Words of Wisdom For and From Young Photographers

I’m on the advisory board of the YPA (Young Photographers Alliance) and while there are times that I feel I am on one too many boards and spreading myself too thin these days, it’s nights like last night that make it all worthwhile.

Last night was the Mentee/Mentor Exhibition and Awards Ceremony at the Calumet Gallery in New York City.  I must confess that I really didn’t want to go for a couple of reasons:  I needed to get up at 3:30AM to leave for the airport (this morning) and I’ve been in a bit of a funk that I can’t seem to shake myself out of and I didn’t want to be one of those negative cynical people bringing the “mood” down.  But I’m also one of those people that everyone can count on – so I did my best to rise to the occasion.

Before the affair, there was a meeting with the young photographers (mentees) and the mentors to receive and give feedback.  One of the students said that they wished some of their time with their mentors had been spent discussing the “business” of photography – something she didn’t feel she was learning in school.  I pointed out that there was a lot of information about business practices on the ASMP website, including contract shares and encouraged the students to check it out.  And then I told them that the best “business” advice I could give them was to be true to themselves and that if they did that and didn’t stray from their “purpose” that would set that apart from their competition because there is only one “you”.

And then I relayed my “Jay Maisel” story as I have dozens of times. Gail at the Great Pyramids 1971 I had gone to see Jay when I was just starting out.  My heart and my passion was in photojournalism, but countless professional photographers had told me that I couldn’t make a living doing that kind of work – so I when I went to see Jay, I had my “commercial” portfolio with me, which I thought was pretty good.  He looked at it, pushed it back at me and said, “ This is crap – this isn’t what you want to do is it?”  I said no and told him that I wanted to be a photojournalist.  He asked me how old I was to which I replied “25 years old”.  He looked me straight in the face and said, “You’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises”.

I told the kids that it was a turning point in my life and that whenever I strayed from my purpose – and felt it – over the last 35 years – I remembered Jay’s words.  Then one of the students asked me a question that I hadn’t ever been asked when telling that story over the years.  She said “What was it about your work that made him think your heart wasn’t in it?”  I hadn’t really ever thought about that – I had always focused on what I wanted to do instead.  But when she asked that question, I had to reply, “I really don’t know”.

I’ve been thinking about it all morning on my way from Newark to San Francisco and I wonder – was it the work that felt empty or impersonal?  Or was it the way I looked when I handed it to him?  Or was it both?  I’m waiting for my next leg to Honolulu and then on to Molokai to meet up from one of my mentors, PF Bentley who taught me everything I know about how to tell a story in motion. I’ll have another 7 hours to contemplate that question and even if I never come up with the answer, that question pulled me out of my funk.  Just in time to once again put my head in an “open” place to learn and get back on purpose.

The Difference Between TV and New Media

It’s been a tough 3 weeks teaching video to journalists in China – perhaps the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.  It’s not the teaching part that’s hard – it’s knowing if what I am saying is being correctly translated to my students, it’s being away from friends and family and just being away for so long that makes it tough. I have one more week to go and will take a good long rest when I return to the US.

Last week was especially difficult but yet my amazing students got me through it.  They simply amazed me in how quickly they learned.  They learned in 4 days what it takes most photographers to learn in 4 weeks or months.

Every week I have a new group of students and each week there are always one or two students that I know really “get it”.  There was one student who I coined a nickname for “Mr. Question” because he asked more questions than most.  His questions weren’t just about what settings to use on his camera or how to do something in Adobe Premiere, but more about the “big picture”.  His questions always showed me he was thinking.

One question, this particular student asked me this week, really caught my attention.  He asked me “How are we (new media producers) different than TV?

Stephen-Lee-TV-News-Presenter SMALL
Stephen-Lee-TV-News-Presenter SMALL (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had just read an article online that addressed this very question and it talked about how newspaper video journalists are now winning more Emmys than TV news journalists.

I responded to my student by telling him:

  • TV news makes the reporter part of the story – sometimes even the “star”
  • New media tells the story through the voice of the subjects – making them the “stars”
  • TV news is delivered to us on the network channels – 3 times a day.
  • Online news is 24/7 and on demand.  We get the news online when we want it and wherever we want it – on our desktop computers, on our iPhones or on our iPads. We also can share the news and interact with others.  We become part of the delivery chain.
  • TV news journalists rush back to the studio to get the story on air by 5 o’clock. The stories are generally very short – limited to their broadcast slot.
  • As new media producers we have the luxury of working longer on feature stories and delivering them online to a global audience.  While print newspapers and magazines are folding – there has been a rebirth of the long documentary story that can now be delivered online.  We are communicating to a wider audience around the world, no longer being restricted by time and space.

In the 1960’s newspaper executives were lamenting about the good old days and predicting that TV would kill them.  I find it ironic that the shoe seems to be on the other foot now.  I teach “motion” and “video journalism” to a lot of still photographers.  There are some who buy their DSLR’s and aspire to make broadcast spots for TV.  There are some who aspire to make feature length films for Hollywood.  And then there are some who tell me that there is nothing new about video and that field is already glutted with videographers and cinematographers. Those are the old business models for video and motion.

The ones who “get it” are the hybrid creatures that recognize that there is a shift in the way we communicate.  They understand that video is really just another medium in which to tell their stories – not a business model, nor a niche market.

My student in China who asked me this question- he “gets it”.  He understands that he is part of the future of how Chinese journalists and others around the world, will deliver the news. That’s why they call it – new media.