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November 23rd, 2015

Reuters Rules Out RAW, Experts Respond

reuters

Reuters will no longer permit its photographers and freelancers to submit RAW images for publication.

As first reported by Michael Zhang, Reuters instituted the ban on RAW images in the name of both speed and ethics. Photographers will be required to submit original JPEGs instead.

“As photojournalists working for the world’s largest international multimedia news provider, Reuters Pictures photographers work in line with our Photographer’s Handbook and the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles,” a Reuters spokesperson told us via email. 

“As eyewitness accounts of events covered by dedicated and responsible journalists, Reuters Pictures must reflect reality,” the spokesperson stated. “While we aim for photography of the highest aesthetic quality, our goal is not to artistically interpret the news. Speed is also very important to us. We have therefore asked our photographers to skip labour and time consuming processes to get our pictures to our clients faster.”

While RAW images provide far more latitude for post-process manipulation, those edits are also harder to disguise. Edits to JPEG images, however, are easier to mask and most pro cameras have JPEG profiles which can boost contrast and saturation without ever needing post process manipulation–which was one of the reasons World Press Photo changed its submission rules in 2015 to require only RAW image submissions for most categories. “The techniques used to reveal JPEG forgeries are not very reliable,” Jessica Fridrich, a professor at the T.J. Watson School of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Binghamton, told us in the spring for our story on catching image manipulators.

Reuters has in the past used software developed by image forensics experts Hany Farid and Kevin Conner (elements of which are available at izitrue) to verify the authenticity and integrity of JPEG images. Connor told us he wasn’t sure if the software was currently being used by Reuters. When asked how Reuters would ensure the integrity of JPEG images, the spokesperson declined further comment.

“It sounds like a knee-jerk reaction attempting to create a solution to a problem that isn’t really a solution,” said Sean Elliot, chair of the Ethics Committee of the National Press Photographers Association. “If the problem is photographers who don’t understand basic ethical standards of not altering images, then eliminating the use of RAW files will not actually solve the problem….The ease of post-processing with RAW files as compared to JPEGs is certainly real, but I don’t see this as addressing the deeper issues any better than applying a code of ethics.”

The move by Reuters, while abrupt, is not surprising. The manipulation of photojournalistic images has been a hot topic since World Press Photo disqualified 22 percent of images submitted to its 2015 contest–more than double the number of images that were disqualified in 2014. In a recent panel discussion hosted by Adobe during PhotoPlus Expo, New York Times photojournalist Lynsey Addario said she was shocked by how fellow photographers shooting the same scene would turn in heavily processed images that took liberties with the reality she saw before her eyes.

November 18th, 2015

DJI Drones Are About to Get Safer But at What Price? [Updated]

Phantom-3

DJI is about to make flying their drones safer thanks to a new “geo-fencing” system that will feed its flying cameras with continually updated airspace information and block them from taking off in or flying into unsafe zones.

The information, provided by AirMaps, will alert DJI drone users with up-to-date guidance on locations where flight may be restricted by regulations or safety concerns. Fliers will have info on temporary flight restrictions due to fires, stadium events, VIP travel and other events. According to DJI, the geo-fencing system will also “include for the first time restrictions around locations such as prisons, power plants and other sensitive areas where drone operations raise non-aviation security concerns.”

This obviously raises some questions about using DJI drones for investigative journalism. National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz, for instance, was arrested for taking aerial photographs of cattle farms. Would cattle farmers and other corporate interests be able to request and activate no-fly zones over their facilities? (We’ve reached out to DJI for clarification on this and will update this post when they respond.) Update: DJI tells us that they’ll provide more specific information about which sites would be deemed security considerations when the software launches in December. “We will generally follow guidance issued by national aviation safety and national security agencies,” a spokesperson told us.

DJI is providing some means of over-riding this geo-fencing too. By default, a DJI drone won’t fly into or take off in locations “that raise safety or security concerns” the company said, but registered users with verified DJI accounts will be able to over ride these settings in “some” locations that aren’t national security-related.

Over-riding a no-fly zone will require a DJI user account verified with a credit card, debit card or mobile phone number. DJI says the verification service “provides a measure of accountability in the event that the flight is later investigated by authorities.” Verification is free and DJI says it won’t collect or store credit card and mobile phone information.

The new geo-fencing system will initially be available in North America and Europe in December by updating drone firmware and the DJI Go app.

Read More:

Would You Get Arrested for a Nat Geo Cover Shot?

Meet the Uber for Photo Drones

Here’s the First Footage from GoPro’s Drone

The Best Drone Movies of the Year

November 16th, 2015

The Do’s and Don’ts of Collaborating with NGOs

Jane Huber, creative director of Oxfam America, says she’s inundated with requests from photographers wanting to work for the non-governmental organization. The photographers she rehires understand its mission and values—which includes respecting the individuals and communities it serves. “When you work in the field with an NGO, for all distinct purposes, you are the NGO,” says Huber. “You’re representing us and you want to embrace our values: human first.”

Huber was a participant on two panels during a one-day workshop titled “Photography: Agent for Change,”  hosted by the Alexia Foundation at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City on November 8. It was designed for documentary photographers and filmmakers who go beyond raising awareness and move into advocacy. Many photographers seek work from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the hopes that their images will be used in awareness campaigns, fund-raising and advocacy; some seek the access to communities or areas where the NGOs work, and want help with production and translation.

Huber spoke with PDN following the event to offer practical advice for photographers taking the initial steps to work with NGOs and how to behave in the field once they’ve been hired.

First of all, “do your homework,” Huber says. “As a prospective photographer you want to understand the objectives of Oxfam and what I’m seeking.” Huber continues, “I get a lot of emails that say, ‘I’d love to work for Oxfam because I love to travel and I’m interested in other cultures and I’m a photographer…’ And I think you haven’t done your homework. Photographers interested in doing work for international NGOs are a dime a dozen.”

To distinguish yourself, show that you know the organization and its programs well, Huber says; she recommends referencing specific campaigns that the NGO is conducting. Continue the email along the lines of “I’m particularly interested in labor issues and am always available for domestic work.” says Huber.  “Everybody likes to feel their time is valuable,” says Huber, “so you could say, ‘Dear X, I’m going to be in your area on Tuesday and I would love to take you out for coffee. It could be as short at 30 minutes.’” She adds, “Anyone who has a good portfolio, I’ll always try to give them a shot.”

Second, Huber expects photographers to put the people Oxfam serves before pictures. “You’d be surprised by what some people do in the field,” she says. “If you’re going to be a photographer working with people living in communities that are suffering because of poverty or violence and it’s for an organization that has a rights-based approach to development, then you have to mirror those values.” The photographers she rehires consider how they interact with the population they’re photographing. For example, she says: “If someone is weeping, it might be a really beautiful shot, but you may have to lose the great shot for the greater human interaction.”

Reciprocity with subjects is crucial, she says. At times that means missing the best light of the day to meet a contact person, an elder or local dignitary. It could also mean sitting down for tea. “I had a photographer who Oxfam worked with some years ago who I don’t choose to work with anymore,” Huber recalls. “It was reported back to me that when the family invited him to sit down for a cup of tea, he chose to sit in the corner and look at his camera. He may have thought he was using his time effectively, but when the team said it was important he sit with the family, he said, ‘I’m beat.’”

Huber sums it up by saying, “You may not be able to drink the tea because the water isn’t boiled, but you damn well sit there and show respect, because that’s reciprocity.”

—Sarah Stacke

Related Articles

How To Work Profitably with NGOs

Can Photography Affect Change?

November 11th, 2015

Professor Forced Out of U. of Missouri J-School after Blocking Student Journalists at Protest

A University of Missouri assistant professor who was caught on video trying to block a student journalist from covering a protest on Monday at the university’s main campus in Columbia has resigned her “courtesy appointment” at the Missouri School of Journalism, the university announced late yesterday.

The protests, over the university’s handling of racist incidents on campus, were covered by the national media. Protesters eventually forced the resignations of the university’s president, and the chancellor of the U of M-Columbia campus.

The widely circulated video of the professor, Melissa Click, was shot and posted by student reporter Mark Schierbecker. The video shows a group of protesters confronting student photojournalist Tim Tai, at the urging of Click. She tells him to “back off.” Tai hold his ground, and asserts his right to photograph the protest under the First Amendment, until the protesters interlocked arms and physically push him back.

Schierbecker then doubles back with his camera towards Click, who was behind the line of protesters confronting Tai, and asks to speak to her. “You need to get out,” she tells him.

“No, I don’t,” he responds.

At that point, Click appears to grab at his camera, then she turns around and calls for other protesters to help force Schierbecker away:  “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!”

Amid a storm of protest on social media over Click’s interference with the reporters’ First Amendment rights, Click said in a prepared statement yesterday, “I have reached out to the journalists involved to offer my sincere apologies and to express regrets over my actions.”

Last night, after a School of Journalism faculty meeting to discuss the incident, David Kurpius, the school’s dean, announced that Click had resigned her “courtesy appointment.” Kurpius noted that Click “never taught courses at the School.”

Her “courtesy appointment” at the School of Journalism simply enabled her to as a thesis reviewer for School of Journalism students, The New York Times explained in its report about the incident.

Click continues to hold her position in the communications department of the University of Missouri’s College of Arts & Science, according to the university.

Kurpius said in statement yesterday that “The Missiouri School of Journalism is proud of [Tai] for how he handled himself” during the confrontation with Click and other protesters.

Tai has said on Twitter, “I’m a little perturbed at being part of the story, so maybe let’s focus some more reporting on systemic racism in higher ed institutions.”

Related Articles

1st Amendment Watch: Will Police Ever Get the Message that Photography is Not a Crime?

Dept of Justice Blasts Ferguson Police for First Amendment Violations

October 24th, 2015

PhotoPlus Expo 2015: Photo Book Editors on How to Publish Your Photo Book

There may not be much money in photo book publishing, but is money a photographer’s only reason to publish a book? As Aperture book program publisher Lesley Martin said, “Books have become an integral part of photographic practice.” So for the legions of  photographers driven to publish a photo book despite the costs, a panel of experts gathered at PhotoPlus Expo to explain the how-to. Besides Martin, panelists included Abrams publisher Michael Sand, veteran book editor and agent Robert Morton, and photographer Lauren Henkin. PDN Editor Holly Stuart Hughes moderated the discussion.

The panelists discussed how to conceptualize a book project, how to pitch it to publishers, how to raise funds for publication, and how to market your book once it is published.

As veteran book editor and agent Robert Morton explained, technology has dramatically changed the photo book business. On the one hand, it’s easier than ever for photographers to create a book themselves thanks to online, on-demand publishing. On the other hand, photo books are much harder to sell because independent bookstores have closed by the hundreds, so potential buyers of photo books have no good way to browse. “Amazon doesn’t show you what’s inside the book,” he said.

The editors on the panel strongly advised against publishing albums of personal work. “Your material has to have a subject,” Morton said. “If it’s purely personal work, you’re going to have a hard time coming up with a subject. Fine art books that are purely and simply a photographer’s vision of the world are almost impossible to sell, [and were] even in the days when there were 4,000 bookstores.”

Hughes directed the audience to the Princeton Architectural Press submission guidelines for authors interested in pitching book ideas. Its questionnaire requires authors to figure out who the primary and secondary audiences are for their proposed book, to research comparable titles to the books they are proposing and answer other tough questions. The questionnaire had been recommended by Mary Virginia Swanson, co-author of Publish Your Photography Book. http://mvswanson.com/tag/publish-your-photography-book

“It gets to the heart of [the question]: Why does the world need your book?” Quoting Swanson, Hughes said, “If you can answer the questions, you can [pitch your book project] to any editor.”

Sand ran through his list of “14 thoughts on placing your book with a commercial publisher.” The list underscored the difficulty of getting a commercial trade publisher to publish and market photo book. Some of the items on Sand’s how-to list included:

1. Be famous. (Sand pointed to Drew Barrymore’s books of snapshots titled Find It in Everything)
2. Be famous and dead (e.g., Ansel Adams)
3. Be famous, live a complicated life, and write about it. (e.g., Sally Mann)
5. Get in a helicopter for a fresh perspective (e.g., George Steinmetz)
6. Associate with interesting people (e.g., Todd Selby, creator of The Selby)
9. Animals make good subjects
10. Consider food [cookbooks]

Martin explained that the two critical issues for publishers and self-publishers alike are how to pay for the production, printing, and distribution of a book, and how to find potential buyers in order to sell the book. A non-profit publisher, Aperture has traditionally raised funds through grants and print sales, but has recently worked with photographers by running Kickstarter crowd-funding campaigns —a strategy that not only raises money, but also helps to pre-sell copies of a book. For instance, a Kickstarter campaign for Richard Renaldi’s Touching Strangers book raised $80,000 in pre-publication book sales. Another Kickstarter campaign for Robin Schwartz’s Amelia & the Animals raised about $30,000.

Martin advised the audience that “the photo book community is a self-organized, highly networked, international community. So be part of it.” For instance, web sites such as Photobookclub.org offer resources and ideas for marketing a photo book–at festivals, book fairs, meet up, and through photo blogs. She also referred the audience to The Photobook Review, a free, twice-a-year publication from Aperture about book publishing. And Martin noted that “one of the myths of self-publishing is that have to do [everything] yourself. You don’t.” She added that the most successful books are the result of a collaborative effort.

And that has been the experience of Henkin, who has self-published several successful fine art books since 2010.

Having studied architecture, Henkin is as much concerned with materiality and scale of the books as she is with the content. Her books, which she has produced in editions of a few hundred,  are collectible as objects, as she discovered when she set about figuring out who might be interested in buying her first book. She found interest among a community of special collections librarians, who led her to private rare book dealers and collectors.

“I banged on a lot of doors to build that audience,” she said.

Her third (and most recent) book, Still Standing, Standing Still, is a sculptural object. It contains just 14 images of a single tree, place in a wooden box. The images are mounted on a stiff backing, and bound so they can be displayed radially on top of the box. Viewers can then walk around and view the images as if they’re walking around the tree Henkin photographed.

Henkin made 300 copies of the book, and priced it at $500. It sold out in a day.

by David Walker

Related:
You’ve Published Your Photo Book. Now How Do You Market It?
How to Pitch Your Photo Book to Publishers
Leveraging an Online Audience to Atrract Book Publishers
Lauren Henkin: How (and Why) to Hand-Make Your Photo Book

October 22nd, 2015

PhotoPlus Expo 2015: Nat Geo Photogs on How to Get Your Work Published

How do you get published in National Geographic magazine? Obsess, obsess, obsess. “If you’re not completely obsessed with excellence, with your story, with sharing your vision with the world, then there’s a problem,” said long-time National Geographic contributor Lynn Johnson at a Photo Plus Expo panel titled “Women of Vision at National Geographic.”

Others on the panel were photographers Jodi Cobb, Diane Cook, Stephanie Sinclair and Erika Larsen. National Geographic photo editor Elizabeth Krist moderated the discussion. They offered advice and tips for pitching ideas to editors, shaping stories, editing your work, and other topics.

“I love to work with photographers who are obsessed,” not only because their engagement is inspiring, Krist says, but because “I can trust they’e not going to miss anything.”

Several of the photographers described how consumed they are by their projects, not only because of insatiable curiosity, but because of the commitment they develop to their subjects along the way. That commitment often supersedes personal commitments, Johnson said. “Your family and friends can roll their eyes and talk about abandonment, but you’re out the door.”

Johnson continued to work on her story about medical marijuana for months after National Geographic published it. “The story is out, but we’re still on it,” she said, because by raising awareness about the benefits of the drug “there’s a chance to save a life or elevate the life of a family.”

“It’s not just a story,” Sinclair said. “What projects do you want to dedicate part of your life to [doing]? You spend years working on some of these projects.” Her “Too Young to Wed” project about child marriage was published by National Geographic in 2011. She is still working on it, with a goal of ending child marriage by raising awareness.

The panelists talked about how they find and frame stories in ways that appeal to editors.

“I’m looking for a way to make a story fun” so people can relate to it, said Cook, who produces stories for National Geographic with her husband, Len Jenshel. They are currently working on a story about trees. And rather than do another story about the destruction of the world’s forests, they are taking a humanistic approach by exploring the social, cultural, and religious significance of different types of trees. “I would rather, through beauty and seduction, get [viewers] to care,” Cook said.

Cobb said, “Editors love to be surprised” by story ideas as well as by photographs. She advised photographers to pitch stories “that are kind of unknown, something you have unique access to…What are you uniquely qualified to do?”

Krist agreed. “If you have access to part of the world that others don’t, that’s a huge advantage. It pushes you to the head of the queue” of photographers who are trying to get National Geographic interested in their projects. For example, Sinclair’s unique access to mormon communities convinced the magazine to assign the story she did about polygamy, Krist said.

Krist noted that National Geographic needs certain areas of expertise–notably photographers who specialize in archaeology–more than others, such as wildlife and underwater specialists.

In response to an question from an audience member about how to get magazines interested in publishing personal projects, panelists emphasized the importance of believing in your own projects and committing yourself to them, even if editors aren’t interested.

Sinclair said that when she first started pitching her child bride project, editors asked, Why should we care? “I had to go and make pictures to show why they should care,” she said.

Johnson added, “You have to know your subject matter better than anyone else, so it’s embedded in you. You have to put your money, your time, and your passion out there. It can take years” before editors get interested in what you are doing.

Cook emphasized the importance of showing works-in-progress to colleagues, and of editing tightly. “Make sure your first three pictures are your best, because if you lose [an editor] on the first three pictures, they’re gone.”

Panelists also said competitions and curated photo blogs are a good way to build exposure for your work. If editors see your work once, “and see it again, and again, they know if it gets better every time,” Johnson said. “At some point, [good work] will rise to the surface.”

Krist agreed, and said that as a body of work matures and rises, “eventually we say, ‘That’s someone we’d like to have shooting for us.'”

Related:
The Unsentimental Education of Lynn Johnson
Lynn Johnson on Veteran Survivors of Blast Force

October 15th, 2015

Iraqi Photographers Launch Ambitious Group Project About Millions Displaced by War

© Hawre Khalid / Metrography

© Hawre Khalid / Metrography. January 27, 2015, Kirkuk, Iraq: Abdullah Hazbar from outside his tent. Abdullah was wounded by Iraqi war planes’ bombing when he left his village with his family.

Metrography, an agency founded in 2009 to represent and train Iraqi photojournalists, yesterday launched a website for an ambitious group project that emphasizes the human cost of the ongoing war in Iraq and the greater Middle East, which has entered a new phase since the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014. “Map of Displacement” tells the stories of 12 families and individuals who are among the 1.5 million internally displaced people who have flooded into the Kurdistan region of Iraq since ISIS began to claim territory and terrorize civilian populations in the country.

The site aims to give people outside of Iraq an understanding of how conflict has effected “the real victims of the war, which are not the people who go fight it but are the people that are caught in-between,” explains Metrography editor in chief, Stefano Carini. It’s a particularly poignant story as refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere are struggling for asylum Europe and other countries around the world. Before people become refugees, most are displaced internally by conflict, Carini notes. “This is the story of every single person that is displaced. All the Syrians, all the Afghans that are now traveling to Europe, at first they were internally displaced people.” (more…)

October 7th, 2015

Victor Blue Documents Survivors of Kunduz Hospital Bombing

Front page of October 4 New York Times, with photo by Victor J. Blue. © The New York Times

Front page of October 4 New York Times, with photo by Victor J. Blue. © The New York Times

Victor J. Blue‘s image of a young patient who survived the US airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, appeared on the front page of The New York Times on October 4. Blue’s  interview with a man who survived the bombing was also reported in a follow-up story.

Blue happened to be working in Kabul, Afghanistan, on a story about the hospital run by Emergency, an Italian NGO, when patients started arriving from the Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) hospital in Kunduz. In addition to his front-page image of an eight-year-old patient  being comforted by a nurse, he photographed her being carried into the hospital and being treated.

Blue, who has traveled to and photographed in Afghanistan many times in the last six years, had spent two weeks in Kabul documenting work at the Emergency hospital. Admissions at that hospital have increased dramatically since the Taliban has regained ground. Blue says, “The month before I arrived, [Emergency] set a new record for admissions. Every day between 10 and 20 new patients are admitted. The hospital is so busy, they have to set strict admission criteria, only treating penetrating trauma—war wounds from bullets, shells, or mines and IED’s. They take some stabbings too.”

We reached Blue while he was awaiting transport to Kunduz, and asked him about his images and reporting on the MSF hospital casualties.

PDN: Why were you in Kabul, and working at the hospital there?
VB: I came to produce a piece on the flood of civilian casualties this year, and on the hospital in Kabul, Emergency, run by the Italian NGO of the same name, that works to save folks hurt in the fighting here. I made pictures in the hospital on both of my last two trips to Afghanistan. It’s an incredible place. The staff there are really open and dedicated, they work extremely hard to save a lot of lives.

The hospital in Kabul actually draws in patients from a pretty wide catchment area, 7 provinces. Emergency runs a network of First Aid Posts around Afghanistan, 46 in all, which are situated in the districts and usually stabilize the wounded before transfer to Kabul, although plenty of folks come in by private taxi. The majority were from Ghazni province, where the fighting between the Taliban and the government has been really fierce.

PDN: When did you—and the staff of the hospital—learn they’d be seeing patients moved from the MSF hospital in Kunduz?
VB: About four days or so after the Taliban overran Kunduz, a few patients started to trickle in. Then, after the bombing [of the hospital in Kunduz], it was a lot—around 20 came in one day. You could tell they had been treated in the hospital in Kunduz, but were not healed enough to be sent home, and came [to Kabul] to continue treatment. On Saturday afternoon, the day of the US airstrike, the two families I photographed arrived in Kabul via Afghan helicopter from Kunduz. When they came in, I had a nurse ask [for me] if it was OK if I made some pictures, and the parents of both of the children agreed. The Emergency nurses worked to remove their soiled bandages and assess the wounds. The kids were pretty scared and upset, and the nurses were amazing with them—not just calming them, but asking them to be brave while they helped them.

PDN: How did you get in touch with The New York Times, and what did you send?
VB: I talked with the father of one of the children [evacuated from Kunduz], Najibullah, and then asked a staff member at Emergency to translate for me. I interviewed him and realized that his personal account was really powerful, he had survived the bombing with his son in a bunker. The same blast that put his son in the hospital killed two other sons of his.
I am in touch with friends that work as New York Times reporters when I am in Afghanistan, and my friend Joe Goldstein… is currently here reporting. We had already hung out, and were in regular contact about the situation in Kunduz and about another story of his I had been assigned to [cover]. I called him up and told him what I had and he sent a car over to pick me up. I hung out at the Times bureau while the Afghan reporters called Najibullah and asked him some follow-up questions to the interview I brought. Then I filed the pictures. It was a Saturday and International Picture Editor David Furst was off, so my friend Metro Editor Niko Koppel received them and passed them on to International Picture Editor Thom McGuire, who worked hard to get them in the paper. Najibullah’s account of surviving the airstrike ran the next day. It felt good to get his voice into such an important story.

PDN: Did MSF workers from Kunduz go to Kabul, too and what did they tell you?  
VB: The next day at the hospital, more patients from the MSF hospital as well as MSF staff arrived at Emergency. They were still grieving and in shock and made it clear they did not want to take questions from journalists. I continued to do my work, shooting patients and surgeries and following the nurses on their rounds, but gave the MSF folks a wide berth. Of course I wanted to talk to them and hear their stories, but I had to respect their wishes. It was a big moment of solidarity between them and Emergency, two organizations with similar missions but that work very differently, and I wasn’t going to get in the way of that.

September 23rd, 2015

Study: Average Photojournalist Male, Self-Employed, Earning Less Than $30K

A new study released by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in association with World Press Photo offers a conflicting view of the lives of today’s photojournalists. On the one hand, the majority of the 1,556 photographers who participated in the survey are making $40,000 or less, and are concerned that risks to safety and financial security will only increase in the coming years; on the other hand, the majority are also happy with their career choice.

The study, which addresses financial concerns, employment status, the use of image manipulation, and social media, among other topics, is based on survey responses from photographers who entered the 2015 World Press Photo Contest. Respondents came from Europe (52 percent); North America (9.2 percent); South and Central America, and the Carribean (11.5 percent); Australasia (1.2 percent); Asia, Oceana, and the Middle East (22.3 percent); and Africa (1.3 percent). Eighty-five percent of respondents were male. (more…)

September 15th, 2015

How Maggie Steber Turned a Brutal Portfolio Review into Career Success

Maggie Steber ©TK

Maggie Steber ©Jim Virga

During our interview with photojournalist Maggie Steber, she observed that the photography business is now so challenging that you have to be a “never-say-die person” to succeed. But it was no easier for Steber when she was starting out than it is for any fledgling photographer. She explains in this excerpt from the interview how she learned to persevere through failure, and prepare for her big break.

PDN: You mentioned you had to come up with ways to think about the business so it doesn’t crush you. What were your strategies for that?
Maggie Steber: If I had a bad interview, or somebody didn’t like my work, I would go home, and I would cry, then I would look at my work and realize that I had to be better. I had to be really honest with myself. In some roundabout way, those people were trying to help me. I turned whatever negative thing I could around. You have to do whatever it takes to stay positive in this business, because it can be discouraging–and more so now because it’s so much harder.

PDN: Was there a particular incident where you got kicked in the teeth, that taught you how to handle setbacks?
MS: I was very young, I just graduated. I had saved money, and went to Paris for three months, and I was street shooting, thinking I would be the next Cartier-Bresson, which everybody thinks! Somebody decided to [revive] Look magazine [in 1979]. Eliane Laffont, who used to be in charge of Sygma, had been hired to be director of photography. They were having a portfolio review day. I was there with my silly little portfolio. I waited and waited and waited, and finally got to go in and see her, and she went through it very quickly and said, “I don’t know why you are wasting my time with this. You’re just a dilettante. What is this? There’s no story. Who do you think you are? Cartier-Bresson?” And every time I tried to say something, she wouldn’t let me finish. She just said, “You’re wasting my time, you’re wasting your own time. This is silly, thank you, goodbye.” I went home, and I cried, then I looked at my work and I thought, “This woman is exactly right. She’s absolutely right. I have these pictures, and what do they say? They didn’t really say anything about France. They don’t even say anything about me.”

PDN: And so what did you do?
MS: I thought: Why do I want to take pictures? Why am I in photography? I decided what I really wanted to do was to tell stories, so that’s what I started to do. I started really small. I found a magic shop that had a cat that did card tricks. I found a doll hospital, [owned] by this eccentric man who repaired dolls, and he had this whole relationship with these dolls. Little bitty stories. Then I started  going to Cuba on my own time and my own dime, and I did a lot of work and I was terrible. I was learning how to tell stories, how to do a long-term project.

Now, Eliane and I are dear, dear friends, and she did me one of the biggest favors anybody ever did for me.

PDN: How long did it take you to get your chops?
MS: I had a real ally in [veteran photo editor] Jimmy Colton, who gave me enormous opportunities throughout my career. He had my back. Every time I would come back [from Cuba], I would make a tray of slides, and I would go show Jimmy at Newsweek. He would give me ideas and feedback. I couldn’t get my foot in the door at TIME, at all, or if I did, I had a very bad experience. Which told me right away: Don’t go there, that’s not the place for you. That was a good lesson to know: Where do you fit in? Who’s welcoming you with open arms? It wasn’t like Newsweek was publishing my work at the time, but they were open to looking.

And then [in 1984] for the 25th anniversary of the Cuban revolution [Newsweek] sent me to Cuba with a writer—their UN bureau chief, a woman—to get an interview with Castro at the 25th anniversary [of the Cuban Revolution].  I had about 20 minutes to photograph Castro. [Newsweek] ran [the interview and pictures], and every Miami Cuban cancelled their subscription after it came out. [Castro loved it.] The next morning, a convoy of Jeeps came down the road, and who’s driving the first jeep, but Castro.

All these big journalists had ignored us, these two little girls. We got into [Castro’s] Jeep, to the great surprise of all the famous journalists. We went to a little private farm, and we walked in, there was a barbecue. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was there. Castro held court. We ate, and drank. I was taking pictures like a nut. It was remarkable. I really wish I had been a better photographer. At one point, Castro laid down in a hammock, and pretended to be asleep, even though he was smoking a cigar. He was playing with us, because he loved, loved the interview.

So I got lucky. It had nothing to do with me, it was that Jimmy Colton sent me, and we had this great opportunity presented to us. So developing relationships matter. Find at least one person who says, “I can’t use this but I see something in you.” [And then] you have to prove yourself on your own time, and your own dime.

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