Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Keep your focus

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

A runner sprints toward the finish of the 5K Run In The Dark at Bear Creek Park in Keller on Saturday, August 23, 2003. Proceeds from the event provide school supplies and medical services to disadvantaged students.

A lot of photographers can lose focus and take positions as writers, designers and any number of other (higher paying) jobs. Some people take "any" job at a newspaper in hopes of getting a foot in the door. It does help, but it might be the wrong foot. I caution PJs against taking different news-related jobs.

A PJ does much better taking a PJ job at a smaller publication and honing her/his skills as a PJ rather than taking an unrelated job at a larger paper. Each job at a newspaper has a learning curve and demands total attention for competency.

If a photographer overstretches her/his time, something eventually breaks. PJs make photographs. They're out in the real world. The rest of the office sedentarily sits in the office and works. Occasionally they get some coffee in the break room, but breaking news is unlikely to happen in the newsroom itself.

Some might think it's best to be available for breaking news. According to this theory, being available is as good as getting the assignment. This would be possible if one isn't doing anything else. However, if a person becomes a writer, they can't drop the deadlined city zoning story to photograph a fire. Or, if they do, they'll be expected to write about the fire instead of photographing it.

The really ambitious person might even think they can cover an event and photograph it at the same time. This is also unreasonable. It's like attempting to videotape and photograph the same event. One person can only do one thing at a time. I've tried to do both. Both suffer. Yes, a feature story can be done along with a portrait, but deadline breaking news is an entirely different game. PJs are lucky if they have time to write decent cutlines before time is up. Off to press everything goes.

If someone wants to be a news photographer or PJ, priorities must be set. Photography is time intensive. Writing is time intensive. Editing is time intensive. Color correction is a time vacuum. Eventually, the two jobs clash (particularly during Friday night football). One wins, and one loses. The biggest loser is the person who lets someone down.

Currently, I'm reading one of the Writer's Digest marketing books for novels and short stories. An interesting passage stopped me and made me think hard about what I'm considering. In an interview, author T.C. Boyle said the biggest problem for those who want to enter a field is to try without first immersing themselves in the field.

This is true. As a PJ, I can easily rattle off the names of 50 other news photographers whose work I admire. Some of them I know personally. Some I do not. However, I'm familiar with their work. I can dissect their work and explain why I like it. I can also rip apart a bad example and not feel bad about it.

Similarly, if I get a critique of my work from another pro, I can handle it because I understand the critique is about the work - not about me as a person. This is how we become better.

Personally, I know backgrounds in my images can get a little cluttered. I also know I don't layer my images as much as I should. These are issues I'm dealing with each time I shoot. If I wasn't shooting every day, I wouldn't concentrate on repairing these problems in my vision. Instead, I'd worry about the basics.

In writing, I face similar problems. I'm a professional writer in that my stories could be published in the newspaper after they've been beaten into shape by a talented copy editor. This doesn't mean someone should beg me to write for them. It merely means they publish a story if it meets minimum standards. I'm still paid for making images, not my stories.

Writers bump into the same problem if they try to shoot their own photos. Yes, we publish a photo related to a story by one of our writers as long as the basics are sound.

Does this mean the image is as cool as a staff photographer might have done? I doubt it. But, there are some writers with good eyes. They still get their paycheck. It still rewards them for writing. They just get a feeling of satisfaction from having done something extra.

As I consider writing some freelance short stories for publication, I understand I'm not a pro novelist. I can promise illustration photos for my stories will be better than those shot by most other writers, but my story better have its own merits or there is no publication willing to touch it.

In the meantime, I'll keep my focus on my camera. I'll read about writing and write about reading, but I know I'm best at shooting because I do it every day. If someone is considering taking a job as a writer to be a photographer, think hard about the consequences. Each job is a matter of experience and immersion.

Enough for now,

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