Monday, May 22, 2006

Todd Heisler interview Part A

Please read Todd Heisler's brief biography.

What general advice do you have for young photojournalists?

I didn't go to a photo school. I was very lost and had to feel [my] way through it. It's pretty hard when you don't have a program like Western [Kentucky] or OU behind you to push you along, and tell you who to talk to, and tell you what to ask. You have to feel your way through it when you start.

First and foremost, learn to do the small things well. Don't look at any assignment and say it's too small or it's insignificant.

One thing that stuck in my head that somebody said to me early on is "every assignment is important to somebody." It doesn't matter where you are, you can make great pictures everywhere. You should just find the little stories in your community. The Pulitzer entry that I had, that's something that's happening across the country. If you meet the right people, you could do it anywhere.

Reach out. Reach out to people you respect and welcome criticism. Try to get as much input as you can - not just about your work, but where you're going, your approach, the stories you're working on, your ideas, everything. Try to talk to people and learn from the people around you too.

I learned starting out at really small papers - just kind of thrown out there - and I had to learn by watching people from the bigger papers, trying to figure out how they did things and trying to learn from my mistakes. That's key to learn from your mistakes.

Look where you succeed, but where you might fall short and see how you can improve on that.

The key for me, throughout my career and how I've come up, is to be passionate about every assignment that you get. Be passionate about the small things.

Any big story you might do is all about individuals. It's about how individuals are affected by larger issues.

Especially for young photographers - and I've found myself in this even with the Iraq War - it's an immense subject, very complex. Where I found my voice is with this project. Going back into my community and seeing how it affected them. [I was] looking at people in my community that are affected by the Iraq War. It says a lot about the larger issue.

With this project especially, we really didn't want to inject politics into it. We wanted it to be apolitical. I think if we had gone in that direction, people would have lost the idea of the story. People would have latched onto the political parts of it. I don't think that's what this is all about. This was all about individuals and how they were affected.

How should more mature photojournalists approach the market?

I think you want to seek out opportunities. The whole reason we're doing this is because we want to do the work. We want to make photographs and we want to tell stories. The best way for me was to keep shooting and find those things that I'm passionate about.

What's great about photography and photojournalism is that you don't need an assignment to get started. You don't need somebody to tell you where to go to find a story and to go do the work. If you're passionate about it, and you have something to say, then the rest will fall into place. You really need to get started at doing the work.

While you're doing that, seek out people you respect. Almost everybody that I have contacted in this business at any degree in their career has been pretty open to looking at work and wanting to talk about it and giving you feedback.

If you don't go to a school with a lot of professionals nearby, you don't have a big paper nearby, you can - especially with the Internet - you can e-mail people. You can contact people all over and see what makes them tick and try to figure out where you fall into all that. Welcome all that feedback.

How important is it to have a degree in this field?

Ed note: Todd said a college degree is required for most PJ jobs at major newspapers, however there are exceptions.
I don't have a degree in the field [of photojournalism]. I know great photographers who have biology degrees.

You need to have some sort of education so you have an understanding of the ethics of it. You have the understanding of the fundamentals of, say, working for a newspaper. There are things that you need to know about captions - just good journalism - things that go beyond just knowing how to work a camera.

So, I think you need to seek out some sort of education, whether it's going to workshops or taking classes, but you also have to be well-rounded too and be curious about other things - other subjects because that's where your ideas come from.

What's important about photojournalism and why do you do it?

I do it because I want people to notice things about their own lives and their own communities. I really do it because I want to tell stories, and I want people to notice things that are happening in the world so maybe they'll stop - it's such a fast-paced environment right now, where people are bombarded with so many images - but if I can make somebody stop for just a short time and really reflect about something, then I've done my job.

That's what keeps me going: knowing that I can make people look at an everyday thing in a different way.

How has being a photojournalist affected your life?

There's things outside photojournalism how it's affected my life. I've been able to see things that I would never be exposed to for better or worse. So, it really changes my outlook on how I look at the world.

During this project, it really changed my life. You look at the things you take for granted. Photographing a woman who just lost her husband makes me look at my relationship with my wife a lot differently. I try not to take it for granted.

This career is a real time commitment. It takes you away from your family. You don't really have a 9-to-5 job. So it can be challenging in terms of having relationships with your family. In many ways, that's made my relationship stronger.
Ed note: Todd met his wife Kelly in college. She was a journalism major and is now in public relations.
She has a better understanding of it. Although I'll admit early on, it was challenging. It really puts a strain on your relationship - especially when you're starting out because you're spending long hours at the paper, and you're trying to feel your way through it. Trying to hone your skills takes a lot of time. That can put a big strain on your relationship. Even now, I don't travel as much as some people, but I do a fair amount of traveling, and it definitely takes me away.

You have to find a way to balance your time, but also when you're in town you have to be there. That can be challenging to shut it off - to stay in two different worlds. It's like a lifestyle. It's not just a job, it consumes a big part of your life. You really have to think about it a lot.

As I become more experienced, I try to be there when I'm not working, I try to be there emotionally. I try to take a break from it. Especially doing the work I did last year, it's hard not to bring it home emotionally.

She's been great in terms of listening and talking. I tell her how I'm feeling all the time and she listens. It's not something that I can keep to myself.

Everyone has a different way of dealing with what they see. I suppose you could shut down, but I don't want to live like that.

Is there a personal toll?

Definitely. It really takes a toll.

[Photojournalism] is something that I really immerse myself into - like with that project last year. It was very emotionally draining and that doesn't go away very easily. So that's really changed me.

It's also changed the way I've looked at my own work. It's changed the way I try to approach people. I try to be more sensitive. With this job, you can't always do that, but it made me think about what my role is as a photojournalist and how much I'm taking from people because as a photojournalist you're taking something from somebody. Great photographs are a gift. So you have to be very careful what you do with them.

That's a change from your previous view on make vs. take.

Yea. I think I've changed if I look back to how I started. It's really increased my awareness of the responsibility that we have to be true to their experience and try to accurately represent people.

What are the responsibilities of a photojournalist?

Your responsibility is to tell the truth.

The truth can be hard to find at times. You and I might look at the same situation completely different, so I don't know if we can completely get to the truth. I think our responsibility is to get as close as we can.

I think our responsibility is to communicate things people don't really know about. We have to document life. We have to be a mirror for our community.

What does it take to be successful in this profession?

If you're talking technically, you have to be on top of the technology. You have to understand who your audience is.

You have to know the technology - it's changing so much right now. We're at a time of slow transition where everybody is talking about video and the Internet. Young photojournalists really need to get on that to embrace that technology and change.

Sonya Doctorian is really taking the lead with her video projects. She splits her time as projects editor/photo coach and video producer [at The Rocky Mountain News].

You don't want to be left behind. You can either let the technology dictate what your job is going to be or you can learn it and try to be at the forefront of that and you can determine what your job will be.

Look at people like David Leeson and other people who are doing such great work on the Web. They're really taking the reins. They're the ones who are pushing it in a direction as opposed to waiting for it all to happen. Then, you have to catch up and figure out where it's going to go and how you're going to work within that.

Emotionally, if your heart's not in it, if you don't feel it in your gut that you want to get up every day and do this, then maybe you shouldn't do it. It can be really challenging. Everybody has to do things that they don't like to do every day, but you also get to do a lot of things that you love to do. You should love to do it.

If you don't really feel it in your heart, it seems like it would be a waste of time.

I don't look at it as a job at all. It's a lifestyle because it consumes your life, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Look at what you get to do. You get to see things that average people don't get to see. You get to communicate what you see to the public.


You've got to care about people. You have to be pretty open-minded. I think people recognize if you don't care. You have to be conscious of what the responsibility is to the people that you're documenting.

Not a lot of people get to be in the paper. That's a big deal to people. So, like I said earlier, every assignment is important to somebody. That's a big responsibility.

That's one of many things. Everybody brings different things to the profession. There are a lot of different types of photographers, who bring different things emotionally or intellectually to the business.

For me, one of the really important things is to care about people. That's what your job is. Your job is about people. [It's] about interacting with people and documenting people's lives. I love meeting new people, I love being around people. That's really what keeps me going.

[Photojournalism] is so many different things. It depends on what publication you work at. It depends on what kind of work you're doing. It can be a force for change in the world. Things can't happen in a vacuum.

The person who I want to get to is the person who is maybe too busy. People have kids. People have things to do. That's who I want to get to. I want to get to the people who are too busy to pay attention to what's happening in the news. If I can get to them and have them look at the world in a different way, then I've been successful.


How can I get to them? Jeez. That's a tough question.

A friend of mine said to me when I first graduated college - I was working on a job as a painter and I had done this story when I was an intern about this single mom, who was putting herself through college, and I was really proud of this story that I had done.

I showed him this story - this was somebody who knew nothing about photography - and he glanced at it for a second. Then he put it down and he moved on. I was like, "Why aren't you looking at that?"

He just looked at it for a second. He said, "Well, they just look like pictures in a newspaper." That was something that really got to me. I thought, what does that mean - they just look like pictures in a newspaper - I guess they were so average that they didn't speak to him at all. They didn't even phase him. Then I thought about this woman and how important the story was to me.

So, that really challenged me as a young photographer to make pictures that go beyond pictures that look like pictures in a newspaper. To try to make photographs that make people stop - whether it's from the beauty of something or the emotion or the reality of something people had never been exposed to before.

That's challenging. You can't do that every day. You can try, but you can't do that every day, but it's something to aspire to. That was my goal from the start.

Does access have something to do with that?

Sometimes it has something to do with it. With "Final Salute" it did. We had to get access to something very, very personal. So that was access. You're showing something to people that they will probably never see.

But it isn't just about access. You can do that walking down the street every day. Look at the letters that we get at The Rocky Mountain News - not just me, but everybody - about very simple, beautiful photographs about something somewhat mundane. They drive somebody to write a letter to the paper. That's pretty special because people don't take the time to write letters. You can do that with anything.

Like the sheep photo?

I never got a letter for that photograph. (laughs)

That's the background that I came from. I worked in community newspapers, and I worked in the suburbs - really small suburbs - for years. It really opened my eyes to that when I worked at Copley. Editor Mike Davis told us, "pretend you're working for National Geographic. Photograph this community like you're doing it for National Geographic."

That opened my eyes and changed my approach. I looked at everything as significant. Every life is significant. Everything you see, just because it happens in a suburb that doesn't have a high crime rate or a lot of controversy, there's still significance there. I would love to find the beauty and significance everywhere.

Enough for now,

Please see Part B and C of this interview.

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