NOTE: I didn’t write this. A buddy of mine with the Chicago Tribune did. I think it’s pretty good. Kinda helps separate those “I have a camera I must be a photographer” from the real shooters.
How to become a winning photojournalist has always been something of a mystery. There are a lot of talented photojournalists, and not all get recognized for their work. You may ask yourself: “So how can I become tops in my profession?”; “Do I have what it takes?”; “Is there something I could be doing?”; “Born or made?”
I began to ruminate on this post some years ago, as I observed the rise and fall of photojournalism careers. Having worked in photojournalism for 20 years, I’ve crossed paths with many successful photojournalists, and many whose careers got derailed. I’ve bumped into, observed and worked next to the best.
A brief preface. “Successful” and “Winning” are relative terms. You can succeed wildly as a photojournalist and fail miserably as person. You can be “famous” and be living out of a paper bag. Success in life is in the eye of the beholder.
The way I’m defining “winning” would be a person who is repeatedly honored at a very high level by their peers through contests, grants, and national exposure. They are the elite few, who seem to be regularly anointed in their way of career achievement. Even though I’ve won a number of awards and work at a high-profile newspaper, which you can see in my photographer bio, I don’t include myself in this very elite group – think upper .25%.
This is my best evaluation – a summation that is invariably flawed, but hints at the truth.
10 Key Traits of Winning Photojournalists
1. A lone wolf orientation.
I emphasize lone rather than wolf, although there is that. Lone wolves seem to drift away, not content with hanging out with the pack. They roam the landscape with a restless hunger looking for photos and stories they can dig their teeth into. They may roam countries or communities alone for stretches of time, away from all creature comforts, in the pursuit of the hunt. If you see them on assignment, they may flash their teeth enough to throw off your ability to concentrate. Coming on the heels of a pleasant conversation, their aggression may make you take a few steps back and wonder what just happened. But it’s nothing personal.
2. Single, or have a flexible family life.
Most winning photojournalists are single, or have a flexible family life. It makes sense. If you’re creating serious bodies of work on people or distant locales, you can’t be in two places at the same time. Divorce is a common theme as well. As I’ve heard more than one photographer say, “photography is my mistress”.
3. An Immovable Faith in the Power of an Image.
I’m not talking a mustard-seed faith. I’m talking the kind of faith that moves mountains — or makes you able to ride a burro for seven days in the driving snow through dangerous rebel territory over mountains. All in the pursuit of an image that will make a photograph that tells the next greatest story ever told. There is another side of this passion, however, and that is the consequences of the image, are usually thought of only in positive terms. Of course, if you really second-guessed yourself because of the negative consequences of an image, you wouldn’t undertake the major effort to make it.
You know the scene in Apocalypse Now, where Robert Duvall as Lt.Colonel Kilgore strolls through a battle zone and doesn’t flinch through explosions as everyone else cowers? That kind of fearless. You can have faith in the power of an image, but if you aren’t fearless, you’ll make a hasty retreat and hope no one else gets it. The reason why some winning photojournalists’ images are that much more fascinating is because they have that component of “What the heck were you doing there? Are you crazy?!” I really think there is a physiological difference at work here..
5. Fast and Decisive
In this business, you hesitate and you’re lost. Maybe because of their aggression, their fearlessness and their conviction, winning photojournalists understand this. Actually, understand is a terrible word. That involves cognition. They act on instinct and emotion. An opportunity comes? It’s seized. A door opens? They run through it. A soldier turns his back? Gone. Their photos have an edge because they know how to anticipate where the action will be better than the next person. And they unapologetically pursue it, even if by doing so they might offend someone’s sensibility or get themselves shot.
6. Ability to Self-Edit
When it comes times to transmit their images, or edit contests, more often than not, winning photojournalists can edit their own work extremely well. Ruthless in a good way. Their images don’t typically have an ambiguous quality to them. The images and stories flow because of their decisive shooting and editing. Whereas other photographers might fall in love with some of their own lesser images for personal reasons, or have a contest entry get derailed in their editing, they don’t. Photos either work or they don’t. And more often than not, they do.
7. Competitive, Very
This should go without saying. There is an addage that the way you are with yourself is the way you are with other people. Competitive people are competitive with themselves first, which is why even if no one is around, they will be pushing themselves as far as they can go. But it can turn off others around them.
In every aspect. Photojournalists get a bum rap of being “shutterheads” (i.e., – “how hard is it to push a button?”). But the top photojournalists are actually smart, canny and very clever. So much of getting a picture is getting to the right place at the right time. On the way there are a host of logistical, technical, bureaucratic and personal issues that will trip many people up along the way. In the business world, they call this ‘barriers to entry’. And they are legion. The photojournalist who doesn’t take no for an answer, who out-thinks the rest, or outlasts the rest, is usually the one who prevails.
Day in, day out. Year in, year out. Their relentless passion and ambition precedes them. They can’t get an assignment to go somewhere? They’ll pay their way. Use vacation. Shoot weekends, nights, and mornings. If you think their life is tilted heavily towards their work, it is. But if you look at any of the great contributions made to any field of endeavor, you will find someone who doesn’t punch the time clock at work. It’s because they don’t have a time clock! All their moments are either working ones, or transitional moments before going back to work.
I say this because I can’t find a better way to put it. Luck doesn’t describe the good fortune that winning photojournalists perennially enjoy. For every Nobel Prize peace activist accepting an award on stage, there are 5000 more in the bush disposed of by authorities. Likewise, there are many amazingly talented photojournalists you’ve never heard of. They either lost their way before anyone heard of them, or their careers were brought down by family concerns, illness, finances, or politics. Winning photojournalists are incredibly gifted, and they have made sacrifices most of us will never make. That alone sets them apart. Whether it is on the shooting field or in their home life, their life choices are ones that many people can only wonder about, or be envious of. But their success is not just their own.They have been the beneficiary of circumstances that seem to go their way, and this leaves the rest of us in amazement.
Jerry Nelson is a freelance photojournalist living in Asheville, North Carolina. He has traveled the world documenting the tears, joys, laughter and lives of people everywhere. He currently focuses his camera on the same topics in America. His work has appeared in such diverse publications as USAToday, CNN, Upsurge, Dream Row and others. A portion of his income from each photo shoot is donated to organizations that help the homeless in the communities in which he works. You can see more of his photography by clicking here.