Thursday, May 29, 2008

PJ motivation

Many years ago I was a solo staff PJ at a twice-weekly newspaper. A close friend and talented photographer had recently graduated from an art institute and was willing to cover for me while I took a vacation.

He did a ride-along to see what the job entailed. We buzzed around town in my '68 Bug, chatted about the job and looked for features. Finally, I spotted a guy mowing his lawn. I pulled over, and we grabbed our gear.

As we got out of the Bug, my friend looked a little confused and asked, "What's my motivation?"

Motivation is an art term. Artists are encouraged to find their creative motivation and meaning of their work before they create.

In fictional writing, motivation partially explains a character’s thoughts, actions, behaviors or feelings. It defines the wants, needs, desires and beliefs driving a character. Psychologically, it partially explains a person's need to be understood and/or appreciated.

Basically, it's why people do what they do.

I understood what he meant, so I told him the truth. I said, "Deadline is in 30 minutes."

Motivation is personal
PJs have many motivations. While these may sound like purposes, they're not. Again, the difference is within the individual PJ. All PJs have the same general purpose - to tell visual stories. However, our motivation to complete this purpose varies.

Probably the strongest universal quality of a PJ is a strong work ethic. We want to work, work hard and work more.

This is the reason most PJs are PJs. Some could be sculptors or oil-on-canvas painters. However, there's no way to crank out the same volume and diversity of quality work every day.

Some PJs may say they're motivated to be a PJ because it "pays the bills." That's not a reason. Banking pays the bills much better and doesn't require a four-year degree and $20K of equipment.

Other PJs may say they like to make photos. This also isn't a valid rationale. There are many photography fields. Almost every other field pays more.

PJ motivations
Most PJs are driven by a combination of the following motivations. Each PJ's individual wants, needs and desires keep the PJ shooting.

To fulfill the obligation
PJs are obliged to present images to readers on time, every time. PJs could work at a monthly magazine or a daily newspaper. Either way, we have an obligation to deliver meaningful images on time to the readers.

Subscribers have paid to see these images. We must deliver what they paid to see and expect to see. This is why we're professionals. We go early, stay late and work every assignment to fulfill our obligation to readers.

Readers are our purpose while professionalism is our motivation.

To help people
This is the main reason I'm a PJ. I want to help people.

After a natural disaster or other crisis, people need help. While PJs can't afford to provide the help most people need, we can show images of need to readers. Those readers can help. They can donate time and/or money. They can get laws changed. They can help lift people out of really bad situations.

I've seen this many times in my years as a PJ. People care about other people they've never met. People want to help people they've never met. PJs connect people with needs to those who can help.

To answer "why?"
Curiosity is a hallmark of PJs. The subjects we document should answer the question "Why?" This question should also motivate us to document actions we see. Anyone could drive past a person doing some unusual action. PJs stop and try to find out why this is happening.

Coincidentally, we may answer an unknown future question with today's answer. We may wonder why people are working in a particular place. So, we document the construction workers on a project.

Ten years later, something good or bad could happen as a result of the question we answered before.

After a natural disaster, for example, we could learn a project saved the lives of thousands of people. We already documented the answer to "why" while it was happening.

To show the facts
Truth is somewhat relative. Each person sees the truth differently. All a PJ can do to reveal truth is show the actual facts.

Often the facts show a truth some can't believe. However, it's a fact. Because our images are considered facts, PJs must maintain an ethical level beyond reproach.

If we shoot commercial images or illustrations (fiction), we label them as commercial or illustrations. We aren't trying to fool viewers.

If a PJ tries to deceive readers with something other than fact, none of the PJ's images are believable. This alone is motivation to find only the facts.

To inform/educate
While most PJs consider themselves full-time students of life, the images function as teachers to readers. The facts we document can instruct readers about the good and bad aspects of life and our communities.

A still image immediately transmits volumes of information to a viewer. Everything from how to survive a bad situation to how to recognize tasty food is presented in a millisecond through our images.

We've already discussed how PJ affects the brain. We also need to understand other people expect to learn from our images.

To share the experience
Sometimes PJs feel a little guilty because we don't appear to have "real" jobs. We get to roam around town, view activities and make images while everyone else is chained to their desks.

PJs want to capture the essence of this experience and share it with readers. While the viewers of our images may not get to (or want to) experience what we do, we show them what it's like.

While the job involves us attending events because readers are too busy (think school board meetings), it also involves surviving dangerous situations as well as more enjoyable sideline observations (think concerts and sports).

PJs share all these experiences with our readers. Maybe they're too busy. Maybe there's limited seating. Maybe they can't afford admission. Either way, it's reason enough for us to be there and find the story-telling images.

To achieve
Achievements are relative to each person. Therefore, they're motivations. Graduating college, buying a home or raising a child are achievements. Each of these accomplishments require dedication.

Most PJs want to be known for their abilities and dedication. These include being able to get access, get "the" shot(s) and deliver on time.

Measurements of achievement can include volume, quality, rarity, danger, income and more. Again, it's a unique balance determined by each PJ.

To prove we existed
I'll admit this is a selfish motivation. However, all motivations are selfish to some degree because we're talking about what motivates an individual to do some action.

Once we're born, our only guaranty is death. If we live and die without a trace, did we really exist?

I have a detailed theory on this. I may explain it one day. For now, let's understand PJs have the ability to transcend life through our images. Otherwise the names William Fox Talbot, W. Eugene Smith, Gordon Parks or Eddie Adams would mean nothing to us.

Again, this can be considered "achievement" and creates a different level of motivation for each PJ.

Enough for now,


redde said...


What a great post! There is certainly an unspoken characteristic that all PJs have in common. Its what draws us to do what we do no matter what the situation or the circumstances are.

But, I think that the most important thing that you touched on, is the desire to want to help. This need to explore the world and bring it back to others that aren't able to make the journey. This need to create something concrete and physical out of a situation in order to make it real, to bring it home so to say. So many things begin to make sense to me when I photograph them. Its a bit of how I process not only who I am, but what goes on in the world around me.

"Once we're born, our only guaranty is death. If we live and die without a trace, did we really exist?"

Reading that all I can think is what would the Buddha say?

But with the photographs that a PJ creates from every day life that they are blessed to experience and share, who are they proving really exists? The PJ, or the community in which they roam?

Thanks for the deep thoughts. Just the substance I was looking for at the end of a long Saturday...

Mark M. Hancock said...

Thanks Rene. Each PJ balances their motivation differently for a unique journey.
Good luck on your expedition overseas. :-)

Sagen Kime said...

I'm so glad I found your blog. I've found myself lacking motivation at my current internship, which has turned into a job offer. I hope to gain more inspiration from your blog.