In August 2008, I had a year to step away from the scene at American newspapers. After receiving a yearlong Fulbright grant, I left my job as a photographer and multimedia storyteller at The Roanoke (Va.) Times and headed to Guadalajara, Mexico. Once there, I dove into a project about migration within Mexico and worked as a teacher with Listen to My Pictures, a nonprofit organization that enables children whose lives involve daily struggle to tell their stories through photography.
Just about this time, I started thinking about and searching for places I’d want to work—and would be able to find a job—when I returned home the next August. The Roanoke Times was packed with talented and highly driven coworkers, but I felt it was time for me to move away from newspaper work and use my multimedia skills in another medium, maybe radio. I was thinking about teaching, too.
As things worked out, I’m now in my first year of teaching photojournalism and multimedia storytelling at Western Kentucky University. While I am thrilled to have this opportunity, the responsibility of how best to prepare my students for the realities of today’s marketplace for photojournalism keeps me awake at night. I ask myself what I should be teaching my students. How can I prepare them so they can find good jobs? Figuring this out is my daily challenge.
For decades, Western Kentucky University’s journalism department has prepared its students to be able to walk into newsrooms of any size and caliber and perform well. That pathway no longer leads to many jobs so it’s our job to carve out viable ones. I tell my students constantly that now is a great time to be a budding visual storyteller, even though nothing about it will be easy nor will the career path be well trod. The word for them to keep in mind is “entrepreneur,” since they’re going to have to blaze the trail.
There are, however, two things they can count on. The Internet is a highly visual place, becoming more so each day, and those who travel to Web sites love to see and hear a good story told well through powerful pictures. Look at the coverage of the earthquake in Haiti. Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe (in its Big Picture: News Stories in Photographs page) used their Web sites to display extensive galleries of excruciatingly powerful images. TV and radio stations published still images, too, which turned out to be among their strongest content.
Of course I pass on to my students valuable lessons I learned during my nine years in the Times’s newsroom—adjusted a bit to meet changing circumstances. Here are a few:
- Collaborate. You can’t do it all on your own. Make friends along the way and across the aisle and find ways to partner with them. Value those who know more than you do and figure out creative ways to work together.
- Have no fear. It’s a hard pill for some to swallow, but accept the fact that every few months—sometimes every few weeks—some new technological tool comes out. Figure out which ones you’ll need to use and learn how. Don’t feel you need to master every one, but it’s good to at least learn what emerging tools can do.
- Keep ethics in mind. Regardless of what tool you use, keep in mind the ethical dimensions and principles that go into telling a great story. While visual and multimedia storytelling is what we do, slick design absent a great story will not hold viewers’ attention. Use tools at the right time and for the right reasons.
Aside from teaching about tools, I offer advice about temperament as I encourage my students to approach their work as caring, responsible and curious visual journalists. The next step is to give them experiences to test their technical and temperamental capacities. This requires that we set up situations in which they collaborate with others.
Streams of Knowledge and Experience
In our attempt to do this, several colleagues and I are planning to team-teach courses with faculty from other disciplines, such as information technology and business. Now that publications and news organizations are hiring fewer photojournalists, our graduates will need to rely on different kinds of business partnerships. Although blogging and social networks offer easy ways to distribute images, producing high-quality multimedia packages of content—including interactive maps, visualized data, video and user interactivity—can be quite challenging for photojournalists working on their own. The skills and tasks and time to do this require photojournalists to collaborate with online specialists.
I offer as an example my former colleague at the Times, Tracy Boyer, a multimedia producer who publishes the blog, Innovative Interactivity. She left the newspaper to pursue a master’s degree in interactive science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was recently accepted into its MBA program, and now is on the university’s dual degree track. She’s doing this because she needs this combination of knowledge to launch a sustainable multimedia business.
I also encourage many of my students to tap into other commercial markets. Several of them already shoot weddings, which is an approach that helps many photojournalists supplement their work or replace their newspaper jobs.
Others are exploring ways to tap into profitable partnerships with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—connecting their abilities as visual storytellers with the desire of these organizations to build support for what they do by telling their story.
“Newspaper Employee to Nonprofit Director: A Photojournalist’s Journey”
– Christopher TyreeI’ve been working with Christopher Tyree and Stephen Katz, cofounders of Wéyo who direct Truth With a Camera, a workshop where photojournalists learn how to document the work of NGOs internationally. The workshop is based on two core principles that I want my students to know about:
- Adapt through learning. Since it now looks as though their careers have the potential for a rapid succession of experiences, adaptation is critical. Doing so requires finding places like Truth With a Camera to continue their education.
- Step outside traditional boundaries. Workshops such as this expose photojournalists to moneymaking possibilities outside the traditional boundaries of journalism. In working with NGOs, for example, they can engage with causes they feel passionate about and advocate for support through their storytelling.
Beth Macy, a 2010 Nieman Fellow, wrote “The end of the line for the Lone Ranger? A how-to guide for narrative collaboration,” about her work with Meltzer on a 10-part series called “The Age of Uncertainty,” for Nieman Storyboard. While at The Roanoke Times, I felt most successful when I collaborated—in what I’d call a “full partnership”—with a writer as we brought print as well as visual and multimedia stories to readers. I formed such a relationship with Beth Macy, who reported on child and family issues. Like me, she has a boundless curiosity and brings that to her beat. She also had the confidence of editors who enlisted her—and me—to work on long-term projects. Working alongside Boyer and Seth Gitner, who is now an assistant professor at Syracuse University, also taught me new ways to tell stories using video, audio, data visualization, and mapping. These relationships—I remind my students—are the keys that unlock possibilities.
While I was in Mexico, I befriended several photographers, mostly older men, who have worked in the city plazas in Guadalajara for nearly 30 years with their Polaroid cameras, taking photos of tourists for $3 a picture. During the 1980’s, they’d often take 100 to 200 portraits a day. Today, each averages about three photos a day. A few of them now carry digital cameras along with four-by-six-inch digital printers and a car battery to power their printer. Most continue to operate as they did in 1981. They told me that they despise point-and-shoot digital cameras and abhor cell phones with built-in cameras.
To read about another partnership between photographer and writer, see:
“Partnership of Photojournalist and Writer”
– Melissa Lyttle
“Our Emotional Journey—Traveled Together”
– Lane DeGregoryTheir business model doesn’t work today. Back then few Mexicans owned cameras. Today they are bitter and frustrated because no one needs their service anymore. Wandering through the plazas, they ask “Una foto?” thousands of times a day—with little response. Their failure to adapt coupled with their unwillingness to reeducate themselves or collaborate with others has rendered their service obsolete.
For photojournalists, the ubiquity of digital cameras poses a threat to our careers. The Internet is filled with images. Everyone is a photographer and, for that matter, a videographer, too. For us to find a place for our work—and have it recognized for its value—amid the onslaught of images requires that we educate ourselves, experiment and develop a business model to support high-quality storytelling. To do this, we’ll need to be equal parts proactive and adaptive—characteristics that haven’t been our strongest attributes in the past.
To be teaching a new generation at this transitional time is a great place to be. Not only can I pass on to them our foundational principles and lessons from the field, but I can educate them about the digital tools, techniques and temperament they’ll need in the years ahead.
Josh Meltzer teaches photojournalism and multimedia at Western Kentucky University. His work can be found at www.joshmeltzer.com. View photographs of and by 18 teenagers in Mexico whom Josh taught ».