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The PRO-Files: How To Make It In Photojournalism Today

Newspapers are in trouble. Total circulation of U.S. dailies has dropped by half in two decades and it’s no surprise to anyone that social media has supplanted traditional journalism in American society. That has obviously changed the prospects for many photojournalists as well, to say nothing for the countless young photographers who have set their sights on careers in photojournalism. What is the outlook for a budding documentary photographer? Would they be better served in a different photographic discipline? Not necessarily. Disruption breeds opportunity.

It’s clear that the path to a career in photojournalism today is one that is more likely to be forged as a freelancer rather than a staff photographer.

Following The Money Doesn’t Mean Selling Out

The traditional print journalism model has been turned on its head but opportunities still exist for those willing to blaze a new trail. That’s the very definition of opportunity. Freelance photojournalist Jimmy Dorantes, who is best known for his multiyear project photographing the southern border of the U.S. and the book from that work, “Life Along The Border,” says if a young photographer finds her passion is in photojournalism, by all means do whatever it takes to make it work. But be sure it’s truly a calling because it will take total commitment to succeed.

“Find out what really gets you excited about photography and why you started the craft,” says Dorantes. “A lot of people say ‘I want to be a photographer,’ but they have no idea all the different windows and doors that are out there for photography. There are so many different ways you can go today. Find where your passion is. Is it fashion, commercial, stock, travel, photojournalism or documentary photography? All these things are different channels in the medium, but if a person already knows what really pulls them, it's something in their heart already and my suggestion is to follow that instinct.”

“If you want to make a living being a photojournalist,” he says, “you have to be very creative and you have to figure out where the money is if you want to make it. Study business; that would be my first recommendation. Learn how to manage a business and learn about economics in addition to the craft itself.”

Today’s Opportunities Are Fundamentally Different From Yesterday’s…But They’re Still Opportunities

Sony Artisan Paul Gero is known today for his wedding photography and portraiture, but for nearly 20 years he worked as a photojournalist shooting for world-class newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and magazines such as Time, Sports Illustrated and People. Like Dorantes, he says a photographer with a passion for photojournalism can still build a thriving career so long as they are willing to embrace a new approach and proceed with an understanding of the challenges facing the field.

“I always want to encourage,” Gero says. “I never want to be the one who pours water on their fire, because I've had people do that to me. But I also want them to realize that the business has changed from when I first got into it. You're looking at 50% to 60% fewer jobs for photographers in a market that's shrinking. When I was in the business, the market was growing and newspapers were expanding staffs, not contracting. You have to look at that and assess it with real critical awareness. I also think that it's really important not to go into massive debt if you can help it. College has become so expensive. It was expensive when I went to school, but nothing like what it is now. And when you look at the number of jobs that kids have available to them coming out of school, frankly I'm kind of annoyed at higher education in the journalism space because it seems like they continue to crank out people on a pace that would be comparable to the 1980s and 1990s when newspapers were thriving.”

Gero does say that one benefit of youth is that unlike veteran photojournalists who worked through the newspaper heyday of years gone by, it’s all new to a new photographer—and therefore much less daunting. He had a similar experience when he started at the Chicago Tribune in 1983. “I would work the night shift,” Gero explains, “and a lot of the older staff—the guys who had maybe seen better days—were characters and I learned a ton from them. I was so excited and just thrilled to be doing this for a living, and I would talk about it. And the old guys would say, ‘You think it's good now, kid? It was really good in the sixties. We used to rip open the newspaper five times a night and put new pictures in.' So for me it's a different experience than it would be for somebody who's 22. It's all exciting to them.”

“I want to tell them to get really good at what they do in terms of the technical standpoint,” he continues. “Because eventually, if you have to do it you will do it. If you must do it, you will do it. You’ll find a way despite what’s happening in the marketplace.”

Social Media & Photojournalism

Once a photographer is sure of the path they want to pursue, Gero suggests they learn to master social media to promote their work and build their brand. Dorantes agrees that social media is going to be particularly essential in the careers of young photojournalists, but that an understanding of traditional journalistic ethics will be even more important.

“Social media is taking over,” Dorantes says, “and unfortunately there are no ethics in social media. People that have no training—did not go to college, did not educate themselves in proper etiquette in photojournalism—are swarming social media with false pictures, set-up pictures and paid photographs, just to get attention and likes. So unfortunately people are educated now based on false information. The news media had integrity before. And it still does if it's a legitimate news media outlet, but social media is changing all that because it's free and it's everywhere and there's a lot more people getting their information that way. I recommend they learn how to be ethical with their cameras because we don't want people creating fake pictures out there. That’s probably the ugliest side of the digital era: people using Photoshop to manipulate their photos. They don't think anything of it when they lie to people.”

It’s clear that the path to a career in photojournalism today is one that is more likely to be forged as a freelancer rather than a staff photographer. Fees are down, and well-paying editorial assignments are rarer than ever. Photographers are more likely to find themselves going it alone and then licensing images to publication after the fact. Regardless, the first step to making that work, Dorantes says, is to find those clients still paying well for photography. The dividing line is often print versus digital.

“The magazines still pay for use,” he says, “and TV stations are more interested in video. The Los Angeles Times and big newspapers like that are paying for video stories too. I still have some clients that have hung on with me for many years and when there's a book project, that’s really where I make a lot of money. They usually buy several pictures because it's a printed book. A lot of the publishers that are going digital don't pay very well. That makes a big difference.”

Get Good At Video

Speaking of video, Dorantes and Gero agree that it’s a crucial skill for any photojournalist working today. It’s every bit as important as the ability to shoot impactful stills. The photojournalist of the future is a storyteller in any medium necessary.

“You have to be adaptable to the technology,” Dorantes says, “because if you don't you'll be left out. Especially if you're a freelancer. You have to learn to use the camera, which is amazing technology. The digital era is just overwhelming the business because you can do both high-definition video as well as high-definition photographs with the same camera. I can do both at any given time, at any moment, and I can edit photographs and video and do sound. It's more of a storytelling job now than it was before.”

“Before it was capture the moment and turn it in and that's it,” he continues. “But today you have to tell a story: think about what's going on and put it together into a video. Learn how to tell a story. Learn how to be a reporter with your camera in both video and stills. Learn the equipment really well and embrace the medium. Be really good with your camera as well as with storytelling ability and you can make your own work. You can employ yourself; you can create your own job. There are different ways of creatively earning a living with your camera if you're a photojournalist.”

Making Your Pictures Pay For Themselves More Than Once

One way, Dorantes suggests, is to become your own stock photo agency. His work has long centered on life along the United States’ southern border and in Latin America so he opened his own stock photography agency called Latin Focus.

“The editorial stock agencies today that are still thriving and still making ends meet are niche photography agencies,” Dorantes says. “They specialize. You have to specialize today. For example, if you enjoy photographing beaches, from all types of angles and all types of lifestyles, you can probably create your own stock agency based on that. The more beaches you go to, the more of a variety of stock you'll have. So people know where to find that type of picture.”

Dorantes’ stock solution is especially interesting because it speaks to a key to success in an era of declining editorial assignments and fees: Make your pictures pay for themselves more than once. What was once thought of as the luxury of making money while you sleep is becoming a necessary part of making a living. Dorantes’ stock business is just one example. Photographers are finding and succeeding with opportunities through YouTube and sponsored content just to name a couple others. The point is, in the new normal of documentary photography, the value of your images can go up dramatically if you develop other channels where the images can live.

“It’s a very tricky career today,” Dorantes says. “It’s very different than when I grew up. Follow your heart and research and learn as much as you can about it, including the history of it, and educate yourself about what you're about to get into. And if it's still something that you're interested in, and it just keeps fueling your interest, then this is where your future career is.”

To learn more about Paul Gero and to see samples of his work, visit paulfgero.com. Learn more about Jimmy Dorantes and his new book “Life Along the Border,” here.

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