I’ve long felt there are three types of photojournalist out there. Which are you? Or two? Or three?
The Photographer’s Photographer
The Photographer’s Photographer is one who makes pictures for the approval of other photographers. We strive to best each other, impress each other, intrigue each other and feel like modern Cartier-Bressons.
The pictures that result from this effort are amazing in our eyes. They are complex, layered, full of “deeper meaning” or social criticism, and great light. They may even rack up industry awards.
But these images can also be baffling to our readers.
Through my career I have probably more prone to being this photographer than the other two types. I want to excite myself with my work, and my all-time favorite personal images are puzzles of serendipity, or light, or composition that may well just look like a mess to my neighbors. I often imagine non-photo friends wondering “why the heck is that on his wall? I don’t get it.”
The Editor’s Photographer
We live in an image-glutted world. Our modern job description goes beyond the old “just the facts ma’am” idea of reporting the news to also catching reader attention among the unfathomable number of images that cross their device screens, daily papers and HD screens each day. We all strive to make interesting pictures.
If our readers are glutted with images, think of our editors. They get all the same their readers do, plus the feeds of wires, agencies and pesky freelancers. They are buried in them and have a mandate to make their publication stand out on the rack or screen.
Often the most successful photographers in this business are the ones who know exactly what trend, what style, what look, what content is wanted by those editors.
These shooters make money, and we (as above) self-obsessed Bresson aficionados hate them for “selling out.”
I want to be this shooter as well. My freelance career survives because I try (not always succeeding, but I try) to make sure my editor’s needs are met. I need to make a living and I want to not be a bitter old hack when I retire.
But who should we really be serving?
The Reader’s Photographer
This post is an homage to this rare kind of photojournalist. The one who thinks only of the readers and what details and moments they need to understand and feel the story. No gimmicks. Nothing that can’t be read in three seconds of attention to the page or screen.
This kind of photographer’s images jump off the page or screen not just because of complex layers, cool trendy techniques, or moody toning. They jump out at the average person for their honesty, understanding, and ability to tell a story.
If you really want to understand what your readers want or appreciate in a photo, look at what non-photographers choose from among their own pictures or yours. It grants deep insight into what in a photo is valuable to your reader.
I know one photographer who is purely a reader’s photographer. Find his work here. And I don’t just say that because I’m related to him. He really does only care about what his readers think, and they love his images. He speaks directly to them — not around them, over their heads, or to only a select few of them.
How would you describe your purpose as a photojournalist? If you use that time-honored definition of “visual reporter,” or “visual story teller,” then aspire in this direction.
We have elements of all three of these photographers in us, and balance can add immense value to our work. I want to stay intrigued with my own work so I don’t burn out. I want to be proud of it. I also want to complete the job well, earn a living and get more calls from those editors. But if I am really a photojournalist then the readers should be the highest of my concerns.