Ten Things Photojournalism Taught Me

photojournalism
Covering the 737th Transportation Company at Ft. Lewis, Wash. 

I spent most of my professional life as a press-card carrying newspaper photojournalist. Counting the full-time, part-time and stringer periods, it amounts to about 13 years in photojournalism, not including the years I spent freelancing and interning during college.

I know. I’m  experienced.

I completely and absolutely loved it. I look at younger photographers coming up now and I lament for them that the amazing avenue I had available to me—newspapers—is no longer so viable for them. There is no better university than a daily newspaper for developing the chops it takes to succeed as a professional photographer. Newspapers are a place where photographers can truly test themselves through regular exposure to the widest possible mix of environments, people and situations.  For those who are lucky enough to be newspaper staff photographers, the experience is transformative.

Here are a few of the lessons that newspapers taught me that I consider indispensable to my career and success as a photographer now, in no particular order:

The importance of making images, not taking photos.
In the beginning of my career, I ‘took’ photos. I photographed simply what was there. Over time, I began to ‘make’ images. I anticipated. I focused on what was important and left the rest. I discerned. I made choices. I made storytelling images. This is called, developing a point of view.

Resilience.
The time I was on a seven-day hike in the middle of the desert, photographing a wilderness camp for teens, and one of my two camera bodies and my long telephoto lens got smashed and dunked in a river within one hour of the trip starting? Resilience. The time I was up for days straight while embedded in Iraq, writing stories and transmitting photos? Resilience. The four years I spent working on a long-term project on the Yakama Indian Nation, working long hours, getting no-shows? Resilience. Resilience is what gets you through the rough spots when the glamour and ‘fun’ of seeing your name in print wears off.

The value of constant improvement.
In the rush of the daily newspaper, sometimes the images published in the paper aren’t the most exciting or the most dramatic photos possible. Often they are prosaic, not creative and downright boring. The kinds of images I wished I didn’t have to put my name under. On those days, feeling dejected and unworthy of the title “photojournalist,” I might have entertained becoming a “sandwich artist” at Subway. But the beauty of a daily newspaper is that there’s always the next day. A new day, a new opportunity to fight the fight. A new chance to take chances, put yourself on the line and do the type of work that makes you feel great and maybe—possibly—can make a difference in your community. At the paper I learned that every day, it was getting up every day and doing your best.

It’s about the story, not about you.
There’s a great few lines in the great movie The Paper where Bernie, the editor, talks to the managing editor, Alicia, who has just asked for another raise: “The people we cover, we move in their world, but it is their world. You can’t live like them. You’ll never keep up. If you try to make this job about the money…you’ll be nothing but miserable, because we don’t get the money. Never have, never will.”
To me this speaks about being authentic and knowing that I’m part of something bigger. Everything is in service to the story, and the journalist, like the photographer, belongs in the trenches, honing their craft. If we do it well, we get some recognition and we get financial rewards…but those are side products and not the main goal.

Sometimes, you just have to make a decision. It’ll be ok.
I learned at the paper that the quicker you could make a decision, the better. The more decisions you make, the better chance you have that some of them will be good ones. Overthinking things usually leads to paralysis and worse decisions.

Do more than the expected. Be a complete journalist.
I learned quickly that if I came back from an assignment with only one or two visual options, whether from a portrait or a news event, then my editors would not be pleased. Not only that, but I was expected to take boring photos, like building exterior “mug” shots and details that were boring, but gave the page designers more options. I was a print journalism major initially, before I picked up a camera. I’ve always loved to write. I found that providing great images was expected in my job, but writing grammatically-correct, journalistic captions elevated me in the eyes of the print journalists and editors I worked with. They saw me as someone who was a journalist first, and a photographer second. I thus learned that you have to pay attention to all aspects of the job—not just bringing back a pretty picture. In this day and age, that’s expected and it’s just not enough.

Constraints are valuable.
As a photojournalist, I rarely had enough time. I had to go into a situation cold and make something happen. Hopefully something great. At those moments, I usually did quite well. When I was given more time and more options, I found that I wasted time thinking about options and less time actually committing to my subject and the story. Journalism taught me that having less—less time, less resources, less options—made me focus on what I could do with what I had, making me more creative and nimble.

The importance of studying human behavior.
To make it in business, to make it as a journalist, to make it in life, one thing is of critical importance. If you don’t know how to deal with people, work with people and understand people, you have an uphill climb. Photojournalism taught me to be a student of human behavior; to look for non-verbal cues and to watch what people say versus what they do. It’s an endlessly fascinating area of study, and it never ends.

Moments trump the technical every time.
I learned early on that if I got so focused on making an image “perfect” from a technical standpoint that I forgot about the subject and the mood and the “moment”, then I was missing the forest for the trees. When in doubt, capture moments that connect with people emotionally. If you can make it technically perfect, great. But if you have to choose it’s not even a contest. Authentic moments always win.

Meaning matters.
What made the long hours and low pay of a staff photojournalist worth it? It was that it was about something bigger than a camera and getting my pictures in print. It was that my job had meaning. The images I took mattered to someone—maybe just the subject and their friends, but sometimes it could make a difference in a community and the larger world. I had the power with my photographs to make a difference, and that fueled me. I’ve learned that you can’t do things just for money. You have to have a reason “why”. That search for meaning has fueled my career as a photojournalist and it still does as a commercial photographer.

 

Those are a few of the lessons learned as a working photojournalist, shooting everything from Johnny’s first day of kindergarten to Michael Jordan during his short stint as a baseball player with the Birmingham Barons (admittedly, the reality of a newspaper shooter is 99 per cent the former and 1 per cent the latter). I could have learned these lessons and undoubtedly would have, outside of newspapers. Life has a way of rubbing the rough edges off, but I know no other environment but the newspaper that did so in such a short period of time, or so completely. I’ll always be completely thankful for that part of my career.  It gave me much more than I gave it.

 

–30–

Showcasing Recent Work

 

Recent Work

I’m happy this week to release some new images on my site. Typically, these are from shoots I did in the last couple of weeks or month.  Sometimes, they are from assignments completed months ago that I’m only now able to share. This small gallery is just the start, actually.  I’ve got a lot of fun projects in the works that I’ll be revealing over the next couple of months, and this new Recent Moments section of my site is where many of those images will live.

This fall I’ve been taking my book around to show clients and others, and the experience has been incredible. It’s unfortunately rare for me to have a sit-down, face-to-face discussion with clients about creative approach, personal work and how to provide better value, all without any specific project or assignment on the line. It’s rare because I get so busy doing my day-to-day work that I lose perspective and lose touch.   These meetings are good opportunities for me to share work that speaks to me and shows how I’m evolving as a creative who specializes in portrait and location moments.   I hope you enjoy!

Portrait Moments

Portrait Moments

I live for location work.  Put me in a random environment, with changing variables and I’m in my element: solving problems as they occur.  Capturing the flavor of the location in a true way.   The person in the photo matters, but they are playing a duet with the background, each of them heroes in the final image. 

What happens if you can’t rely on a cool and interesting environment?   If you force yourself to strip out your background and all context, what are you left with? 

Portrait moments, that’s what.  Take out all of the other stuff that clutters the eye and what remains is mood and moment.   The choice of lighting accentuates these moments, expressed subtly by eyes, lips, and posture.   Here the subject is truly the hero of the image, and every subtle gesture speaks volumes. 

Pretty lofty words, I know.  But capturing the moment—that certain look in the eye, that lift to the chin—that’s the good stuff that keeps photographers going.  That’s authentic truth, even in the middle of electronic flash mumbo-jumbo. 

Case in point: this image of actress Liz Freeman that I’m publishing for the first time.   It dates back more than a year, when Liz posed as a model during the Maine Light Workshop I was teaching on the creative use of off-camera flash.

I’ve been lucky to photograph Liz many times before this, but what made this situation different was that the shoot felt more like a hectic location shoot: constantly setting up gear and continually on the move.  In situations like that, I have a loose ten-frame rule: if it doesn’t look good in ten clicks of the shutter, then it’s time to move on.  

What struck me, going through the images, is just how present and serene Liz is in the middle of all of the activity going on around her (but not visible to the camera).  I love this kind of quiet look:  subtle,  but an undeniably powerful, spontaneous moment.   

Great job, Liz.

Faces of Industry

Faces of Industry

A unifying theme of my work can be boiled down to, “people who work”.  The people in front of my lens tend to do interesting things for a living, and my job often is to show them going about their duties.    In the course of a week I might find myself in the cab of a delivery truck, perched on a platform above a factory floor, or scrunched into a corner of a conference room, camera in hand.

ecomaine is a waste management non-profit  in Portland that generates power from the stuff the rest of us throw away.  I’ve photographed their people for years and I absolutely love working there.  As a location, it’s often dirty (they process and burn garbage, remember), the lighting can be an extreme challenge and the environment tends to be either freezing cold or stiflingly hot.  But….on the other hand, they have cool smokestacks, pipes, walkways and big pieces of colorful moving machinery.   Sign me up! 

Recently they had me document and photograph many of their people at work and I wanted to show some of the results of that ongoing project.  Produced completely in black and white, the images look timeless and give a human dimension to the industrial facility.  Instead of the more intensive scenario-based images I might create in other settings, these are ‘quick-hit’ portraits done in work areas all over the plant and buildings, with minimal lighting.  Basically, I have a lot of fun and get a workout at the same time. 

Faces of Industry

Faces of Industry

Faces of Industry

Finding Beauty in Unexpected Places

Finding Beauty

As a photographer, I’m fascinated by juxtapositions and contrasts.  I dig the unexpected (as a newspaper photographer I lived for moments like these and these). I like finding beauty where it’s least expected.

That’s the idea behind this photo shoot involving Portland Ballet Company dancer Kelsey Harrison.  She’s the ‘beauty’ in this scenario.

The space?  That’s the ‘unexpected’ part:  a cavernous, dirty, dusty, rough space with unpainted walls, exposed subfloors and 15-foot ceilings. The kind of space that photographers dream of but also tend to be challenged by, too.  Plenty of space for Kelsey to move around in and do her moves. Plenty of space to position lighting on all sides of her, creating an envelope of light.  The goal was to use extremely fast flash duration—up to 1/13,500th of a second—to freeze Kelsey’s movements as she did her thing.

With enough portable batteries,  lighting was the easy part.  Too much and I’d kill the mood and drama of the place.   Too little, and there goes the ‘beauty’.  So I directed and shaped the light onto Kelsey and enough of the background to separate her from the environment.

Kelsey was a trouper.  If you’ve ever walked around all day on a hard surface with no padding and no ‘give’, you feel it the next day. Kelsey spent an hour leaping and jumping, all in the name of art, and didn’t complain once. She made it look easy….but ‘easy’ it isn’t.  A true pro and a joy to work with.

Finding beauty in unexpected places, indeed.

 

Finding Beauty

 

Finding Beauty

 

Finding Beauty

A Tale of Two (or More) Portfolios

Fitzgerald Photo Portfolio

The reality of being a photographer is that you need to have portfolios—online, of course, but also a body of work (in physical or digital form) that you can show to people who might want to hire you.

It’s not a fun process for me.  I used to be a photo editor and love editing work.  But my own?  I’d rather insert bamboo slivers under my fingernails.   I start with the best of intentions and end staring at all of my images, rocking back and forth, and muttering something about pursuing another career in cosmetology.  Nothing looks good.  All I see are the flaws instead of the patterns.

In short, when I look at my work, I’m not an editor, but just another neurotic, perfectionist photographer scratching his head.

This year I embarked on a project to rebuild my body of work and my physical portfolio—a process now largely done, but of course—never fully complete.  I worked with a consultant and shot a lot of new work. I worked with Scott Mullenberg to create an additional folio to accompany the unique books he’d already created for me.
In the end, it was a process that even changed the way I approach my daily assignment work.

At my showings so far, the feedback has been so helpful that I swear I should be paying them for the insight I’m getting.

Based on my experience, I’d venture that most photographers (and other creatives) would benefit from a regular portfolio tear-down-and-rebuild.  Here’s why:

1.  It gives you perspective.  You get to take stock of where you’ve been and where you’d like to be.
2. It can change the way you view not just your work, but how you approach your assignments with current clients.
3. It gets you “out there”, giving you the opportunity to show your work to others and to really talk about your value and their goals.

So take a look at some of my new work at Fitzgerald Photo.  There’s more on the way.
Fitzgerald Photo Portfolio

Inspired Mainers: Pat Gallant-Charette

Inspiring Mainer
Pat Gallant-Charette wears the names of two of her now-deceased brothers on her arm for every swim.

This week I published an Inspire Maine issue featuring Pat Gallant-Charette, a 65-year-old grandmother from Westbrook, ME. Some would say being a rockstar grandmother is inspiring enough—one that’s written her own children’s book, no less.

But that’s not the inspiring part. Gallant-Charette recently returned from the U.K., where she became the oldest person to successfully swim the North Channel. That’s the 21-mile stretch of freezing cold North Atlantic brine that separates Ireland from Scotland. At 65, Gallant-Charette was the oldest person to ever do the swim, by 13 years.

And that isn’t even the amazing part. This is one of five swims she’s completed as part of the “Oceans Seven”(No, that’s not a buddy movie).  It’s seven channels of water, from Japan to Hawaii to California…and the British Isles. To boot, Gallant-Charette finished the Strait of Gibraltar swim faster than any American woman since 1928.

To her grandkids, she’s just grandma who travels a lot. But trust me, she’s amazing and a nice person, too. I photographed her at Kettle Cove in September and we had a great time despite the windy, chilly day. I loved the images but even more, I loved getting to meet with Pat. So do yourself a favor and check out her full interview over at Inspire Maine. You’ll be glad you did.

Inspired Mainer
Pat Gallant-Charette, photographed at Kettle Cove in Maine. Being a Mainer helped her train for her marathon swimming success. “This is the best training ground outside of the North Channel and the English Channel,” she says.

 

Inspiring Maine
One of my favorite outtakes from the shoot, which I think looks best in black and white. I can imagine Pat swimming alone in the dark and the cold, but fueled by her bright, optimistic nature.

 

Inspiring Maine
The wind—constant on the Maine Coast—was buffeting us on the water, which meant we had to keep lighting simple. Fortunately, simple often means “dramatic”.

Faces of Portland: Sam Smith

Faces of Portland

The thing I most love about Portland is definitely the diverse, interesting people that it attracts. Creatives, entrepreneurs, craftsmen, free spirits.

Faces of PortlandI recently photographed Sam Smith, a blacksmith who operates the Portland Forge out of the old Portland Company complex on Fore Street.  All of the adjectives—creative, entrepreneur, craftsman, free spirit—apply.

Sam has a well-deserved reputation as an artist and a craftsman. When he’s not operating a portable anvil out of his van somewhere in Maine, or teaching workshops in Europe, he’s hammering steel in the dark corner of a former train locomotive foundry that dates back more than 150 years. By the way, that space, and much of the complex itself, will soon be part of Portland’s past. The city’s master plan proposes a 10-acre complex of condominiums and retail shops to occupy the space that these red brick, charmingly dilapidated buildings now occupy.

For now, Sam continues to work a forge that he created himself, in a small corner of Portland that—for now, thankfully—remains firmly rooted in the past.  Thanks, Sam, for letting me and my camera into your world for a little while.

Faces of Portland

Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge

Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge
Maine Game Warden Pete Herring, photographed on the shore of Lake Arrowhead near Waterboro, ME.

For the first time, I’m publishing a few images from a project on Maine’s Peace Officers that I’ve been working on for over a year with the working title, Arrested:  Stories Behind the Badge.

Arrested’ is a series of portraits of law enforcement officers from across the state of Maine, photographed at the actual locations where they experienced a life-altering incident on the job.

The diversity of situations the officers I’ve interviewed have been incredible: some have been shot; others have had to use their weapons. Some have been injured, some have saved lives. All have had to react in situations that required skill, judgement and humanity.

Nationally, the idea that cops are dangerous and out of control, and are to be feared–this is an additional burden on officers in Maine, many of whom police the same communities they and their families live in. When a difficult incident occurs, they are reminded of it every time they pass the spot where it occurred.

Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge
Photographing at the scene of a house fire rescue, Old Orchard Beach, ME.

This project is an attempt to convey the reality of the difficult work officers do every day. I’m thankful to the officers who have participated. I’d like to say that it’s been a good experience for them to share their stories, but I also know it’s not been easy for people who tend to avoid the spotlight.

It’s been an incredible experience for me as well and I hope to share the complete project, as well as the many stories, soon.

Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge
York County Sheriff’s Deputy, Sgt. Steven Thistlewood.

New Portfolio and New Look for Fitzgerald Photo

screenshot-2016-09-19-10-37-03

I’m excited to announce the release of a new portfolio of imagery, along with a newly-designed website and Fitzgerald Photo blog.

It’s been a long time coming.

Like many photographers, I split my time between many activities (only one of which is actually using a camera) that seemly add up to 29 hours a day.    It’s critical to take the time to create new work and market that work so that others can find it, too.

Six months ago, I began working with photo consultant Selina Maitreya to edit my existing images and create a new portfolio.   I’d worked with Selina in the past, but never had we stripped down my portfolio and rebuilt it in the way we’ve now done.    I love the results.  I am so grateful to have worked with some amazing people along the way.   People like the folks at Energy Circle, a Maine-based technology company that provides marketing services for builders, contractors and HVAC professionals.  I spent several days with the developers, salespeople and, of course, their dogs (Energy Circle is pro-canine) at their Yarmouth digs, documenting the people and the vibe of the place.   The resulting visual story goes behind the scenes and gives an authentic view that a single image can’t capture.

So please check out the new site and my new portfolio and let me know what you think.   And if you like what you see, come back regularly to see new work now in progress.

It’s always a work in progress.