Saturday, February 05, 2005

Rick Gershon interview - Part A

Rick Gershon is the 2004 College Photographer of the Year. You can read his bio here.

How do you view yourself professionally?
I have to go back and explain why I got into photojournalism to explain that question properly. During college, and before I got into photojournalism at all, I did about four years of youth ministry internships.

Youth ministry was really my passion – working with troubled youths and mentoring youth and helping them. I spent about a year where I lived in a youth ministry building with three other guys, and we were there 24/7 for kids.

That was my passion, and it still is my passion. I see my photography as a ministry. My main passion is to impact and change lives.

As far as news photography on a daily basis, I do it to pay the bills. I enjoy it, and it's really exciting, and I like it. It's a heck of a day job to be doing different assignments every single day. But ultimately to me, the types of stories I choose to do are stories that will impact people's lives and are specifically geared toward youth.

I'm a concerned photojournalist with a desire to impact people, more than just a news photographer.
Then define photojournalism.
Photojournalism is using photographs to tell a story or to communicate. Cutlines play a role, but I think the main focus is the image has to speak on its own. The cutlines definitely clarifies what's going on in the image. They're very helpful so you don't read it the wrong way.

Photojournalism is based upon documentary photography, and that's what I love about it. It's recording and documenting history and documenting people's lives. [It's] telling stories through images in a factual way.
How important was your education to your career and why?
My education was huge to my career because I didn't even pick up a camera until my sophomore year of college, which was four years ago. Everything I know about photojournalism is from my education at North Texas. I didn't have a desire for it in high school or anything. I never even had an instamatic camera. I didn't care.

I had my desire to impact and the passion part down for what I wanted to do with my life. But, as far as the craft and the ability to tell stories with the camera, all that is my education. I credit most of that education to the adjunct professors that I had that were Dallas Morning News staff that taught at North Texas University.

There was John Davidson, William Snyder and Mona Reeder. I did a mentorship with Louis DeLuca and that was pretty awesome. I owe everything I know photographically to that for sure.

The basics of the camera, the basics of exposure – I took that upon myself to learn because the classes I took were a little more advanced than that. But as far as story telling, I owe most of that to them.

When I started becoming interested in photography I grabbed everything I could that had to do with photography and read it. Every magazine, Outdoor Photographer, PhotoGraphic, whatever, I picked up every magazine I read everything. I was extremely forced at it. It would be like me trying to go do synchronized swimming. I don't have a clue how to synchronized swim. I didn't have a clue how to use a camera. So I thought, ‘I better learn this.’

I read everything I could read, I spent hours in Barnes & Noble's reading stuff. Also, I found whoever I could that knew how to use a camera and had them teach me everything I needed to do with it.

That's one of the largest ways I learned, is by having a mentor. I had several. I'd go from one to another. I'd learn all there was to learn from that person and then move on to the next person. I'd just follow them around and watch them and observe the way they shot and what they did, and I'd ask them every question under the sun. That's what I mean by I self-taught myself.

Once I got that stuff down, then I was able to learn from The Dallas Morning News people because my classes were not good on the basics, they were much more conceptual.
Ride alongs?
I did a few with a couple of people. I spent about six months with Louis going to every assignment he had. That was huge. That was really big for me. I had a free credit, so I did a “special problems” class. It was a mentorship with him.

I learned a ton that way because you really see how veteran photojournalists go about solving problems. A huge part of the job is solving problems on a daily basis and getting the job done. He does an incredible job of seeing differently and his stuff's amazing. I learned a ton that way.
Define problem solving
As a news photographer, specifically for a newspaper, I think you run into huge problems because you could be thrust into a situation that's a horrible situation photographically, you don't have a lot of time. You don't have the time to gain the trust or respect of your subjects in order to have them be unguarded. A lot of times you go into these horrible lighting situations, short on time and come out with a great picture to run in a newspaper like The Dallas Morning News. There's so many different things you come across.

That's what I learned from following him around: how to make good images out of stinky situations.

That's true especially for freelance. Ninety percent of the stuff I shoot is horrible situations as far as photographically.
What do you wish you had learned in college?
I wish that I would have known more about the internship process and job process and more about the differences in going the newspaper route and the magazine route. If you want to go the magazine route, how do you get into it? I didn't learn a lot of that stuff. Job basics 101 I guess. I just don't know. I didn't learn a ton of that stuff.

I learned a ton about telling stories and what makes an image good and developing a portfolio. About editing stories and things like that. But as far as how to go about getting a job or breaking into magazines or things like that. I don't know how much you can learn about things like that, but maybe if I had learned a little bit more about that, it would have been nice.

Everything I've learned about that, I'm kind of winging it.
Newspaper or magazine?
I don't know. For what I want to do, it's tough for me to decide right now. I'd love to do magazine stuff. I like newspaper stuff. I don't know. We'll see. I like to do really in-depth, long-term projects.

I don't think it really matters to me how I pay the bills either way. I'm going to have to do those stories on my own most of the time. I would love for somebody to call up and say, ‘We want you to take six months in South Africa. We have an unlimited budget,’ which is not even realistic.

I'd love to try to break into magazine work. I applied for the National Geographic internship – that would be awesome.
Not any with any publications. I did some with individuals. I did one with a professional sports photographer, a PR guy and then I did the mentorship with Louis.
Is it good or bad to not do internships?
If you're going the traditional newspaper route, it's a bad thing. A lot of the things that people look for is those internships on your resume – and you can learn a ton. I feel like there's stuff that I've learned at The Dallas Morning News that's very comparable to it. I've learned so much being around there and freelancing for the last year. I don't know what I could learn outside of that.

I think I've missed out by not having internships with other newspapers. It wasn't something that I even thought about really because I was so new to it all. I was trying to learn everything I could.

Last summer, instead of applying for a ton of internships, I decided to go to Africa and do the story that I did there on AIDS orphans.
What advice do you have for young photojournalists?
I would say two things. One, I would find the best photographer around and I'd latch onto him. I'd learn from him. I'd get a mentor because that's huge. Have somebody who's pushing you, challenging you that will critique your work honestly, that will be hard on you but will encourage you at the same time. That's what I've had with Louis and Mona Reeder.

You have to have that. You can't do it on your own. I think you need someone like that to mentor you.

Two, look at other people's work 24/7. Get photo books and just study them. You don't even have to buy them. You can go on the internet most of the time and see all the photos.

Look at other people's work and study it. Try to put yourself in their situation. How would you photograph in that situation? How did they look at the elements of composition and light? How did they want to tell a story. How they used their images to do that. That's one of the biggest ways in which I've learned. Those are the two ways I learned.

My classes were good, but I really only had two classes in photojournalism, and they were with those professors I told you. Everything else was looking at other people's work and latching on with another photographer and following him around.

Shoot like crazy. Just go shoot everything and anything. Shoot and have somebody review your work so you can get better at it. Go work on the things that you struggle with. I don't think college photographers shoot enough.

It takes burning a ton of frames. I heard some sick quote the other day about Eugene Smith and how many frames he burned in a certain amount of time. It was an ungodly amount of pictures he took.

When you look at his stories, the story is 10 or 15 pictures. It makes it look easy, but when you think about how many frames he burned to get to that point – not just useless frame burning, but taking photographs, bringing them back, having somebody critique them and learn from the mistakes.

You learn from getting out there and trying things and messing up and making mistakes.

Shoot more, because a lot of college kids kind of waste their time until the end of their senior year when they're about to graduate [and then think], ‘Oh man. I don't have a portfolio that I can do anything with because I've been goofing off all through college instead of taking the time to...’ See, college is the best time. You can use the ‘I'm a student’ phrase for anything, and you can get help.

Since I'm out of college now, I can't necessarily do a lot of things a student could. When I was a student, I could call The Morning News and say, ‘I'm a student, I'd like to go shoot the Maverick's game. Do you think I could go along with one of the photographers?’ I did that several times. I shot several Stars games, Rangers games. Now that I'm not a student, I can't shoot those. I maybe could if I asked nicely.

As a student you have access to so many things that you don't later. It's like internships. I can't even apply for any because I'm not a student. They require that you be enrolled in school for at least a semester in the last however long. I'm not eligible for The Washington Post, L.A. Times, any of that. There's so many things you can take advantage of as a student that you don't have access to when you get out of school.
Better to extend time in college and stuff some internships in there?
I didn't do that. I rushed to get out. I didn't know that you could get internships. I might have spread it out a little more, but then again, I was very much benefiting from being able to focus on photojournalism 24/7 rather than all the other things that go along with school. Plus it also thrusts you out into the real world, which kind of helps.

If you don't have much of a portfolio, and you really need to develop, slowing down and spending a little more time in college may definitely help. Take a few classes over if you have to.

That's what I tell the people up at North Texas who are in their final classes. They really shouldn't be, and they're not ready. I say, ‘Look, if you fail it, it's no big deal. Take it over and take the time to learn. Take advantage of the time you have with professors like Mona and William pouring into you because you're never going to have that again to this degree. You're going to seriously seek it out if you want it. It will never be like this where you meet every week and have somebody help you grow as a photographer.’

If you really need it, I might go ahead and stretch it out. But, I wouldn't become one of those people who's on an 8-year plan trying to hop from internship to internship. [An editor] told me the other day when they look for their intern, if they see an intern candidate with three internships, they throw out the resume altogether because they don't want a professional intern. They want somebody who's young and ready to learn, but not somebody who's just milking internships. I guess I would find a happy medium there.

It's different for every person. I think it was the right thing for me to do, but some people might need to spend a little more time. But don't overdo it.
What does it take to be successful in this profession?
I think it takes an incredible work ethic. I think it definitely takes skills. You need to go and tell stories with your images. Taking pretty pictures is not enough. You need to be able to understand what it means to communicate something with an image and get the point across. That's what makes a good photojournalist.

It makes images speak. When there's something behind them to try to communicate and that's what you're doing on a daily basis for a newspaper like The Dallas Morning News.

Also to make it in this business, I think who you are as a person plays a big role as far as your character and your attitude. Bottom line, if people don't like to be around you in the newsroom, you're not going to get a job anywhere. I don't know if you want to call it politics or not. It's your reputation is huge in this industry because it's a small world. If you are a jerk and nobody likes you, it's going to be very difficult to get a job. Then again, if you're a butt-kisser too, people notice that.

Your character plays a huge role. Your integrity, your trustworthiness, whether you're honest or not, that plays as much of a role just as your skill does. Personally, that's what I think. Humility is a big thing for me.

As far as work ethic is concerned, especially when you're first starting out, there's no room for laziness in photojournalism. There's no room for sitting around and not working hard or getting to an assignment and doing it half way. You'll never get anywhere. If you don't have a strong work ethic where you go out and pour yourself out on every assignment, you're just not going to get anywhere. That's the bottom line.

You could take a fairly mediocre photojournalist, I think, and if they have an incredibly strong work ethic and desire to grow and learn could make a great photojournalist. But you take the most talented person in the world and is lazy as can be and just sits around and doesn't do anything and isn't out there working hard. They're not going to get anywhere. I firmly believe that.

You talk to any editor. Who would they rather put on an assignment? Somebody that they know will milk it for everything it's worth and work really hard on it and maybe not be the greatest as far as talent goes or somebody who's stuck on themselves, thinks they're the best thing since sliced bread and is lazy and if it's not the best lighting or the best situation is going to shut down.

That applies a lot, especially to young photographers. I learned a lot of my life's lessons in the sports arena. I walked on to play football for North Texas. I was a recruited walk on. They basically said, ‘Come play, but we're not going to give you any money.’ To stick out to them and to get their attention, I had to work twice as hard as anyone else. I had to run twice as fast, do the drills twice as hard, I didn't have a big, fat scholarship that I could sit back on.

I think that really applies to young photographers because photojournalism is extremely competitive. I mean, it's really competitive because there is a million other photographers out there just as good as you, and it's very difficult to be set apart. You really have to work hard.

As a young photographer, your work ethic plays a huge role in the way you grab the attention of people, editors, other photographers, professors and how hard you work. You have to put in long hours. I put in 14 or 16-hour days sometimes back to back to back. It's hard. It's really hard. That's part of it.

As a veteran, it might slow down a little as you're a little more respected. But starting out you must buckle down and go after it and really, really, really, really work hard.

It's nice as a freelancer, I think I could take a [vacation] every now and then, but I have to work really hard. I can't just hang out all month and then take a vacation when there's no money in the bank.

I think freelance is harder because you're not guaranteed that paycheck every month. Every assignment you have to go do your best so they would give you another one.
Please see Part B of this interview.

Enough for now,

No comments: