Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Read the Big Picture interview

Dennis Dunleavy is an assistant professor of visual communication, digital technology, rhetorical and semiotic analysis of images at San Jose State University. He and I had an e-mail interview. He posted this interview on his blog, The Big Picture, as well.

How long have you been a photojournalist?

I've been a professional photojournalist slightly more than a decade (full-time since 1995).

What should photojournalism teachers teach photojournalism students?

1)   Give students a solid background is photography. If students don't know proper exposure, focus, timing and lighting techniques as well as digital pre-press workflow, they'll be crushed like little bugs.

2)   Teach them to understand compositional rules before allowing students to break them. If the student cannot defend the decision, it's not valid. Of particular interest are clean backgrounds, entry points, eye flow, layers, juxtaposition, and framing.

3)   Teach them to write great, bulletproof cutlines. Photojournalists must be able to manage two complete, accurate sentences. It's best if they know how to write complete news and feature stories to accompany their images (especially magazine photojournalists).

4)   Almost all photojournalists have difficulties with the business side of this profession. From seasoned pros down to high schoolers, few understand how to maximize potential income from their talents.

I think part of this problem stems from the art side of our profession. The other part relates to apathy or ignorance about the realities photojournalism students face upon graduation.

Many universities are happy to teach business administrators how to generate and maximize profit while minimizing expenses, but absolutely refuse to teach this simple principle to photojournalism students. It sets them up for almost certain failure against adequately prepared competitors.

The old paradigm of steady jobs at stable newspapers no longer applies. The vast majority of recently-graduated photojournalism students become freelancers. If they know how to run a business as well as make solid images, they might survive. If they can't do either, they will fail.

Personally, I would favor making income part of the course grade or at least a means of gaining extra points. Many photojournalists have high GPAs. However, they do not focus on generating income while in college because it's not part of the curriculum. Give them one extra bonus point toward their final grade for each $100 earned via photography during the semester.

I thoroughly believe a student who generates $9,000 through photography in one semester deserves an "A" because the student obviously learned a great deal about photography, photojournalism, business and the industry.

5)   Time and space restrictions have made photo stories and essays in many newspapers almost obsolete. However, even though these are a minor part of the day-to-day existence of most working photojournalists, it's an important part of landing a staff job.

Photojournalists are expected to have five to 10 strong stories in their portfolio. Students should understand what they are, how they are coordinated and shot as well as how they are arranged.

I'm acutely aware of this as my current portfolio is lacking in this regard and my old photo stories are not up to my current standard.

What do young photojournalists need to know about breaking into this highly
competitive field?

Be trustworthy, curious, honest, dependable, accurate, friendly, open-minded, unassuming and smile a lot. These aren't the first things most consider, but they are the pillars of the profession.

Beyond this, young photojournalists need talent, tenacity and endurance. Although few professions are waiting on students to fill open positions, this industry reserves no slots for most new grads. They are immediately thrown into an empty ocean. If they can swim to safety, fine. If not, nobody loses sleep.

Currently, new graduates compete for jobs against experienced pros with many years of experience and an armload of professional awards. Mediocre pro photojournalists have already surrendered and quit.

However, quality internships give young photojournalists an edge. Some newspapers offer staff jobs to retain gifted interns upon completion, but it's entirely dependent on the market conditions and staff level on the day of internship completion.

New grads should expect 20-hour days and six-day work weeks. They should expect to augment freelance income with other, less-desirable camera work. They should be prepared to be innovative entrepreneurs of visual services.

They should know media law (access and obligations) as it applies to the profession.

They should also know how image ownership and contract negotiations work.

Finally, they must own and be completely competent with the proper equipment before being thrown into the shark pool. Digital convergence happened long ago.

Do you have photojournalists that have influenced your work and style?

This should be an easy question, but it's not. I differentiate images by genre. I see images as either sacrosanct news/sports/features/stories/nature (verbs) or creative illustrations/studio/portraits/art (nouns). The two are completely different, but photojournalists are called upon to create both.

I'm not strongly influenced by the traditional masters of photography. Most of my influences are contemporary. Obviously my strongest influences are my former co-workers at The Dallas Morning News. Most of them are part of the modern photojournalism landscape. Others are seriously underappreciated (particularly Jim Mahoney and Richard Michael Pruitt).

I additionally love the work of James Nachtwey, Carol Guzy, Carolyn Cole and Ami Vitale.

I prefer highly technical and sophisticated images of living creatures where split-second timing often plays a major role. I appreciate the photographic foundation, logistics, access and thought behind the image as much as the final image itself.

Aside from traditional news photojournalism, I'm also influenced by unexpected sources such as music videos, movies, music album covers (Pink Floyd rocks) as well as some commercial photographers, blog photographers and other modern visual works. Many techniques from these sources can be applied to various aspects of photojournalism.

What does it mean to have a photojournalistic style?

By definition, photojournalism is the act of reporting news stories through the use of factual photography with supporting text (cutlines). In the old days, it meant “f/8 and be there” with a notebook. Although this is still a major factor, it has been refined and stylized since then.

In its most simple form, photojournalism tells stories. I prefer to describe photojournalism as the difference between nouns and verbs. Photographs show nouns (people, places and things). Photojournalism is about the actions (verbs) surrounding those nouns. Because photojournalism requires cutlines, images must contain a verb otherwise cutlines as well as the images are passive.

I'd further suggest most photojournalism is about the human condition. Photojournalists capture the emotions and the essence of life. It's a generally non-intrusive look at what people do and their reactions to their surroundings and circumstances. This takes time, patience and some degree of stealth.

Although some might contend the hardware creates the style (particularly 35mm format and wide-angle lenses), I believe it's the approach.

What do you enjoy about blogging?

Humans are capable of learning through shared information and the successes or failures of others. We need not dip our hand into a vat of molten steel to understand the consequence. This is what blogging is to me.

Blogs allow us to describe and debate successes and mistakes. The knowledge shared through blogs propels us forward without redundancy. We aren't required to make mistakes if we have plans for success.

I understand the scientific process requires confirmation of theory. After a thousand people say, “Don't do it dude” on blogs, veracity is fairly well established. The learning process and humankind's accumulated wealth of knowledge is accelerated.

Hyperlinks allow immediate continuation of research and confirmation of theory. The constant threat of, “I'm going to fact-check your butt,” keeps it honest. Omissions of fact are discovered and corrections are immediate.

At the same time, it's a historical record of this same progress.

Barring a huge electromagnetic pulse or asteroid collision, our generation has the opportunity to leave a valid legacy of information upon which the next generation can rapidly build.

Are your peers supportive of you and blogging?

Photojournalists support other photojournalists. We are fierce competitors until deadline, but we are a small supportive family once the papers are put to bed.

Several of my peers don't fully understand what a blog is. This isn't a disparagement against them, it's a reality of the busy and chaotic lifestyle of most working photojournalists. They barely have time to research and arrange the logistics of most daily shoots. After the day is done, they attend to their families, work on side projects (photographic or otherwise) and continue their professional education with any remaining time.

Most understand the basic premise of blogs. Some view them as diaries or message boards and others see them as a way to display extra images. Very few see them as a different form of communication and a potential revenue source to advance our cause.

I see them as a means of independence for future photojournalists. With a blog, a photojournalist (or two reporters and a photojournalist) can perform the same mission as a small-town newspaper without many of the overhead expenses.

Obviously, the goal is not to crush small-town newspapers. The goal is to provide this service where no such service currently exists.

A legitimate blog creates an outlet of acquired information (visual, text, audio and multi-media) from diverse sources. As soon as advertisers can understand this reality, photojournalists could easily make an independent living doing what they are driven to do without being beholden to others.

Staff photojournalists could augment their income to finance large personal projects or upgrade equipment to supply newspaper and blog readers with higher quality images. Would staffers serve a newspaper's readers better if they could afford small motor homes with satellite uplinks to transmit breaking news? You bet they would.

Is this a threat to the newspaper? No. It's a benefit.

I'll use my blog as an example of this model and then expand. XYZ Camera Corporation could easily spend $3k per month and place a small ad on my photojournalism-related blog. Readers of my blog are interested in camera products.

Does this mean I'm promoting their product? No. It only means I'm allowing the company to lease space on my blog - the same way they lease time on RTV networks or space in print publications.

Does this mean I'm taking money from these other outlets? No. It means I'm providing a way for product manufacturers to disperse their message and reach a highly specialized audience.

Three such ads per month (camera, lighting and computer manufacturers) would allow me sufficient income and time to research and write my entries as well as acquire meaningful images for my readers (instead of shooting weddings for example). These images could also translate into future stock sales to finance larger projects or secure a stable retirement.

Am I willing to lease space for fractions of a penny or some pay-per-click arrangement? Absolutely not. I need a predictable income to concern myself with content instead of existence. The advertisers' front-end investment in my content creates potential back-end sales of their products to readers of my blog. However, their sales are entirely up to the quality of their product - not my endorsement.

Now, let's broaden this theory to new photojournalism graduates. Realistically, they could move to any rural location of their pleasing. In this location, they could quickly and easily visit the monthly chamber of commerce meeting and acquire local ads to support their local reportage of significant community events. Possibly they would need to get $99.98 for daily ads from local restaurants, CPAs, insurance agents, etc. instead of monthly ads I would consider. However, these local ads would be acted upon by the blog's local readers.

Again, did this affect the large media corporations? No. These local ads wouldn't have been placed in large metro newspaper and certainly not on the TV or radio stations. However, the photojournalist, the community and the advertisers all benefit from this arrangement.

If anything, it might save us all from unwanted junk mail or silly brochures on our cars and doorknobs.

I believe when my peers realize this potential, they would be far more supportive of blogs.

Where are we headed as a field?

It's a rough call. Between the former newspaper wars, recent corporate mergers and loss of classified ad revenue to Internet outlets as well as the rising cost of raw materials (primarily paper), the industry has been hit hard in the last two decades.

I'll start with traditional still photojournalists and work my way to cross-platform visual journalists.

Community newspapers (small circulation and semi-weeklies) will continue to be the primary entry point (both as freelancers and staff) for most young photojournalists. The starting annual salary range is in the high teens to the low twenties. These outlets allow photojournalists to hone their craft. Those who excel and win multiple awards could be recruited by larger newspapers. Those who languish will realize there are easier ways to make a living.

Many small magazines lean too heavily on corporate hand-out art and pre-packaged clip art in my opinion. This is great for public relations firms, commercial photographers and clip-art stock photo producers, but not good for working photojournalists nor particularly good for the magazine's readers. However, if the magazines continue to sell, this process will continue because there's no incentive to risk a successful production model.

Large magazines with high visual standards also appear to feel the crush of the marketplace. However, they understand the visual aspect of the medium is the driving force behind their sales and reputation. These magazines typically contract with VII, Magnum and the other visual freelance agency power-houses. There are few opportunities for new talent to get a foot in the door other than through incredibly compelling and unique breaking news images.

In the last few years, there has been a fusion of corporate structure between sections of media companies. Large corporations with both newspaper and television outlets have started to use their total workforce to augment each other's content. Although this is helpful to consumers in many ways, I can see future problems.

The history of newspapers is unregulated and adversarial. The history of television (RTV) is regulated and entertainment-based. For brevity, I'll defer the significance of these facts to media instructors.

When the two houses are deeply integrated, it opens a door for newspapers to become regulated through their ties to RTV outlets. Because television is regulated and subject to governmental fines, these aggregate media structures could conceivably be fined for the legitimate work of newspaper reporters while it would be laughable if the two divisions were held separate.

Many organizations use unregulated interactive (Web) and cable divisions as go-betweens. Both RTV and newspaper staff feed into the interactive division. This adds a layer of security between the regulated and unregulated sides of the house.

This structure foretells the future for many photojournalists. In the near future, it's very likely photojournalists will use lightweight digital video/still cameras with onboard cellular or satellite transmission capabilities to visually report from the scene to newspaper, Internet and television outlets.

Although these functions would be primarily behind the camera, it might be logical for some particularly attractive photojournalists to additionally concentrate on writing, speech and makeup.

Enough for now,

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