Last night at the Liquid Forum, a monthly networking event sponsored by United Vision for Idaho, I had the chance to do some Q&A about my travels, social justice and my work. As many friends will tell you I can talk all day long about my travels and am somewhat versed in social justice issues. When it comes to my work I can be dumbfounded. That happened to me last night.
One lady, I wish I could remember her name, mentioned that she had noted that photojournalism, the way I do it, is a dying life form and wanted to know why. I can’t remember exactly what my mumbled response was, but she deserved a better answer than whatever I gave her.
I rolled her question around in my head all night long and even as I slept my brain was exploring this issue. Why are there fewer and fewer freelance, traveling photojournalists today?
I think I’ve come up with an answer and I’d like to share it with you. And if you were at the Liquid Forum and know who the lady was that asked the question, please share this with her along with my apologies for not having a ready answer yesterday evening.
Why aren’t there more photojournalists? There are a few downsides.
The pay sucks. While you occasionally get the “money shot” that catches you up on your bills, the weeks between them can as barren as the Bruneau Sand Dunes in Idaho. In the meantime you’re reusing the grounds in the coffee pot and hoping something doesn’t happen to your gear. And if you’re unlucky enough to have your backpack stolen like what happened to me recently, you make do with the same clothes until there’s a few extra dollars to buy new ones – and then you shop at the thrift store to make the dollars stretch.
You’re always the outsider. Remember what it was like to be the new kid in school? Wondering how you would be accepted and where – and if – you’d fit in? Imagine doing that just about every day of your life. Always the outsider, making friends, but knowing that you still don’t have any history with them that ties you together. Recently I was invited by a friend here in Boise to go shoot a Marimba band that was playing in the park. A couple days later the friend happened to mention to me that someone had pointed to me and asked, “Is he homeless?” I don’t know – and honestly don’t care – the motive behind that question, but it hurt. I don’t give a toot what people might think of my economic status, but it was a harsh reminder that while you’re sitting down to a nice Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends I’m probably just grabbing a three week old burger down at the local convenience store and while you’re busy unwrapping Christmas gifts I’m alone in a bus station or airport watching families, friends and lovers reunite for the holidays.
Working conditions are far from ideal. So what if it’s 115 degrees in the shade. That’s where the story is so that’s where you have to be. Don’t want to stand in the middle of K Street on a cold, rainy December afternoon? Tough. Your client wants the story and you’d better get it.
I could go on, but well, I think you get the picture.
There is an upside to what I do though. I get to see people, places and things that most people dream about. None of the folks I went to high school with back in Virginia have had the chance to go EVERYPLACE that I’ve been.
On Couchsurfing.com, when you set up your profile you’re asked to list some things you’ve seen or done. Here’s the list from my profile:
Laying on a mountain with no noises but the wind rustling through the leaves and a stream flowing nearby, the stars so bright and close you feel like you can reach out and touch them.
Setting by the fireplace in a house on a mountain in Alabama, listening to the roar of the river almost right outside the door and spending the entire night talking and laughing with a very special new friend.
Watching the sun set over Stone Mountain with two new friends.
Meeting the President of the United States IN the Oval Office.
Seeing the courage and grief on the face of a person in New Orleans who has been beaten down by the world, but refuses to give up.
Standing outside my tent in a pine forest in Georgia with a moon so full and bright it’s as though daylight never left.
Talking with “Mz Mamie” in Jackson, Mississippi as we shelled butter beans in her kitchen in front of her wood burning cook stove.
Flying 4500 feet in a powered parachute on my maiden flight…nothing around me…nothing under me…just me, the breeze and the sun.
Playing stickball with Omar in Dallas and having him tell me again his dream of being the first kid in “the hood” to go to college.
Climbing up a hill in the French Riviera at 6am to have breakfast and watch the sun rise from a postcard perfect little town perched at the top while the locals still slept.
Falling asleep beside the Mississippi…listening to the noise of the river accompanied by a freight train far off in the distance.
Attending a wedding at a church in Rome with the Vatican in the background.
Helping (well actually more watching than helping) Habitat for Humanity in Altavista, VA do a blitz build on a home for folks…I got to the site and there was only a concrete slab in place…when I left 36 hours later there was a finished house!
Sitting out a rainstorm on top of the amazing Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia.
Add these to the list:
Pyramids, Stonehenge, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Eiffel Tower, London Bridge, Big Ben, Colosseum, Arc De Triomphe, Berlin Wall, Loch Ness, Trevi Fountain, Acropolis, Canals of Venice, Notre Dame, Trafalgar Square, Suez Canal and The Holy Land.
My time is my own. If I don’t have a shoot scheduled today I can walk by the river, hang out in the park or check email over at Starbucks.
Ego boost. I won’t lie, it’s a stroke to the ego when someone sees a shot I did and admires it or I walk into a place I’ve never been and have someone recognize me.
New friends. Despite all of the problems, America still has many amazing people. Good people; hard working people; people that will do anything to help you. And I’ve been blessed to make more than my fair share of friends.
*I specify freelance, traveling photojournalist to differentiate from the folks who work for a local daily newspaper or have a staff, traveling position with a national news outlet. While photojournalists with local dailies and national outlets don’t always have easy jobs, at least they have a steady source of income regardless of when and where they work.