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How to Jump Start a Career in Photojournalism

A career in photojournalism isn’t an easy path to follow. Each job can require long hours, time away from home or being put in potentially frightening situations. That is IF you can get a job in the field at all.

The journalism industry has its challenges — relatively low pay among them — so a deep passion for storytelling is a requirement.

Assuming you have the passion, what else do you need for a successful entry or transition into a photojournalism career?

First and foremost, you need to do the work. It seems like a no-brainer, but it is often put on the back burner behind formal education.  A photography or journalism degree would be incredibly helpful and enriching, but neither is absolutely necessary for a career in the field. Putting together a dynamic portfolio, however, is 100 percent vital.

While I typically don’t recommend working for free, internships and part-time work can help build a portfolio. Start with your local newspapers, magazines and online news sources — including television stations. All of those publications and news outlets need visual content. Pitch them a photo story idea or two!

Fairgoers take an upside-down spin on the Inversion ride at the Yuma County Fair

A good way in the door might be to photograph breaking news events like a fire at a local restaurant, for example. It might not be your ideal topic to cover, and it might not even be your best work, but it’s a good way to establish relationships with editors and news directors.

If you do great work, the people who hire you or contract your services won’t likely care where you got your degree (or even if you have a degree at all). While it isn’t necessary to obtain a degree in photography or journalism, some formal education is always beneficial especially if you’re just starting and have minimal practical experience.

Remember though, those degrees don’t need to be in photography or journalism.

If your dream career is to photograph diverse cultures or endangered animals for National Geographic, you may want to consider a degree in anthropology or animal science. If you see yourself working with an adventure travel magazine, consider a degree in ecology. With those, you’ll have an authoritative voice in those specific photojournalism genres.

It doesn’t necessarily bind you to those, either – though that’s likely where you’d get the most work to start off.  Whatever it is, it should fit your own mold. Choose what you think would be an asset. The most important part is still putting in the work.

That’s actually a good word to remember. Repeat it to yourself … WORK! WORK! WORK!

Two people wade through a small canal, heading back to Mexico after trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Another had already began to return. Pictured at left is one layer of fencing, which is followed by the fence on the other side of the bridge that actually separates the U.S.-Mexico border.

The model of gaining knowledge and putting it to sensible use in photojournalism doesn’t just translate from formal education, but right from the workplace too.

Working as a carpenter or roofer might not seem like it would benefit your photojournalism career, but having different jobs and learning different skills can help broaden your horizons. Photojournalism is a lot about showing a general audience what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. It can help if you’ve actually been there – or in a similar position. In any case, it’s a real advantage to get to know your subjects.

A final thing to remember is that photojournalism is about the journalism as much as it is about the photographs.

You must be a good reporter and writer to effectively convey the message of your photo or photos. A picture might tell a thousand words, but it also has the ability to mislead people. Your job as a journalist is to give people accurate information, and clear and concise captions are what you use to do that.

A cool thing about working in photojournalism is access. You’re able to do things that a lot of people aren’t able to do, but you’re still able to share it with them in a tangible way – with a photograph that tells them about that moment in time.

Three MV-22 Ospreys take off after unloading Marines during a training exercise at Yuma Proving Ground

I’ve photographed presidents, athletes and entertainers; I’ve been aboard a C-17 aircraft to shoot a model of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which will one day be sent to Mars; and I’ve shown people how their city’s water treatment plant operates.

Photojournalism is about capturing an unfiltered moment that tells a story or adds to a story.

President Obama speaks in Detroit, MI on Labor Day 2011

So, if you’re ready to be a part of that – get to work!

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