Hey everyone. Long time no talk. Sorry I’ve been away for awhile. I’ve been meaning to start writing again. A lot has happened in the past couple months. At the beginning of February it was announced that our paper was declaring bankruptcy in order to be sold; and that wasn’t even the worst part. Our buyer was to be a company that was well known for having a penchant to slash newsroom staffs; often by dramatic numbers. None of us had much hope for keeping our jobs, the only upshot to the whole situation was that the process was to take relatively two months to complete; with the final auction being held sometime in later March. Meanwhile we still had a job to do.
I spent the first half of the month mostly shooting high school basketball; the notable exceptions being groups of teachers were staging throughout the state along highways and busy street corners. I knew almost nothing about the various issues facing teachers in West Virginia; that wouldn’t last for long.
West Virginia has long suffered from a debilitating brain drain, as workers can often make substantially more money doing the very same job in a neighboring state than they can in West Virginia. Teachers are no exception. When it comes to teacher pay, West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation; second only to Mississippi and Oklahoma, where teachers are now staging their own statewide walkout. As one teacher from a group who came from the Eastern Panhandle told me, “I can drive 20 minutes North and make $20,000 dollars more per year than I do right now, or I can drive 40 minutes South and make $27,000 dollars more”. While it’s true that the average teacher’s salary is higher than the average income of most West Virginians, it’s often still not enough to raise their families and pay off student loan debt accumulated to get the necessary credentials to teach, forcing teachers to take a second job to make ends meet. So for many of the teachers that I talked to, the money was less an end in itself than a means to continue doing what they really wanted; to do their part for their communities in educating the next generation of West Virginians.
Teachers and school personnel were also striking for a longer term solution to their insurance plans under the control of PEIA’s (Public Employee Insurance Agency) Finance Board. As reported by the Gazette-Mail’s statehouse reporter Phil Kabler a few weeks ago, “In December, the PEIA Finance Board approved changes in the 2018-19 plan that would have cut benefits and raised premiums by a total of $29 million — primarily through significant premium increases for family and for employee and spouse coverage for most insurees.” While the Governor froze premiums for the coming year, the measure was deemed inefficient as it offered only a temporary solution to the issues of funding that have plagued the agency for years. Because PEIA affected all other public employees who were not permitted to walkout, the striking teachers and school personnel insisted that they weren’t just striking for themselves but for all public employees in their efforts to stabilize the agency. As it stands, a special task force ordered by the Governor in the midst of the strike has been assembled to address the issues.
One of the things that admittedly took me by surprise was just how many of the people I spoke with were not merely supporters of the strike but actual teachers or other important school personnel; cooks, bus drivers, librarians, etc. I’ve been to a lot of rallies and protests, but I don’t think i’ve ever been to a demonstration that was almost exclusively made up of the very people the topic of protest was about; and in such huge numbers. On top of that, none of the people I spoke with hesitated when I asked for more than just heir name. In fact they were proud to mention their position, their school and their county; even continuing to do so after they had temporarily lost their legal protection when their Union leaders called the strike off. Hell, hundreds of them wore red shirts with the names of their respective counties like they were team jerseys.
Another thing I loved was that despite the seriousness of the issues, there was no shortage of creative signs, costumes and lighthearted moments along the sidelines and halls of the Capitol. For me, those quiet moments that happen while everyone else’s attention is elsewhere can often say just as much if not even more than the loudest ones.
I shot the strike for as many days and as much time as I could. Because of our paper’s connection to the AP my images started appearing all over the place; major newspapers, some networks and even an appearance on Late Night with Seth Myers, haha. It was a strange combination of emotions; feeling the most successful and fulfilled that I’d felt in years, all the while not knowing if I would have a job at the end of the month. The truth is I had convinced myself I was going to lose it, so I went about my work assuming it would be the last big assignment I’d be doing for the Gazette-Mail. Thankfully that didn’t turn out to be the case, but it motivated me at the time to get as much work as I could out there. I finished out the rest of the month shooting as best as I could for the assignments I had. Last Monday was the day we were supposed to find out if we were staying or leaving, with sealed letters placed on each of our desks to let us know if we’d get a rose or not. I had my editor open mine up, and thankfully most of us in the newsroom stayed on board. We did take some bad losses though, especially the loss of our executive editor Rob Byers, who’d dedicated himself since joining the paper straight out of college to keeping it as successful and important as it has been for West Virginia. Things are still calming down here, but I’m happy to say that at least for now, I can look past the date of March 31 and start moving forward on some stories I want to do and really dive into this state now that Spring is upon us!
If you just want to look at pictures, scroll down.
For me, I look back on three important things this year. Experiencing the landscape of the West, becoming an honorary West Virginian, and the further embracing of my visual style. The first one happened rather unintentionally. While I had explored the surrounding region of the Black Hills and Badlands to a certain extent, my work hours prevented me from venturing too far out. Once I got over the initial shock of being laid off I began thinking of all the places I’d been meaning to go to. In those few months I made my way to Montana, Eastern Idaho, Western Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and other closer but still important areas. I still struggle to describe the feelings invoked by the landscape there, everything from its vastness to how light seems to dance across it. I think about that land often and wish I could go back there even for a short time. It never felt like I was in just another part of the states, rather it truly felt like a world unto itself.
Eventually, after being unemployed for four months and living off of my severance, unemployment insurance and tax returns, I moved back to DC and took back my old job at ProPhoto and applied for jobs while crashing at my best friend’s place. On a facebook job page, I saw an opening for a staff photography position at the Gazette-Mail in Charleston; West Virginia’s capital and largest city. With the exception of Harper’s Ferry and a night trip to Shepherdstown, I had never stepped foot in West Virginia. However, I have always been interested in places that hold ideas and assumptions in the American psyche; places that everyone seems to have an opinion about without ever really having been there. Since taking the job nearly six months ago, I have visited many areas of the state and gotten to know the people who call this place home. I can thankfully say that i’ve only come to enjoy this place more as time has gone on. Yes, West Virginia has plenty of problems and issues it has yet to overcome, but this place has plenty of good in it too, and a lot of people who care deeply for its future.
Lastly, and what has personally meant the most to me, has been the overwhelmingly positive response I have received from people here regarding my more artistic images; specifically my long exposures. Long exposures were the very thing that made me fall in love with photography in the first place; a creative method that could take a scene or moment in front of you and reveal so much more than our immediate senses could perceive. Admittedly, it had been a long time since I had regularly taken long exposures (one of my biggest regrets this year being that I didn’t take nearly as many long exposures in South Dakota as I should have). I decided to take it up again as a means of showing West Virginia from a different take, and the amount of enthusiasm with which my paper has embraced those kinds of images coupled with the responses I have received from others have motivated the hell out of me to shoot, shoot and shoot more. It’s been awhile since i’ve felt so compeltely energized, and I think great things are around the corner for 2018.
So here are, in no particular order, my favorite images from 2017.
I’m about a week or so away from hitting the 6-month mark of my time in West Virginia, and I think November has been the first month where i’ve started getting a grasp on this state and no longer feel like an outsider. I’ve been here long enough now to already have made some good memories and long enough to decorate my desk! That being said, November was also a good month for photos. I think I’ve shot more sports (football, soccer, basketball) in the last month or two than I have for the past 12 months combined, but I’ve also shot a decent amount of other subjects. This month I started incorporating single or multiple on-location lighting setups and hope to use them to better effect this coming month. Considering how dark it’s going to be I’m sure I’ll find a time to. Lastly, If you know me even a little, you know how passionate I am about long exposures, and i’ve been blown away by the overwhelmingly positive responses i’ve recieved from people regarding my long exposures for the Gazette-Mail. The photos that have been published so far have been photos taken on my own time for the fun of it, and to know that the publication i’m working for appreciates and embraces the use of those images means a lot. One other thing i’ll mention that was great this month was I got to volunteer at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar. I’d like to thank Kevin, Ted, Michael and all the others who’ve been incredibly kind to me and made my time volunteering there a great experience.
This month was one of those that’s at times representative of what it means to be a staff photographer. One week you’re shooting assignments like marathons and high intensity sports while the next is dominated by court appearances, press conferences (and a golf game). Nonetheless, September was a really good month. Iv’e started pitching and pursuing my own stories for the first time, and have gotten back into shooting long exposures at night; something I used to do a lot and very much have missed. All this combined has had me feeling very good about where I am and what i’m doing. I’m also writing other blog posts that I’ll be putting out soon, including a second part to my post about advice to photographers starting out.
I’ve got a couple trips planned to various parts of the state as Fall sets in and the leaves change.
This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time. While I’m just starting out in my own career and have a long way to go, I’ve learned some valuable lessons that i’d like to share. Here’s a list in no particular order of personal truths based on my own experiences and others that have helped me. I don’t take my own opinions as gospel, so take from them what you will. Hopefully there’ll be something in here that’ll be useful to you.
Note: This post is about advice on a more personal level. I have another post coming up for more practical tips regarding getting into photojournalism. I’ve also made a list at the bottom of this post of working photojournalists all over the country that are doing great work while highlighting some of their work throughout this post. See if one of them is near you and see how they shoot places that might be familiar to you.
There is a place for you, no matter what kind of shooter you are.
No matter what kind of a photographer you are, there is a place for you in this industry. I didn’t know that for years myself though. I thought for a very long time that photojournalism was one thing only; LIFE magazine style photo essays; structured storyboards from beginning to end, focused on one subject that you spent days, weeks or even longer working on. I always felt this underlying pressure that If I wanted to be taken seriously as a photojournalist, I just HAD to do that kind of long form work. The problem was that I didn’t really want to. Even though I appreciated and admired other photojournalists who did, I preferred short stories and daily assignments. I had convinced myself though that that wasn’t “real” photojournalism; that what I did wasn’t “good enough”. I wrestled with this completely self-inflicted guilt of not feeling like a true photojournalist for a long time. It took years of different experiences and conversations with others to learn that it was actually okay to not want to be a social documentarian, and that the term “daily shooter” wasn’t something to be ashamed of; to realize that there was in fact a place for me in this industry.
That’s not to say that I’m still uninterested in photo essays, In fact I’m more interested in them than iv’e ever been. The point I’m making is you should never, ever feel like you have to force yourself into shooting a certain kind of work or adopt a style that isn’t yours because you think it’s what people want or that it’s the only way editors will take you seriously. I still remember being told by a staffer at a paper that different interns would come in and shoot in a way that they thought the editors wanted, when really the editors chose the interns because of the fact that they saw things differently. Be honest with yourself and embrace the kind of work that you really want to do, because that’s the work that editors want to see. I remember another editor telling us that they didn’t care what it was that you wanted to do. That if you wanted to shoot something like a series of dressed up dogs they’d still take a look at it. So do everything you can to express your own vision in your work, and I promise you, there will be people who WILL appreciate it.
It’s okay to not know what kind of photojournalist or even what kind of photographer you want to be.
I didn’t know that I wanted to be a photojournalist when I first picked up a camera. I got my start in shooting landscapes, and kept shooting them as I got more involved in photojournalism. I particularly loved panoramas and long exposures; not exactly hard hitting photojournalism. It turned out that my love for long exposures and other aspects of landscape such as color and composition were ideas I could bring to the way I shot photojournalism. No matter what kinds of other photographs you enjoy taking, there are aspects that you can apply to your own shooting. More than that, many photojournalists have other passions that they funnel into their work. Think about those other passions and interests you might have. Ask yourself how they may better inform your personal vision or what kind of work that you gravitate towards. Give yourself the space necessary to grow and experiment. Master the technical aspects of your equipment and pursue a deeper understanding of how you see and what you are drawn to.
It wasn’t until I spent a lot of time actually looking at the work of photographers I admired that I began to move away from my own narrow view of photojournalism. The way Alex Webb used color, Damon Winter of NYT used light or Matt McClain of WaPo used composition. I loved how these photographers could take anything from a general news story or an everyday element of life and could turn it into something that escaped the daily news cycle and stood by itself as something memorable and beautiful. I remember one photo in particular that, silly as it may sound, changed almost everything for me. It was a photo McClain took of a church that was building a pipe organ. He shot it through a cutout in the shape of a cross in the doorway. Seeing the photo now I think it’s still pretty clever, but when I first saw that photo it made my mind explode like a supernova. Through seeing images like that and others, I started to consciously grasp the concept that photojournalism could be and is so much more than just documenting a subject or event. That there is in fact a deeper language to the medium; of not just seeing light, color and symmetry but actually feeling them as viscerally as one feels emotions. Ever since, Iv’e been addicted to finding those kinds of images in the day to day; those little moments where humanity is shown and in which light, sound and motion intertwine with one another. I truly believe that there can be just as much magic in an everyday moment as there is in a major news event. It doesn’t happen all the time, but that’s the goal day in and day out.
Professionals shoot awful photos (too)
I spent my first couple years starting out looking at the work of other young and talented photographers. I’d count on my fingers the number of years between their age and mine, to the point that I felt like if I wasn’t on the front page of the New York Times by the time that I turned 21 i’d be a failure. Looking at the work of others stopped being constructive and just became self abusive. All i could think about was how much better those shooters were than me. I truly felt that the work they did was something I couldn’t do myself; that their vision was something inherent in them, not honed through years of learning and practice. I didn’t understand at the time that the problem with looking at only the highlights of other peoples work is you begin to assume that they’re always shooting great images, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I was at a workshop where a photojournalist who’d been working for many years gave us a presentation of an assignment that they shot for the New York Times. We were able to see their entire take from that assignment, and I saw that a whole lot of those images weren’t good. In fact, some of them were just awful. If any of us are being honest, there are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of photos we take on our assignments that no one will ever see (or at least we hope not). But I think it’s important that newcomers know that there’s a lot of truth to the saying that “most people only see 2% of an artist’s work. ”
It’s a marathon, not a race.
Sure, there may be some prodigies of photojournalism, but the vast majority of the people who work in this industry are people who just refused to quit. Even when you reach a level you’re proud to be at, there’s still more to learn and even more bumps in the road to overcome. you’re going to have times when you feel insecure no matter how good you get; times where you wonder if this is what you’re really supposed to be doing or if you even have what it takes. The answer is simple: you do. As one photographer I listened to said “if you spend your time wondering about where you’re going to be ten years from now and try to plan it all out, you’ll freak yourself out and defeat yourself before it can even happen. All you have to do is focus on the next picture; about the assignment today and what you’re going to be doing tomorrow. If you do that every day, I promise you that the rest will take care of itself”.
So go out to shoot, even in the times when you don’t feel like it or don’t have a clear idea of just what it is you’re going to photograph. Look up different photo exercises you can do. Petapixel has a slew of articles to get your mind going. It’s hard to really notice your vision developing from one day to the next, but if you put the time in, step back after a month or a year, and you’ll be almost sure to see a clear and discernible difference in your work. After all, the moon isn’t moving fast as you look at it, but it still makes it to the other side of the sky each night.
You can make great work anywhere.
There is fantastic work being done every day by photojournalists all over the United States in areas large and small.That’s because there is an entire world of photojournalism that goes beyond the daily news cycle or the major national stories. You don’t need to live in a big city or move to a different country to create compelling images. Great moments are everywhere, and the more you shoot the more you will intuitively recognize them around you. Check out some of the work of people I posted below, and seriously, check the monthly clip contests of NPPA. Take note of how many of those great images are of moments that happen in your own town or city.
Rejection and disappointment happens, and that’s okay.
If you do this for even a little while, you’ll be rejected, whether it’s for pitching a story or applying for an internship, staff position or workshop. Sometimes the rejection hurts a lot, even after it’s already happened times before. Iv’e been a finalist for internships and staff positions at more than a dozen publications only to end up not being chosen, and no one feels pride about the dozen times they almost got the job. Sometimes it’s hard to not take it personally as a referendum on your work or even yourself. Trust me, its not. There are a lot of reasons for why you might not have been the one chosen that have nothing to do with you.
It’s also important to be happy for other people, even when that’s the last thing you feel. Earlier this year, three months after I’d been laid off by the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota, I applied for an internship at another paper in the region. My lease was up in a month and I knew i’d have to go back to DC if I didn’t land something, so I did everything I could to get it. I even offered to drive the couple hours to get there to meet everyone in person. I spoke with their editor, went on a ride along with one of their reporters, was given a tour of the city and the paper itself, and then met up with the editor again the next morning. I was so sure I was going to get the internship I even mentioned I was looking at apartments. I drove back home without an offer but was convinced I’d get one.
And then I didn’t. Instead I was told that they offered the internship to a college student.
Was I disappointed? Yes, deeply. but I also understood that it was going to be a great opportunity for the person getting it, even if that person wasn’t me. Iv’e had my opportunities, and this one was theirs. You might forget it sometimes, but you’re not entitled to anything no matter how skilled or qualified you might think you are. It’s important to be grateful for the things you’ve already been able to do and to be happy for the successes of others. Recognize that this is not a competition and that we really are all in this together. Yes, It’s okay to feel depressed and dejected at times. It happens. But you can’t let those feelings fester into sustained bitterness and resentment. It helps no one and only hurts you.
You might not change the world, but you can effect someone else’s.
There are plenty of images that come to mind as examples of imagery that moved many and reshaped public opinion; the Vietnam Napalm Girl, the Iwo Jima flag raising, the falling man on September 11th or the body of toddler Alan Kurdi on a turkish shore. The list goes on. We all hope to make such impactful images at some point in our lives, but really, the greatest gift that this profession has to offer is that it allows for the ability to make little differences each and every day, whether you’re starting your first entry level staff position, shooting a class assignment for school or just working on your portfolio.
And just because a certain assignment or subject may not matter to you doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter to someone else. That restaurant shoot? It means a lot to the owner of that restaurant who just opened and is trying to get people through the door. That charity organization profile? It means a lot to the people that have been doing their work for years without being publicly recognized. Another night shooting another high school football team? That team captain is carrying a copy of the paper to show his friends and his parents are sharing those photos on facebook. You have no idea how much of a difference you might be making, even with something as simple as sending someone a feature photo you took of them. For all you know they hadn’t received a photo of themselves in years. No matter what level you’re at, you have the ability to make this kind of difference every day. That’s something to aspire to, and that’s something to be really proud of.
I really hope you were able to gain something from this post. Feel free to post any questions or comments you might have, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading.
Various working photographers whose work I admire in no particular order. Of course, the amount of photographers who’s work I admire is longer than this list, but for practical reasons I’m keeping it a reasonable length.
The air is getting cooler and pumpkin spice lattes have made their triumphant return, which means that Fall is upon us! Since the green leaves of summer will very soon be turning to their autumn hues, I thought i’d make a short post of one of my favorite places to experience the season while still remaining in the DC area. I’m talking about Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, and if you haven’t already been there, the next couple months are gonna be just the right time to do so!
Note: Iv’e linked most of the images here to my website where you can see them fullscreen.
Beginning at the foot of Front Royal where the two branches of the Shenandoah River meet, Skyline Drive is one of the most majestic roads that there is in the entire Mid-Atlantic region. Built by the WPA in the 1930’s, Skyline Drive follows the crest of the Blue Ridge for over 100 miles South to Waynesboro and Charlottesville, offering stunning views of the Shenandoah valley and beyond from its 75 overlooks.
Skyline Drive is a part of Shenandoah National Park, with trailheads from the drive leading to waterfalls and mountain crests like Old Rag, and wildlife such as white-tailed deer and black bears abound. While the drive is wonderful at any time of the year, I truly believe it is at its best when the sun rises and sets, the former especially in the autumn months when the forests covering the blue ridge turn into a vast sea of crimson, yellow, purple and orange, with the air itself being refreshingly crisp and smelling of the season. Little Devil’s Stair, Hogback, Pinnacles, Rattlesnake Point and Big Run are just a few of the overlooks that offer great vantage points for sunrise and sunset, with sweeping views of the series of crests that make up the blue ridge and the many small valleys they create and the towns that line them; lighting up the valley as the sunset gives way to dusk.
In the autumn months you will see cars dotting the overlooks facing towards the setting sun like a drive in movie theater, while surprisingly enough you’ll find even in the autumn months the drive almost deserted at dawn, allowing you your own private show of a brilliant sunrise. It’s also a good way to avoid the crowds of leafers, as they’ll be choking up the road going one way as you go the other. When autumn is at its peak, the forests lining the road turn vibrant hues of yellow, with tourists parked along both sides of the road to get out and take a look.
And for those who love stargazing…
There are few places more magical at night than Big Meadows, true to its name lying almost at the midway point of skyline drive and offering an unobstructed view of the night sky from one end of the horizon to the other. Big Meadows is one of the more popular areas to watch meteor showers, and on a clear night one can easily make out the milky way. While it is most visible in the summer months, the milky way can still be seen any time of year.
Big Meadows is also a wonderful place to experience the dawn, as one end of the horizon may still have stars dotting the darkened sky as the first hues of sunrise begin on the other.
Note: Check for weather updates if you happen to be up there at night. Sometimes heavy fog will inundate the ridge, making driving a little difficult…
To get there: The Northern Entrance to Skyline Drive is located just outside of Front Royal, a small town 75 miles West of D.C. directly off of I-66, the drive itself there averaging around an hour and a half.
Entry Fee: $25.00 for a 7 day unlimited pass. However, their payment booths close at night while the road remains open. So if you’re trying to be cheap, or just want to leave a donation of your choosing, you can do that too.
So since it’s now September, I thought I’d make a little post about the month of August, which was a fantastic month for images. Easily the best so far since I started in late June. Shooting nearly every day again after not doing so for almost 5 months has me feeling sharper visually, and with fall right around the corner, a time in which West Virginia explodes in color, the photos will hopefully continue to keep coming.
Of course, we all know that the Great American eclipse stole the show this month, and for perfectly good reason; It was nothing short of breathtakingly ethereal. I drove down to South Carolina for it, where my good friend Josh Morgan is currently working as a staffer for the Greenville Tribune. It was great catching up with him and our friend Angus Mordant, who does work as a stringer for the NY Daily News. We spent the weekend together and shot the totality, Josh from the top of the highest building in the city and Angus & I down in Falls Park where hundreds had gathered to watch. As totality neared the area began to turn a golden hue as though it were late afternoon, and the crowd cheered with every noticeable shade the area became darker. As soon as totality hit however, late afternoon almost instantly turned to dusk. People shouted and applauded witnessing this unbelievable spectacle; a black orb vivid in a cobalt blue sky where the sun had been a moment ago. Looking through my camera, the corona of the sun was clear as a beautiful and delicate light that seemed to dance around the moon, rolling outward like a shining wave. Knowing time was very short I quickly snapped a few close images before shooting what I could of the surrounding landscape and the people lining the bridge directly above us. I was glad to be able to have some kind of foreground in the image, as it was 2:39 in the afternoon and the sun lie almost straight up above us.
This month started out continuing ride alongs with EMS supervisors in the city as they went from scene to scene, with breaks in between at the firehouses on either side of the city. While the focus of the written story was on new mindfulness classes offered to fire & ems personnel, I had the opportunity to speak with them more directly about the effects that the opioid epidemic is having on their resources. I learned that one of the largest issues that they are facing is the avalanche of calls received that turn out to be false alarms, one common scenario being calls from bystanders calling about someone lying on the ground who they believe might be overdosing, only for personnel to show up and discover it’s just a person taking a nap on the grass. While personnel are grateful that bystanders do call in when they think their might be a problem, they are frustrated that most of the time, bystanders themselves will do nothing to see if the person is in fact just someone napping on the grass, instead their first and only step being to call 911. Another issue is that because the epidemic is so pervasive, crimes that in the past may not have been necessarily drug related, from domestic abuse to car accidents and robberies, are now often a factor. It seems, there are few crimes committed now in which drugs are not involved.
This month was also the first time that I photographed one of Pres. Trump’s rallies. I think anyone that knows me already is well aware of my feelings regarding him, so i’ll move past this one.
This month was very varied in subject matter. While July saw mostly tennis and golf, this month had me shooting a little bit of everything. I particularly loved going to spend a day at the state fair, despite having a pretty bad cold at the time. I’d never photographed a state fair before, and I love the visuals they bring about in my head-The stock shows, the carnival rides that turn into a sea of blinking vivid lights in motion at dusk, the cheap food and of course, waves of people from every corner of the state.
This month also saw the beginning of football and soccer! Two sports iv’e come to very much enjoy shooting, not only for the action on the field but even mores for all that happens off it!
Well that’s it for now. Iv’e got a number of other written blog posts on the way, so they’ll be coming out soon! Thanks for stopping by.