We know the familiar archetype of the photojournalist—the grizzled war veteran who has seen it all and captured it with his lens. The die-hard, rugged type has been personified memorably by John Malkovich in The Killing Fields, Nick Nolte in Under Fire, Joaquin Phoenix in Hotel Rwanda and the poignant ramblings of Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now, while the true stories behind the lives of famous war photographers like Robert Capa, James Nachtwey, Nick Ut, Eddie Adams and others are often infinitely more fascinating. "Hero" is a strong word, and in photography, it’s photojournalists who truly deserve such a title, often putting their lives on the line to get the shot, a single image that can sometimes change the world or end a war.
Myth: Photojournalists have to live on the edge
It’s a tough line of work mentally, fiscally and even practically, and while there are very few photojournalists who have ever been in it for the money, there’s still concern that, with less incentive and fewer outlets, there may not be a next generation of photojournalists. Those who are concerned can do themselves a favor and take a quick glance through the web. While many established photographers have adapted to these new models and also are embracing new sources of funding like Kickstarter, young and hungry photojournalists have taken advantage of the lousy economy to produce bodies of work that are centered on any number of topics that they care the most about. Freed from the editorial constraints of working within the agendas of established newspapers and traditional outlets, these self-starters are truly making it happen for themselves.
As photographer Mathieu Young (featured in this issue’s Emerging Pro section) says about his own self-funded reportage work, "I realized early on that if I was going to sit by the phone and wait for Time magazine to call with an amazing assignment, I wasn’t going to be able to make a living as a photographer. So, since my earliest days as an assistant, I’ve taken the money I earned and funneled as much of it as possible into self-generated photojournalism projects. These projects have been my opportunity to exercise creativity and satisfy my curiosity, and I think that they’re a large part of what has enabled me to make the transition from photo assistant to full-time shooter, and then again from shooting set stills for TV shows to shooting national publicity and marketing campaigns… It certainly isn’t an easy path, but this way I haven’t needed to wait for assignments or grants or crowd funding in order to pursue photojournalism; I can create my own projects when the timing is right."
For Young, that meant paying out of pocket for a trip to Cambodia this last February, which ultimately led to marketing work for the Kamworks MoonLight, a low-cost, solar-powered LED light designed to replace volatile kerosene lanterns for the impoverished villagers of the area. The body of work he returned with, in turn, led to a great deal of attention, culminating in a post centered on Young and his work with the MoonLight on the high-traffic lighting website Strobist. Local photographers who can’t afford the time or money to travel aren’t out of the game either. One of the upshots of the traditional media shakeup is the wealth of new websites dedicated to providing news and information at the regional level while showcasing high-quality imagery to accompany the posts. David Hobby, the voice behind Strobist, for instance, was himself a staff photojournalist at The Baltimore Sun before it was forced to make cuts. Even in an economic downturn, it’s important to keep shooting for a variety of reasons. It keeps your trigger finger sharp, it helps you to build your portfolio, and it keeps your work fresh. But, most importantly, with so many possible outlets, it keeps your work on people’s minds and brings much needed attention to important issues, which, jet-setting, rock-star personas aside, has always been the definition of true photojournalism.