Every young photographer who wants to throw his or her hat in the ring as a professional should spend time as a photojournalist. It’s not easy- the money sucks, the work day is never ending, and you spend long stretches of time smelling funky because a shower is a luxury- but after it’s over, you feel like you can accomplish anything. That confidence can carry you through any situation you encounter in your commercial or wedding photography career.
If you’ve never shot an editorial story in your life, I highly recommend it. The mere process will sharpen your vision immeasurably. Getting started is as easy as choosing an assignment and incinerating your preconceived notions about everything. Working on the assignment is an exhausting and maddening journey that will lead to weeks of euphoria after you’re done.
Here are things to keep in mind as you pursue anything journalistic:
1. Wikipedia and Google are only as good as their sources, and their sources, for the most part, have not seen what you’re looking for – a unique angle. Information you glean from the internet is only a starting point.
2. There’s no way to get beneath the veneer of any culture or sub-culture without being bold. Stories you seek reside within personal experiences of real people. You must be fearless and engage people you don’t know. Don’t be hindered by language or cultural barriers. The story lies on the other side of that wall, you must get to it or you will fail. In the same vein, never assume how someone will respond to your request for a photo or for information. Even if the person who is the object of your inquiry responds negatively, don’t rush off in a petulant huff. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if someone approached you on your front porch and asked to take your picture? Would you change your mind if that person sat down and talked with you and you got to know them a little? Trust isn’t handed out; it is earned. And that takes time and effort. In my experience, sticking it out in an uncomfortable situation brought about by a negative response to my presence yields a positive outcome eight out of ten times as long as I exhibit a little humility and patience.
3. Do not ever, under any circumstances, turn off your mind’s eye. Visual support for your assignment is everywhere, but it is never obvious. Everything is connected so look at your surroundings with a childlike sense of wonder and inquisition. You’ll accomplish this when you find yourself going mad because you start seeing visual parables everywhere you look.
4. Finally, I must impart upon you the importance of ethics. While the internet is remarkable at distributing voices that might not have ever been heard, it also gives rise to more unsubstantiated opining than has ever existed in all the Irish pubs in the world throughout the entirety of time. If you cannot verify a fact, or support an image with real evidence, then you are committing an ethical transgression. There is no gray area here. Since I write for National Geographic Assignment, I abide by their editorial code of ethics which you can see here. Keeping your work ethically sound enhances your integrity. Which, by the way, is the most valuable tool you have for moving forward as a professional photographer.
Journalists choose to make sacrifices in the pursuit of a story. As you view the vast amounts of information from all the media sources you are exposed to, including social networks, please be skeptical. Take time to find media sources that proffer exemplary work. And, by the same token, use that work as a model for what you produce.
Written by Louis Lesko
Louis Lesko got his start shooting fashion photography in 1984 and landed his first photojournalism assignment in 1989 in the Soviet Union. In 1999 he was asked to write and direct a public service announcement for breast cancer awareness. That PSA was the catalyst for a healthy addiction to writing and directing which is mostly what he does today. He is currently the managing editor at the National Geographic Assignment Blog, one of the founders of PhotoCine News and the founder and chief chaos master at Blinkbid Software, business software for creative professionals.
Photos by Louis Lesko
Soviet Union, 1989.
Danielle Mazet-Delpeuch, the former chef to President of France Francois Mitterand
from Louis Lesko’s most recent book “Walnut Wine and Truffle Groves.”
Cafe Paris in Cuba.
A life of greatness.