students too, if you can in any way, shape or form get a digital camera because you have instantaneous results. You can see your mistakes. You can see what you're doing. You learn exposures so much quicker.

When you shoot film, you have to either record everything or come back and try to remember what you did. [Digital photography] is instantaneous. You're learning on the spot as you're doing it. You can see a mistake. Also, you can practice all you want, and it doesn't cost a thing. You're not needing to buy rolls of film and paying $8 a roll and process everything. It's incredibly expensive just shooting.

It's incredibly competitive, and that's why it's becoming more and more important to either enter contests or get yourself out there somehow and really set yourself apart from everyone else. It could be with your work ethic or getting your work in front of people, latching on to veteran photographers or finding veteran photographers and editors that can be references for you.

I don't think the job market is going to get any better. I don't know enough about newspapers to know that.

If you want to start out making $15,000 a year and shoot 10 assignments a day at a really stinky paper – and that's not a bad way to start, a lot of really great photojournalists start that way and just work, get some experience and move up the ladder because it takes experience like that or winning really big awards to get to a bigger newspaper. But for the better papers with more veteran staff and great editors that you're going to learn a ton from, I think the job market's pretty small.

You're still going to need to get experience – bottom line. I'd rather keep trying to freelance at The Morning News while I'm learning from really great photographers and editors than go take a job in the backwoods for the next five years, where you're by yourself, and you'll get stagnant, and you're not growing. You're not in a community of photojournalists where you're learning and competing – because competition can be really healthy too - as far as competing with your peers and fellow photojournalists.

In the next five or 10 years, I'd love to take a good position at a newspaper where I'm going to learn a ton. Like if I could take a position at a newspaper with photographers that I could respect and learn from and editors that I could learn from, I'd love to work there. Otherwise, I think I'm going to continue the freelance route, and I would love to start working my way into magazines.
What are your minimum requirements?
For me, minimum requirement would be – I don't care about size, but I would like to be in a big enough town to have some opportunities to shoot some cool stuff – I just want the staff to be a staff that's focused on impacting people with their images and have a staff that I can learn from and grow from.

That's my minimum requirement. That there is an editor or editors that I feel is going to be interested in helping me grow as a photojournalist and other photographers that I can learn from and be pushed by.

[Income] is going to be different for me than for a student fresh out of college because I'm married and my wife has a really nice job. If I didn't have a successful freelance business going at all right now, and I wasn't married, I could live off Raman Noodles and whatever. I wouldn't look for money as much as I'd look for a great environment to learn in. I'd rather learn and grow and come out a more mature photojournalist than just have a better paycheck.

I really like the freelance deal that's going on. That's what I like about the magazine world. It's mostly all freelance. There's not magazine staff positions anymore. I like that aspect of it. I like you owning your images, and them just having partial use of them.
Enough for now,

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