That question came from a friend and accomplished photojournalist who came to guest lecture last fall. Like everyone in the business she was staring down a lot of potential bad news — disappearing jobs (her own months later), an uncertain model for how to deliver the news and significantly changing technology.
Those of us who have spent a lot of time in the profession are at crossroads we don’t relish.
For many of my colleagues it is now unfathomable that I could or would teach a profession that seems to be disappearing faster each day. Where would students find jobs? How can the profession cope with even more competition?
These aren’t new sentiments. Even before the current economic crisis and financial fall of the newspaper industry I was regularly asked how I could stand to put more “competition” out into a tight workplace.
Teaching is an act of faith. To offer a set of skills to a younger person means you assume that person can succeed and benefit from those skills. Teachers who lack that faith don’t teach as well. Students smell it on them like a rabid dog is said to smell fear.
But my optimism is not fake. After spending 13 years in front of smart, capable and inspiring individuals who ache to throw themselves into the world with a natural sense of immortality, indestructibility, and eyes on the top of the profession.
I remember those days, and so should any other seasoned pro who may be reading this. When you’re in your early 20s you assume you can and will be a member of Magnum someday, or a book-publishing documentary photographer, accomplished war reporter, National Geographic contractor, or a local news institution.
And when you’re in your early 20s you have no preconceptions about how you will get there. No patterns of working nor ladder climbing exist yet. There are a hundred possible roads to the future.
Teaching is also a selfish act. I have to confess that I get as much from my students as they hopefully do from me. Hanging around with younger people keeps you young yourself. As they absorb your experience you get to absorb their optimism, their new ideas and their boundless energy.
As they take from my experience, I take from their innovative and unprejudiced ideas.
But still, from the perspective of my generation, it is murky at best to see a future in photojournalism. All the structures of our business are collapsing and the entire economic model is in question. How then can I teach this profession?
I am certain that the boundless energy and lack of preconception about anything will carry my students forward. Unlike me they have no entrenched image of what it is to be a journalist, what journalism should do nor how to get to a dependable and profitable career.
They will recreate everything about this business, possibly for the better. They will think of ways of operating, methods of story telling and options for delivery that previous generations of journalists could not imagine.
And hopefully I too can shake my own preconceptions enough to join them on this adventure.
With change there is always opportunity.