I’m delighted to say that APA Chicago has asked me to speak as part of their regular photographer talks at the Apple Store. I’ll be talking about visual storytelling, both in an editorial and a commercial context, and what that means for photographers looking to connect with their audiences. I’ll be there for two hours on Monday, Oct. 20th from 7-9pm. For more details, please go to the APA Chicago website. Please mark it on your calendars!
(All images ©Alex Garcia and protected by the Incredible Hulk)
For me, the Redmoon Theater is like hot sauce. Everday life is better with it. I’ve always felt that way, even before being asked to be part of their official photo team this year. Their what’s-going-to-happen-next creativity and in-every-neighborhood orientation gives such flavor to the civic life of Chicago. My designated spot was the lower Michigan Avenue bridge, shooting eastward down Chicago River towards the lake. There was such a build-up to the houses being consumed by fire that I could understand that many people were disappointed by the lack of a cathartic burn. At a live event, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s unpredictable. It keeps you on your seat, better than live television. Yet to me, the ultimate joy of such an event is just being among other Chicagoans from all over the city, feeling connected across divisions that keep people apart. It’s why my favorite part of the show, a part that many missed because they left too soon, was seeing faces of Chicagoans floating down the river. All of the faces were of people who had surmounted obstacles in their lives, and all were connected to an event that aimed to celebrate a city that has and will overcome obstacles as well.
If you’re paying attention to the industry, you’ll notice something very interesting. Media companies are behaving a lot like photographers.
They’re expanding beyond their core business to leverage existing talents and skill-sets.
They’re giving workshops, entering the event industry and selling ebooks. They’re soliciting marketing clients with their finessed communication abilities.
They’re slashing overhead, aligning with existing video companies or expanding their own video production abilities.
They’re outsourcing production (in photographers’ cases, post-production) to other businesses in order to focus on their core business.
They’re aligning with competitors to reduce expenses of printing newspapers, in the same way that photojournalists are collectivizing to share overhead expenses.
What next, weddings?
I’m including sample spreads from my 140 page e-book “Depth of Field: Tips on Photojournalism and Creativity.” The e-book gathers together some of my favorite pictures and “Tuesday Tips” posts, edited and in some cases re-written for those looking for photography advice and a little inspiration.
If you buy this e-book, I’d be immensely grateful. Not because I would make any money from the sale, because I wouldn’t. All the content belongs to the Chicago Tribune in a trade-off that involved little things called salary and healthcare. It’s not about the money.
What you would be doing is ensuring it’s production as a hard copy book next year. From what I’ve been told, sales of e-book determines whether or not the e-book becomes a hard copy.
So yes, it’s technically been published. But not in print, the traditional way.
After four years of writing and blogging at the Chicago Tribune under the title of Assignment Chicago, a hard copy book would be an ideal way to codify a lot of time, sweat and hard work. After all that, wouldn’t you want to touch, carry and ultimately share a book in person?
With its publication as a hard copy on the line, you’d think I’d be promoting this e-book for the past two months like a desperate Kickstarter.
Well, there was this issue…. to my horror, somehow, a rough copy of the book was published on Amazon. So I was happily telling people all about the e-book, not knowing that it had a lot of errors, from pixelated and repeated images, to problems with formatting and editing. No one ever told me how these errors got in there. If you bought a copy during that period, I hope you saw my posts about returning it for an updated copy.
Then, the fixed format size of the ebook frustrated some phone and small tablet users. Then it completely crashed the Ebook member center at the Tribune. There was a plague, then locusts…
All is clear now.
Basically, the Tribune had never published an e-book before with so many high-res images. It was the first graphic-heavy e-book they have published. So being first meant serving as a warning to others!
After the accumulated hundreds of hours of writing, editing, re-writing, updating, designing, picture editing, toning and re-editing, to this outcome, I went into a funk of frustration about the rollout. Then I left my job.
(Note: this is not how you sell an e-book.)
So I’m OK now, but I have a request…
If you ever gained from my tips columns over the years, or if you know anyone who could, would you buy this ebook at the Chicago Tribune, Agate Publishing, or Amazon? If you’re a digital subscriber to the Chicago Tribune, you get it free. But it’s only $4.99.
It would mean a lot. Thank you for your support. I never thought when I first started writing Tuesday Tips at Assignment Chicago that it would become a weekly column that would get published in the Sunday paper and last four years.
It was an organic experience that became something meaningful for me and many others. I’ve been really touched, and to be honest humbly surprised, at how well received the blog was to students, other professionals, and the public.
Perhaps this book will be one of several more to come.
But, you know, I wouldn’t want to jinx it…
Yes, yes, you. No, I know. You don’t think you’re a troll. Trolls are other people.
But as a good friend once told a psychopath he met, “You know, I’ve never met a psychopath who realized that they’re a psychopath.”
Same as trolls. Well, actually, that’s not true. I have a cousin who trolls. He goes online onto sensitive stories and says outrageous things just to stir things up. Then he sits back, watches and laughs. And laughs. He plays the troll.
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 why 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.
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.
- Sheer egoism
- Aesthetic enthusiasm
- Historical impulse
- 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:
- “Look at me!” quality of being able to secure unique and enviable access as a photojournalist.
- The joy of being able to create art called photographs that don’t always have to have strong news value.
- The privilege and responsibility of witnessing and recording history.
- 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:
- 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.