Optimism and Innovation in Professional Photography

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The power of story – it’s everywhere you look.

 

I’m optimistic about the future of professional photography. Call me a fool. In fact, I’ve been called an idiot for leaving my staff job at the Tribune. “How could you leave a staff gig like that?” and “Don’t you know how hard it is to make a living as a photographer?”

 

The irony is, as soon as I left, the first people to congratulate me were freelance photographers in Chicago who startled me with words like, “You’re going to love it!” and “It’ll be hard at first, but you’ll find your niche.”

 

But that’s not what I’m optimistic. Everyone has individual reasons to back-up their opinions and I’d be foolish to bank my family on someone else’s opinion. I’m no Pollyanna. I also certainly wouldn’t leave without clients lined up.

 

What makes me optimistic is how our current society consumes visuals.

 

In a word, it’s constant. We’re inundated with images. We take billions every year. Estimates are close to a trillion images in 2014.

 

What does this mean? It means disruption to the old way of doing business. Slowly receding are the days where a company is going to invest a ton of money for one or two images from a big shoot. I’m grateful for those I’ve had and believe me, I hope they’ll be around for awhile.

 

From a return on investment perspective, however, I know some companies are questioning it. If you’re the owner that just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, typically through an agency, your shoot will yield images that are going to be seen for a short while and then go…poof.

 

That image is going to be overrun by Instagram feeds, tweets, blogs and the capricious feeds of social media. Websites and micro sites run by companies also increasingly need fresh imagery.

 

As they say in the news business, what have you done for me lately?

 

Not all companies are large enough to afford those shoots anyway. As many companies and organizations are finding, having your own publishing platform can be a blessing and a curse. They can create their own content to have authority and loyalty in their space, but it comes at a price. They now have to “feed the beast”, that monster of appetite for visual content that lives at news organizations, where publishing never ceases. And the images have to be high-quality, not the stock type used to illustrate everything from vacations to Viagra.

 

If companies or organizations don’t update their visuals on a frequent basis, then their page, feed or stream looks vacant, lifeless and ultimately disengaging. There is nothing more sad (or alarming) than a website that hasn’t changed its visuals in a long while. It’s brand erosion.

 

It’s no wonder that there is a movement towards small production houses to create visuals that can quickly and more effectively churn out images for clients that are demanding more images and video for less.

 

Yes, the rates that photographers used to charge are getting squeezed because of it. But what you lose on the value of each shoot, you can make up with a longer-lasting and trustworthy client relationship.

 

Isn’t that a trade-off that photographers have historically made?

 

You can see the problem that companies and organizations face. They need more visuals, but they can’t afford the prices (or at least the limited return on the investment) to feed all their platforms and projects. So consequently they’ll pursue other methods for getting images on the cheap. They’ll promise free exposure, sponsor a rights-grabbing contest, crowdsource images or even steal them outright. Then they get busted and shamed by all the content creators on social media. It’s ugly. Again, brand erosion.

 

But what if photographers took the initiative and said “look, your name and brand is hurting and your visual content strategy is hurting. For XXX (or XXX,XXX) amount every six months or year, I can provide you with a regular stream of visuals that will keep your company not only front-of-mind with your customers, but will provide professionally-produced, high-quality, emotionally-engaging, inspiring visuals that will translate to more sales or donors to your business. I can even bring you a level of consultancy and brainstorming to the process, based on my experience, that will raise the level of your visual sophistication and move the dollar sign.”

 

Some photographers, you know the “fools”, are doing just that. They’re starting companies, changing their pricing strategies and making their pitches.

 

As an editorial photographer who has told real stories for a living, I’m even more excited because storytelling as a form of persuasion is a dominant paradigm in our culture, from testimonials to video docs. Reality, truth and authenticity matter to consumers but done in a way that emotionally engages an audience. As a photojournalist, it was all about finding the heart of a story, working effectively, and being creative to make the scene better than what was expected back in the office.

 

Where there is disruption, there is also innovation, problem-solving and opportunity.

 

All good reasons to be optimistic.

 

The Motivations of Journalists

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Patriotism and revolutionary enthusiasm in Cuba (©1995 Alex Garcia)

Last week, I was at Steppenwolf for Young Adults training session, talking in front of a group of teachers getting ready to spur discussions about their George Orwell’s Animal Farm play with high school students across Chicago.

The organizers felt that Orwell’s masterpiece of a book held up a mirror to the Russian Revolution, so they decided to bring in a photojournalist, whose role in society is often called a mirror. (I also had a lot of experience with Cuba, as Orwell had with Russia, so there were some interesting revolutionary parallels).

In preparing what I would say, they pointed me to an essay by Orwell called, “Why I Write”.

His words struck deep at the heart of motivation – a gut check if you need one.

He talked about the four motivating factors of writers, which I would argue sums up the motivations of photojournalists as well.

  1.  Sheer egoism
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm
  3. Historical impulse
  4. Political purpose (advancing society)

I was asked in front of the class, of course, which one I felt most applied to my motivations as a photojournalist. I said, frankly, “All of them.”

In the same order, there is the:

  1. “Look at me!” quality of being able to secure unique and enviable access as a photojournalist.
  2. The joy of being able to create art called photographs that don’t always have to have strong news value.
  3. The privilege and responsibility of witnessing and recording history.
  4. The belief and hope that our pictures will help change society.

But to be honest, I’ve lately been in a state of mind where I look at “historical impulse” and all I can think about is the dedication of someone like journalist James Foley.

I taught photojournalism at the Medill graduate school, but he was before my time. I’m sure he would have been in the class and I wish I could have met him.

He had the kind of unyielding dedication to conflict journalism that I knew from the beginning of my career that I did not. He was truly in the middle of dangerous revolutions.

Over the years, I’ll sometimes meet photographers who want to work in conflict zones, and to be honest, I’ve sometimes wondered if their egoism was more a part of their desire to see action more than any historical impulse. Just last week, a photographer speculated on Twitter about whether he should go down to Ferguson in order to get something for his portfolio.

There is no such doubt with Foley. He seemed incredibly grounded in the historical impulse and a plain dedication to the truth.

But even that would be too limiting to describe his dedication, because the more I read about him, the more he appeared dedicated to something far more personal. He felt a deep calling to testify for people caught up in the ugliness of war.

About 70 journalists have been killed in Syria since 1992. So many have sacrificed not just for political ideals but also for very personal and human reasons.

Orwell overlooked a fifth ideal that motivates many writers and photographers:

  1. To help others.

For that, Foley and others are inspirations for journalists, writers and photographers everywhere in our roles as mirrors to power and revolutions.

 

 

 

Relaunching AssignmentChicago.com

Welcome back to AssignmentChicago.com. For those who followed my blog by this name at the Chicago Tribune, I left the paper a few weeks ago to pursue a freelance career based here in Chicago. It’s been on my heart for awhile to do so, as I saw more and more opportunities for visual storytelling to which I wanted to say “Yes!”  Yet before I left there were many posts that I still wanted to write, that I just didn’t have time to squeeze in before going. So I’m returning to this domain address, which I purchased years ago before my blog moved to the Tribune site. It’s where Assignment Chicago first got its start.

Now that this blog is independent, there will be things I can say without it being perceived as the opinions of my former employer. I look forward to writing more posts about photojournalism, visual storytelling and the editorial world with more candor but still the same politeness (unless your staff lets go of its photojournalists). As before, I’ll be posting pictures but with probably less frequency depending on the preferences of my clients. My longer posts will still aim to be educational, hopefully inspirational, and others well, thanks for the benefit of the doubt.

Stay tuned to this space…

Alex Garcia

Running to the Sun

Alex Garcia Lake Michigan picture photo©2010 Chicago Tribune/Alex Garcia

A jogger crosses the lens plane as I lay flat on cold concrete photographing a pedestrian bridge next to Lake Michigan. I was glad he wasn’t freaked out by a stranger, basically in a sniper position, laying down in the middle of his morning routine. Up until that point,  pedestrians, bicyclists and joggers would run close to the side of the bridge to get out of the picture or maybe to avoid my presence.  In preparation for the moment, I had been tweaking that sunburst at right – just too much either way would have created intense lens flare, or would have blocked it completely. This was one of those enjoyable mornings of beautiful sun, invigorating weather, and time to explore. Just lovely…

Airplane Engines Land on Art Institute

Alex Garcia Chicago Art Institute picture photo©2010 Chicago Tribune/Alex Garcia

Workers lift two airplane engines over Monroe Street and onto the rooftop terrace of the Art Institute in Chicago. The English artist Roger Hiorns was there with his wife and baby, watching another birth as the Pratt & Whitney TF33 P9 engines, which come from a U.S. Air Force Boeing EC135 Looking Glass surveillance aircraft, were delivered into his hands for a public opening this Saturday.  Having seen some airplane engines up close before on the tarmac at O’Hare, I could relate to the idea of incorporating these marvels of design into an art setting.  Of course, that’s not the exhibit was about. As someone fascinated by “culturally dominant objects”, the artist had inserted into the engines three pharmaceuticals used to treat trauma and depression, Effexor, Citalopram and Mannitol. They are beyond the sight and reach of viewers, but help make “the connection between global security and individual well being.”  I wouldn’t even try to make that up….

Street Accordion on State

chicago accordion player picture photo©2010 Alex Garcia

Street musician Slobodan Markovich plays the accordion outside the former Marshall Field’s in State Street in Chicago. I was out after work and stopped briefly to photograph the scene. I’m not much of a street photographer who photographs strangers,  but every now and then a scene will evoke a sense of another time or era that makes me stop.  Now that Marshall Field’s is gone, replaced by Macy’s, the old signage provides hints of a past that has been eclipsed by much development in the last two decades. From a visual perspective, there is also something special about the accordion. They have more “old world” charm than overturned paint buckets and drumsticks used by other street musicians. In regards to the Cubs, well, let’s hope our accordionist isn’t playing their same old song!

A Forest Painted Blue and Orange

Tree Painting2 picture photo©2010 Chicago Tribune/Alex Garcia

“Painted Forest” is an idea co-sponsored by the Chicago Park District to paint trees that have been targeted for removal this year because they either died or are severely damaged. I’ve seen it driving by and thought it was pretty creative and whimsical.  But not everyone is tickled by this.  A Lincoln Park jogger was seen flipping off the workers and cursing their work. There’s the issue of public funds being used to paint trees that are going to be removed anyway. There’s also the issue of whether the city should be encouraging the painting of public property. And, as one passerby was reported to have commented to a worker with the project, “So you think you can improve upon God’s creation..?”  I don’t know how the colors were chosen (GO BEARS?), but maybe if they had used red, white and blue it might have gone over smoother…

Vulnerable Children

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©2010 Chicago Tribune/Alex Garcia

A special education teacher lifts a severely disabled preschooler to “circle time” during a morning preschool class at Frederick Stock School on the northwest side of Chicago. The school, which serves children with special needs, is yet another institution getting swept up in the embarrassing failings of the Illinois budget. The school faces drastic cuts under current proposed reductions.  Our story goes into some of the details, but there are always fears, possibilities and uncertainty that ripples through the hearts of concerned parents and beleagured educators that can’t be fully conveyed in words. Many states are grappling with their lack of money. In Illinois, things are a little different.  Corruption, waste and political cowardice in Illinois has made the state something of a joke in the national media, and it has made our finances worse. You might not need an up-close look at special needs children to get angry about all this, but it’s an urgent reminder of the vulnerable who suffer the consequences.

Revisiting Rwanda

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Last week was the anniversary of the start of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which at least 800,000 people were killed in about 100 days. In media terms, it’s an old story, having been replaced by many other horrific events. But especially during this time of year, it’s in my thoughts. I was there a few years ago on my own, documenting the efforts of a church from Southern California to help the country recover. I think many a photojournalist, and aspiring ones, dream of being the go-to person for dramatic news events around the world. For me, Rwanda has been the only place I’ve been to of any significant disaster. The unfortunate byproduct of this is that my journalist mind is more inclined to show the negative stuff from a place where conflict has occurred, even when the conflict is over and people are trying to move on. I know other photographers and observers know what I’m talking about. It’s understandable to some degree. The photos are true and relevant. They also carry more dramatic power that make people stop and think about an issue not over. If you’ve spent much time, effort and money to get somewhere, would you show photos of AIDS patients from a hospital, or people outside basket-weaving? But in the process, there is a side that often gets neglected – the positive, hopeful side on which any progress will be based.  For that reason, given the option to show pictures from Rwanda for this post, I’m using a few diptychs that show things both from a downbeat and upbeat point of view. Diptychs are an approach that my colleague Scott Strazzante has helped popularize, so I know one more photographer adapting it won’t surprise him any…

Loving-and-Hating Lake Street

LakeStreet picture photo©2010 Chicago Tribune/Alex Garcia

I’m having a love – hate relationship with Lake Street.  They say love is a verb. You choose to spend quality time with someone, or you don’t. Technically, then, we’re living life together. But oh, is this dysfunctional. With the insane amount of traffic on the Eisenhower – special sympathies to Elmhurstians, Hillsiders and my friends and family out west- I’m looking for shortcuts.  And I gravitate to Lake Street like a lovesick motorist. I love the long stretches of road with synchronized green lights. The swooning canopy of the elevated train and its cinematic streams of light. The sweet pathways into lower Wacker and the Tribune parking lot. It just feels right. But what’s not to love?  The white-knuckled driving as you whip past the train support structures only a few feet away,  knowing many motorists have died there. The unpredictable motorists who try to speed past everyone using the right lanes on the other side of the supports. The oncoming motorists who have an inordinate amount of power over your sense of safety in that gauntlet.  Motorists coming from the north and south who you pray have had plenty of sleep, since you have little foresight at several intersections. Floating pedestrians who glide into the street against the light and return your incredulous glance with an expression that says, “Just do me the favor”.  My head says one thing, my heart another. But for the sake of my kids, I need a better detour. I’m open to suggestions…

Photographer As…Painter

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This is my last of three posts attempting to compare photography to other professions. I was originally going to make the comparison to being a fisherman (ok, maybe a little weak) but after some compelling suggestions on this blog’s Facebook page by Kim and Kathryn that involved issues of aesthetics and design, I thought about another arts profession – how much my own approach to picture-taking is similar to that of a painter: fill in your background, capture the light, craft composition, fill in with action, share emotion of the scene. And, most importantly, connect with viewers. A muralist, whose work is seen by thousands if not millions everyday, often uses visual archetypes to be understood by the widest number of people. Some of the most successful photographs work on the same abstract level. As an example, pick up any recent copy of National Geographic and you’ll see images from other cultures and communities such as a mother and child bond, family togetherness at meal, workers braving elements in the fields, etc… Of course they can become cliches, but these prisms help us to understand others and to serve as a basis for images with more meaningful layers to them…

Update – Blackhawks Mural Painted Over

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Ouch. The controversial Blackhawks mural that was the center of a blogosphere firestorm has been painted over. The original image everyone referenced brought thousands of people to this blog, which shows you how quickly things can go viral when the Stanley Cup is at stake. Even Jonathan Toews was asked about it. He and the team were obviously not happy about it, and Blackhawks fans also, since they believed any kind of image of the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks could result in a jinx, or motivation for the team’s opponents. I don’t think the mural was actually even completed before it was gone…

Photographer As…Chef

CharlieTrotter1 picture photo© Chicago Tribune/Alex Garcia

“Photographer as Gardener” was the first of three comparisons that I’ve been making about the process of photography compared to other professions. The second was one that has always been in the back of mind, especially while I was on the features beat for some years. Photographer as Chef. (Or sometimes, Photographer as Short-Order Cook). The photo above is of Charlie Trotter, rising as a master chef to the Tribune challenge of reinventing the hot dog, which he turned into an Ahi Tuna Hot Dog. And that is what photographers are often asked to do – make something particularly special from the mundane. Every day. It’s like you’re going to the cupboard, scrambling for whatever ingredients you have, techniques learned or tools you hadn’t used in awhile, to meet the demands of readers, editors, colleagues, yourself, or the VIP who just walked in the door.  As Scott on this blog’s Facebook page noted, photographer have to stay on top of the art and science just like a chef to keep up with changing tastes and trends. But then other times, all the customer wants is what’s on the menu. Nothing fancy. Not the overly complex Italian food as dreamed up in “Big Night” but the spaghetti served on the red-and-white checkered tablecloth by the competitor across the street who packs them in. So you alternate between whipping up something special “C’est Magnifique!” and frying something in a jiffy.  But the pressure to meet expectations, not always known by the diner in advance,  is always on. The last thing you want is for the customer to send something back to the kitchen, or to leave the table, with your masterpiece untouched.

Photographer As Gardener

Daffodils2 picture photo©2010 Alex Garcia

It is said that the world’s oldest profession..is gardening. What must it have been like to be the first human being beholding the first flower?  To realize that all that was necessary for this glorious pop of color and design was contained in a tiny seed the color of blah. Scarcely unbelievable. You might ask, hmmm. ok, nice Alex – but what the HECK does this have to do with photojournalism? Every situation has a flower – its moment of beauty, emotion, light, or important meaning. You go into situations with the hope to find and to share with others your discovery. You take, but only for the benefit of the many more who are not privy. Sometimes the potential for pictures looks small, or blah.  In the process, it is good to bury your expectations of what the scene should be, and to let hope and patience grow something new. I could go on, but you get the picture.  In the many professional analogies that can be made about photographers and the process of picture-taking, this is the kind that springs eternal for me.

Good Friday

crucifixion1 picture photo©2010 Chicago Tribune/Alex Garcia

As a photographer shooting a religious procession or reenactment, it is not uncommon to find yourself in the sometimes paradoxical moment of “jostling for the sacred”. You’re running around, anticipating and preparing yourself for that sacred moment that you can’t miss. Everyone else seems calm and in the spiritual moment. But if you stay in such a moment, you’ve lost the ability to capture it.  So you’re sweating up a storm, your back is aching, “Jesus” keeps moving faster than you would think, and at the last moment some other photographer steps in front of you. At a “stations of the cross” moment on Good Friday last year in Pilsen, the only one of these I’ve shot, it was a similar situation. Lots of photographers. With so many, I’ve seen moments like this turn ridiculous.  I’m reminded of one religious pilgrimage in Cuba, there were so many photographers surrounding one person on his knees that the man dryly commented, “I hope one of you guys will give me a passport photo”.  Since no one else spoke Spanish, photographers passed off the remark as a prayer or religious utterance. A few moments after the above picture, after the cross was upright, the hectic jostling ceased and you realized the moment had peaked. There was no looking back. You either got it, or didn’t. In the back of your mind, and with your ears, you hear the words, “It is finished.”

Watching A Controlled Burn

controlledburn picture photo©2010 Alex Garcia

Black is not a color commonly associated with Spring, except if you’re watching a controlled burn. Outside city perimeters this is the season for forest management and prairie restoration, seen here west of Chicago. Wikipedia says “controlled burning stimulates the germination of some desirable forest trees…some seeds, such as sequoia, remain dormant until fire breaks down the seed coating.” Yadda, yadda, yadda. I’m just guilty of enjoying the visual spectacle of a harmless fire. Maybe it’s the caveman in me, or the Tom-Hanks-in-”Cast Away” in me.  I couldn’t help but stand downwind from the smoke, hoping to get a photo of the streaming light and the smoke passing quickly by me. Unfortunately the grandiose picture didn’t materialize, and my souvenir was nausea and a smoke smell I’m still whiffing…

At Google Headquarters

google1 picture photo©2010 Chicago Tribune/Alex Garcia

Probably no other assignment I have received has had such an ongoing impact on my understanding of the profession than the week I spent at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA. Two reporters and I spent the time getting to know the ins- and-outs of the place while interviewing the founders, their executives and their army of engineers. We listened to their competitors, website owners and their advertisers. We even visited their Chicago operations, where I was able to look over the shoulders of their ad team scrutinizing the Chicago Tribune website and our advertisers. It was life-changing. Have you ever had the opportunity to watch someone cheerfully plot your destruction? That’s kind of how it felt. Since then, I have tried to learn as much as I can about the intersection of web content, search engines and user behavior.  I have taken a keener interest in the digital products the Tribune has been rolling out. We’re profitable, we’ll emerge from bankruptcy, and we’ll hopefully adapt more quickly to the challenges of Google and others on the web. For the sake of journalism, we better succeed.

City of Broadly-Painted Shoulders

blackhawks mural picture photo©2010 Chicago Tribune/Alex Garcia

If you’re a mural artist, what a thrill it must be to have your work seen by so many thousands of people every day. It must be that much more gratifying to paint something besides a woman posing next to an oversized beer bottle, which is typically on this building. The downside is that everyone is a critic, so I’m sure he’ll get an earful about those, um, big nostrils on Jonathan Toews.  Mario on the assignment desk, to his credit, kept his eye on this Chicago Blackhawks mural – er, beer ad – and on the schedule so I could shoot this building. If the painter was just using a harness, it would have been interesting to photograph him as he painted in the face. But the horizontal scaffolding would have marred the full effect of seeing the mural.  The sun was out, so I parked and waited for the mural to emerge from shade, hoping the scaffolding wouldn’t lower much further.  I couldn’t leave without seeing the eye-popping red hit by direct sunlight.