Monday, January 01, 1996

What is a Photojournalist?

This entry was originally written in 1996. Then, I was the entire photo staff at a twice-weekly newspaper. Since then, I've worked at daily metro newspapers and won several international awards. Although my circumstances and knowledge have changed, the information presented here is still valid for new pro photojournalists.

What does it take to be a great journalist?
What is a photojournalist?
More on the photojournalist.
What makes a photojournalist different from a photographer?
Assignments and image holes.
A note on competition.
Graft and gifts.
Coverage Zones.
Personal views on the job.


I've been asked to explain photojournalism, news photography and my views on it a few times. Generally, this information is intended as an introduction for students considering a career in photojournalism or others unacquainted with this profession.

Others who consider hiring me, freelance or otherwise, may also want to know more about my philosophy and work ethic. This information should answer most of those questions as well.

This information should not be taken as absolute. It is a statement of my current OPINION about photojournalism, photojournalists, and news photographers as it applies to my present position and experience.

Note: "Photojournalist" is meant to apply to active, news/editorial photographers, whether they hold a specific degree in photojournalism or not. Terms such as "he, his," etc. are intended to be gender neutral.

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What does it take to be a great journalist?

A great journalist cares about people and an ideal world. A great journalist can approach a topic as vast as the universe and make it simple and interesting to both Einstein and the new immigrant, who is trying to learn the language.

The written word has power. With skill, reporters can expose the dark deeds of the world and bring them into the light. However, journalism is limited to non-apathetic, monolinguistic people with some time to kill and a few neurons still firing.

Enter photojournalism. It destroys almost all barriers. Justice can draw its sword in the time it takes an eye to scan an image. An image has no age, language or intelligence limits.

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What is a photojournalist?

A journalist tells stories. A photographer takes pictures of nouns (people, places and things). A photojournalist takes the best of both and locks it into the most powerful medium available - frozen images.

Photojournalists capture "verbs." This sounds simple, but a room of professional photographers was dumbfounded by this realization. Even after a full-length lecture with documentation and visual evidence, half of the photographers still had no clue what the difference was.

At the end of the presentation. One man said (he really did), "So, what's the difference between photography and photojournalism?" Luckily, two people (only two) turned to him and yelled, "Verbs!"

Although photojournalists can take properly exposed and well composed photographs all day long, they hunt verbs. They hunt them, shoot them and show them to their readers. Then, they hunt more.

A photojournalist has thousands of pairs of eyes looking over his shoulder constantly. The readers are insistent: "What are they doing?" "What did you see?" and "What happened?".

The readers wake PJs up at night. They keep PJs awake. The eyes always want to know what they missed. Readers can't see what they missed with a noun. It works if the question is specific enough (what did the condemned building look like?), but most answers require verbs.

To tell a story, a sentence needs a subject, a verb and a direct object. News photos need the same construction. Photojournalists tell stories with their images. Also, words are always used in conjunction with photojournalist's images.

The words below a photo are called a cutline. I write the cutlines that go with most of my images. At many newspapers, photographers provide names and nothing else. They don't write cutlines because they sometimes can't write a lead (lede) graph for a story. They also may not be able to photograph a sentence (sports being the exclusion, and there are plenty of supporting images to prove my point in this genre as well).

To be a photojournalist, we must understand the relationship between the image and these basic elements of language (all languages - worldwide).

     The girl hits (or misses) the ball. There are no other options.

The girl is easy to photograph. The ball is easy to photograph. The verb is the hard part.

As a servant of the citizens, it's the photojournalist's OBLIGATION to capture the entire sentence involved in EVERY event. There are no excuses. It's hit or missed. Some photographers don't care. They have a picture of the bat. "Hey, that's what tried to hit the ball." They just don't get it.

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More on the photojournalist

A photojournalist is a visual reporter of facts. The public places trust in its reporters to tell the truth. The same trust is extended to photojournalists as visual reporters.

This responsibility is paramount to a photojournalist. At all times, we have many thousands of people seeing through our eyes and expecting to see the truth. Most people immediately understand an image.

In today's world of grocery store tabloids and digital manipulation of images, the photojournalist must still tell the truth. The photojournalist constantly hunts for the images (or verbs), which tell of the day-to-day struggles and accomplishments of his community. These occurrences happen naturally. There is no need to "set up" reality. There is no need to lie to a community that bestows its trust. In a nutshell:   If a photojournalist isn't going to fake a fire or a street stabbing scene, why would he set up "person A" giving "person B" an object (award, check, trophy etc.)?

The photojournalist simply wants to hang around, be forgotten and wait for the right moment. Then, the hunt begins anew.

Like the police officer or firefighter, the photojournalist's concern is his community even if that means sacrificing comfort or life. Many photojournalists die every year in the process of collecting visual information, which lets the public know of atrocities, dangers and the mundane.

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What makes a photojournalist different from a photographer?

Photographers take pictures of nouns (people, places and things). Photojournalists shoot action verbs ("kicks," "explodes," "cries," etc.). Photojournalists do shoot some nouns. These nouns can be standard photos of people (portraits), places (proposed zoning areas or construction sites) and things (name it). However, the nouns we seek still must tell a story.

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Assignments and image holes

Reporters and editors should know how I work (ie: no set-ups, no nouns, no male bovine excrement). I have "holes" to fill each day. I track events in our community and anticipate what our readers expect to see.

As a general rule, many daily newspapers expect three Page 1 news images, and one to four inside B&W news/business images, as well as two to nine Lifestyles images, and two to five Sports images. Metro papers expect more and have additional sections.

Assignments are honored on a first-come basis with exceptions. Once a section has its initial image quota, priority shifts to another section until each section is "safe." Then additional images are collected for future issues.

Primarily, editorial news judgment is applied to image priority (murder is more important than other planned occurrences). However, unlike text-based reporters, visual reporters must be on location when events occur. Therefore, events with flexible times fall lower on a fixed priority scale, but have a greater overall editorial priority (and may bump other items under time restrictions).

Additionally, anything with front page potential usually has priority over section front and inside images.

Since this is a newspaper, here is the loose shooting priority:
Breaking news (murders, hostages, natural disasters, major wrecks, etc.)
General news (funerals, courts, perp walks, dignitary visits, etc.)
Photo essays
Major feature events
Sporting events
Educational events
Feature photos
Advertising (non-spec.)
Mug shots
Spec. items
"Photo ops" and other garbage to make a singular reader happy

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A note on competition

Most photojournalists succumb to the vanity and competitive nature of contests. Unlike other journalism competitions, which separate stories by circulation, most photojournalists and photographers compete head-to-head with their best images. The winner takes all.

Consequently, additional enthusiasm and effort goes toward potentially competitive images more than non-competitive images.

The following items are generally non-competitive: set ups ("grip & grins"), mug shots, lecturers ("talking heads"), building exteriors, theater performers/performances, advertising and product shots.

These are the monthly National Press Photographers Association categories:
spot news
general news
sports(action and feature)
feature-multiple (photo essay)
illustration (judged quarterly)

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Graft and gifts

All a photojournalist should require is unlimited access and documents. As the citizen's servant, a photojournalist can't accept anything other than water and an occasional cup of coffee during halftime of the sub-zero championship football game in the rain ("Why isn't this snow?"). If the photojournalist accepts gifts - any gifts - the photojournalist is perceived as corrupt and perpetuates the myth about the "evil media."

Consequently, everyone immediately offers them gifts and favors. Which PJs kindly turn down, and which, upon arrival at the newsroom, get chewed out for "not eating the old lady's darn cookie."

Personally, I'll use event passes on days off since my presence costs nothing additional to the host. The organizer often makes money from my purchases and still may get into the newspaper because I bring my camera.

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Coverage Zones

In newspapers, there are coverage zones. Larger papers have larger pieces of turf. This zone is created by physical circulation geography, area of influence upon the circulation area and predominant interests of the area.

Outside of this area, the story must warrant leaving the community unattended by the photojournalist should breaking news occur. Traditionally, assigned events outside the circulation zone have included: spot news, general news (funerals, court cases, etc...), portions of photo essays, championship-level sporting events, and large events (fairs, festivals, and exhibitions) with an expected participation or spectator draw from the circulation area.

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Personal views on the job

This is not a "glam" job. A photojournalist is a servant (like a waitress or a sanitation worker). They're expected to be on the job around the clock to serve the public.

News never stops. Again, NEWS NEVER STOPS. You sleep when you can. You eat when you're done. You're never really off the clock.

Photojournalists are role models. They don't want to be, but they are.

At a mid-sized or small newspaper, a photojournalist can't have a night on the town and neglect his or her city. Everyone from the little tykes to the senior citizens, from the street people to the debutantes, knows the photojournalist. The photojournalist is the visible portion of the newspaper.

Reporters can handle everything by phone. Editors can stay in their office and never talk to a soul. Press operators and graphic artists can go strait to the bar after work if they choose. However, the photojournalist must crawl through barnyard dung for one shoot and arrive at the annual celebrity gala an hour later.

I love this city and the people who make it the wonderful place it is. For the most part: houses don't catch fire, everyone looks out for each other, nobody goes to bed hungry, kids go to college and become CEOs (or photojournalists - that's a long, bizarre story), the arts flourish, the city leaders are respected, and red-light running is the biggest crime.

I love my job. No job is more cool.

Enough for now,

To continue reading about the job of a photojournalist, please visit the All PJ-related posts section. Educators may be interested in this Primary education lesson plan.