When I left San Francisco State University’s journalism department to move to Vietnam to begin working as a photojournalist, I carried with me a RELATED ARTICLE
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romantic notion of what my life would be. I envisioned myself as a full-time, scarf-wearing documentary photographer chasing down news stories wherever they happened—and making a living doing so.

From almost the moment I hit the ground, my vision was transformed by reality. Soon I had the good fortune of attending a weeklong workshop in Cambodia led by Gary Knight, a cofounder of the VII Photo Agency. That experience dramatically changed how I think about the work I want to do. Young and untested, I was by far the least experienced—and yes, I’d say the worst—photographer at this workshop. In the short time we had together, I neither developed my style nor figured out how to show emotion in my images. What I did learn is that I needed to do both.

As a student at San Francisco State, I had explored the work of great photographers—but all of them worked in a different era in journalism. They were paid handsomely for weeks or months of work and flown all over the world by publications in whose pages their pictures would appear. Even though some of our professors cautioned us that we’d be dealing with a changed and more competitive market, the true dimensions of what this meant were never made clear.

In 2007 when I leaped into photojournalism, I did so as a freelancer, just as most of my peers were doing. I decided to base myself in Vietnam, figuring that Southeast Asia would be a good place to launch my career. After settling in I experienced a harsh first year as the assignments arrived from time to time. Suffice it to say that my entry into the profession was not at all as I imagined it would be.

After making a few trips back to New York City in 2008 and doing some workshops and self-promotion, work started to trickle in. I had quite a few assignments for The New York Times, and on some stories they sent me out of Vietnam. That year I traveled to Australia, China, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The writers I worked with were on staff, many of them with decades of reporting experience, and they expressed surprise when I told them I was based in Vietnam. It was rare these days, they told me, for a photographer to be flown in on a story; typically they found someone based locally.

For a number of assignments, I shot stills and video on the same story which in some ways helped to justify the expense of bringing me there. And even though my workload increased, I had the sense that I was living at the tail end of the time we had studied about in graduate school—when photojournalists hopped from country to country, their journeys paid for by the publication that wanted their work. To call my feelings melancholy doesn’t quite do them justice, but I did feel sad that I had worked hard to get these opportunities and to reach this goal, only to realize that it was about to vanish.

Sure enough, by the next year news organizations’ budgets dried up; no longer was I traveling for the Times or for anyone else. I was still getting the occasional assignment but always closer to home, which for me is Hanoi, and the days were always capped to just a few. To complicate my situation, more and more photographers were entering the market. All of this led to my shrinking workload. I was barely working even though I was getting more assignments than a majority of my friends.

Versatility Is Key

To survive meant changing how I was approaching my career. It was time to readjust my plans as a photographer and to market myself as a business. If I wanted to shoot a six-month project, for example, then I would need to do it on my own time. And I would need to bankroll it myself. The odds of a long-term story project being paid for—or even being commissioned for publication—were slim. So I created a commercial photography and video company, Mott Visuals, specializing in hotels and resorts. This means that I do commercial shoots for hotels and resorts that use my images to attract customers. As I end the first year after the launch of my business, I couldn’t be happier and my work is more fruitful than ever.

At the same time, I’m experiencing a comeback in journalism with the last four months being the busiest stretch I’ve ever had. I’m writing this piece from Cambodia where I am on a weeklong assignment for The New York Times. This on-again, off-again relationship is so different from what we heard about in school. Back then I had the sense that once you are in with a publication, you’re in and you would get a steady influx of assignments. But that hasn’t been my experience; with the Times, a lot of work in 2008 didn’t do anything to ensure me steady work in 2009.

A lot of young photographers ask me about being represented by an agency. I sense that the impression many of them have is that a photo agency will act as an employer—and provide something resembling a steady income. While years ago that might have been the case, it’s rare now. Many agencies have folded, others are struggling to adjust to new market demands, and while I enjoy being with my agency, Redux, I find that for the most part I’ve acted as my own agent.

These days the work comes from all kinds of different clients—journalistic and otherwise. This requires that I constantly remind people about me and where I’m based so this means hours are added to my workday as I update my commercial and editorial blogs. Then there are the trips to New York City to meet with editors, conference calls for commercial shoots, and e-mails to my agency along with Facebook and Twitter updates. I carve out time to apply for grants and to enter my work in contests. I attend events hosted by nongovernmental organizations; often they are looking to pay photographers to produce images that they can use to get their messages out. And I plan exhibitions to showcase my photographs. Oh, yes, I can’t forget the time I carve out to pursue personal photography projects—the stories that hold great meaning to me. In fact, as I remind myself, these projects were why I wanted to be a photojournalist way back when.

Versatility is the key. In the past two months I’ve shot for the German Red Cross, the United Nations, Forbes, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, three 5-star resorts, Microsoft, the World Health Organization, and the Smithsonian. I shot a wedding and I have been involved with a commissioned book project about Chabad communities in Beijing and Shanghai. I’m also working on my own book along with shooting a few personal projects. Two of those assignments came from my agency; the rest came from connections I’ve made though the years. Oh yes, I’ve also shot a few video assignments and I’m heading back to Vietnam tomorrow to shoot another one. Along the way I founded a collective group with four documentary photographers called Razon. Similar collectives are popping up everywhere as a great way for those of us working on our own to motivate one another and market each other’s photographs.

Today, how we divide our time and do our work and get paid for it has virtually no connection to how things worked for those who started out a decade or two before us. Only our mission remains the same and perhaps our contentment with the opportuni
ty our cameras give us to transmit visual journalism about what’s happening in our world. While I’m still searching to find the right balance of assignments and meaningful personal projects, it’s been an awesome ride so far.

Justin Mott is a freelance photojournalist based in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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