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Harnessing the Power of Images -- and Getting Paid

Harnessing the Power of Images -- and Getting Paid

Picture of Angilee Shah

Think about the news in the last month. What sticks out? What connected with you?

It's much more likely that the dramatic image of a young girl in Afghanistan on the Aug. 9 cover of Time magazine is rising to the top than any text-heavy feature you marveled at this month. The power of images is clear -- they provoke, they tell stories, they resonate.

This week at Career GPS, ReportingonHealth members Gus Ruelas and Ian Willms talk about their careers as professional photojournalists. In the age of digital technology, how have things changed and what kind of careers should budding photographers expect? How can photographers tell stories about health and other sensitive topics?

As always, you can find job and fellowship opportunities at the end of this post. If you have ideas for future posts or listings you'd like to see here, you can log in and let me know. Keep up with Career GPS by signing up for weekly newsletters or via RSS.

First things first: How do you develop a career as a photojournalist?

Ruelas' career began in the late 80s with an internship at USA Today, followed by staff positions at the Hemet News in California and the Los Angeles Daily News. Since 2006, he has continued his work as a freelancer for the Associated Press, Thomson Reuters and the European Pressphoto Agency as well as other organizations, including occasional work for this website. He's photographed earthquakes, wildfires and floods, and spends a time in the photo wells of Dodger Stadium and on the Hollywood circuit. His advice for starting a career does not mirror his own experience, however. He writes in an email that new photographers have to take big risks:

Do whatever it takes, save up and cover the big story on your own. Go down to the Gulf of Mexico and document the spill, get a passport and go to Haiti and cover the earthquake and then take your images to AP, Thompson Reuters, The New York Times etc. and see if they can use them. Eventually you'll make a name for yourself and they'll start calling you.

Willms started his career with a paid student internship, basically as a staff photographer at a daily newspaper, in 2007 and then jumped to freelancing full-time in January 2009. He has been published in Village Voice Media, The Toronto Star, The National Post, Nasdaq's GlobeNewswire and Canwest News. He works on news, but also conceptual projects such as "Commodification," where he deals with our "mental health environment." The series will be published in Briarpatch Magazine in the fall. His photo essay about the city of Detroit won an award from the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and is on display from now until Sept. 23 ad the Pikto Gallery in Toronto, where Willms is based. As Ruelas suggests, he took big risks to get his career off the ground:

I just picked up a camera and started taking photographs of things that made me feel something inside. At the beginning, I was trying to photograph things that looked the way I felt. From there, I took a high school photography course, then a college photojournalism program and began to freelance as a photojournalist in Toronto. I feel that what sets my work apart from others is that it makes the viewer actually feel something. Since 2006, my work has taken me to some of the most dangerous streets of the United States and Canada, through deserts, over mountains and into caves. I have sat with drug addicts in alleys and movie stars in expensive hotels. It has been an interesting ride so far.

(Ian Willms)

Willms takes on the gritty stories. In college, he wrote an article about Mary Kenyon [left] and used her portrait to tell a story about mental illness and addiction in Canada. "At the time of this photo being taken, she was living in a boarding house and combining her schizophrenia medication with various street drugs," Willms explains. "She was too unstable to remain in the boarding house and was kicked out."

While Willms learned his craft in the digital age, Ruelas noticed changes as he switched from film to memory cards. Suddenly, he could do everything in the field, in isolation and in real-time. "This slowly eroded the collaborative process that used to take place when we all had to get back to the office to process and print our images," he explains. "But you see that the collaborative process is a big part of getting it right. The more people involved in the editing process, the better."

As a freelancer, Willms has found that editors can sometimes take a heavy hand with his photos:

The captions I include with the photographs are often altered and edited, sometimes to the point where the context of the photograph is changed or the subject matter is inaccurately represented. This is common with mainstream newspapers and one of the hardest parts of my job. In a few situations, my photographs have actually been digitally manipulated to better fit the layout of the page. In those cases, I make sure the editor hears about it. At the end of the day, it is my name on the photograph. That is my reputation and integrity on the line. I will not stand for an editor manipulating my photographs. It is harder to stand up for your work when you are a freelancer because the editor can always call someone else to do your job. However, I still feel it is my responsibility to stand up and take responsibility for the journalism I produce.

Digital technology has also opened the field for anyone to share photos, which has its upsides and downsides. Ruelas explains:

Anyone with a relatively inexpensive auto-focus, digital camera and a laptop can and do submit photographs. I know the more people doing it the better. How else could we have known about the opposition and protests in Iran if we didn't have the light of the social media illuminating the truth? But there is a down side. Mistakes are routinely made. This is a big problem as our industry routine struggles with credibility issues. Yes, the gatekeeper is gone, but I don't agree that that's a good thing.

Willms is vigilant not to devalue the work of professional photographers:

I never give photos away for free unless it is for an organization or cause that I personally believe in and I know that they can't afford to pay me anything for my services. Giving photos away for free not only devalues the work you do, but the work of other photographers. With that said, I believe that my prices should reflect what my client can reasonably afford.

(Gus Ruelas/Los Angeles Daily News)
In photographing health subjects, Ruelas explains the challenges:

There are always challenges in covering health topics, specifically when privacy and sensitivity are required and especially if they're institutionalized or in a hospital with HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] regulations in play. When AIDS first came on the scene, covering it was especially difficult due to the stigma associated with it. Anonymity is difficult because it flies in the face of credibility. If you can't show it, who is to say it's real? You can sometimes make a picture without showing faces and still tell the story, like showing a shelf of pills with the subject slightly out of focus in the background as he takes his daily regimen, illustrating his struggle as he does what he needs to do to stay alive.

Ruelas took this photo of leukemia patient, Amador Navarro, 6, and his family (above) for the Los Angeles Daily News with permission from public relations officials at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. He and the reporter he worked with got access largely because they found the family before the boy's treatment began in the course of the six-month reporting project. "I think it would have been much more difficult if we had gone to the hospital and asked if they had anybody we could do a story on," he says.

Willms offers this advice for protecting subjects' identities:

I have had assignments that required me to hide the identity of my subject for legal, confidentiality and/or safety reasons. In those situations, I like to talk with the subject and ask them what they are comfortable with before I begin to take any photographs. Usually, I have to photograph them as a silhouette or a part of them that is not their face. You don't need to have a person's face in the photo to communicate the essence of who they are. Sometimes, their environment, surroundings or details on their person tell the story best.

Digital technology, privacy and sensitivity concerns notwithstanding, Ruelas gets back to basics of photojournalism:

No matter what the story is, you always have to ask yourself how it affects people. You can't overthink it. I know it's a bit simplistic, but the definition of photo-journalism is 'pictures of people doing things.' So regardless if the story is policy-heavy or technical, if it effects people you need to show how and that's your picture. With recent stories on immigration law, the easiest thing to do would be to find protesters. The better thing to do is to spend a day with an undocumented worker in the fields.

As always, here are this week's opportunities:

Jobs, Awards and Fellowships

Reporter/Producer (general assignment including health care coverage), Colorado Public Radio
Location: Denver, Colorado
Status: Full Time
Medium: Radio

Excellence in Journalism Competition, Society of Professional Journalists Northern California
Eligibility: For stories published between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010 by news outlets or individuals based in Northern California, with $25-$35 entry fee
Award: Multiple categories, including special prizes in environmental and health care reporting
Deadline: Sept. 7, 2010
From the Website: "These awards honor the journalists whose work best reflects the SPJ ideals of initiative, integrity, talent and compassion."

REMINDER: POLITICO Fellowships
Eligibility: The fellowships are reserved for college (or graduate school) graduates who may have worked for up to two years at a professional news organization
Duration: One year, beginning Oct. 1, 2010
Benefits: A stipend of at least $35,000 (commensurate with experience) with benefits and two weeks' paid vacation
Deadline: Aug. 15, 2010
From the Website: "Priority will be given to applicants with interest in covering national politics, Congress or domestic policy issues such as energy, environment, defense, finance/economy and health care."

REMINDER: National Press Foundation Four-Day Fellowships: Cancer Issues
Eligibility: Support from a supervisor or editor and two work samples
Duration: Oct. 17-20, 2010
Benefits: Seminars with cancer experts in program of fifteen journalists
Deadline: Aug. 17, 2010
From the Website: "This four-day immersion in cancer issues will help journalists understand the latest research and its implications for cervical, prostate, breast and other cancers. Leading experts also will discuss controversies related to screening and treatment; the agenda will include at least one field trip to a relevant location in the nation's capital."

REMINDER: California Health Journalism Fellowships (a program of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, which publishes this website)
Eligibility: Open to professional journalists, including freelancers, in California who have a strong interest in health news, though they need not be dedicated health reporters.
Award: About one week's worth of all-expenses paid intensive seminars in Los Angeles
Deadline: Sept. 2, 2010
From the Website: "Taught by prize-winning journalists, community health leaders, policy analysts and health care experts, this Fellowship program features two intensive sessions, held three months apart. Fellows participate in field trips, workshops and seminars highlighting some of the top health challenges facing California."

REMINDER: Fund for Investigative Journalism
Eligibility: U.S. Journalists in local, regional and/or ethnic media
Duration: None
Benefits: $500 to $10,000 grants for investigative projects and mentorship
Deadline: Sept. 8, 2010
From the Website: "For more than forty years, the Fund for Investigative Journalism has supported work by reporters who do not have the resources to do their investigations, with grants ranging from $500 to $10,000. The Fund's distinguished board not only decides which applicants to help, but also provides guidance in pursuing stories and placing them with media outlets. In a new partnership with Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Fund also matches grant recipients with veteran journalists who serve as mentors, at a recipient's request."

REMINDER: Abe Fellowship for Journalists
Eligibility: Open to citizens or permanent residents of the United States or Japan with at least five years of professional journalism experience, with priority given to U.S. or Japanese journalists with no prior experience in the other country.
Award: Up to $23,500 for field work abroad and a fellows retreat to produce analysis or feature story about public policy topic.
Deadline: Sept. 15, 2010
From the Website: "The Program defines policy-relevant research as the study of existing public policies for the purpose of: a) deepening understanding of those policies and their consequences; and b) formulating more effective policies. Policy-relevance also pertains to the public dialogue on contemporary social issues."

REMINDER: Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Fund, J-Lab
Eligibility: Proposed projects must be about Philadelphia or the surrounding areas and must come with a distribution plan.
Award: $5,000 awards to 10 projects
Deadline: September 16, 2010
From the Website: "The Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Fund is a pilot project designed to develop opportunities for amplifying public affairs journalism in the region. The purpose of this fund is to help in-depth reporting projects get off the ground and to explore collaboration opportunities among news providers in the city and surrounding counties."

REMINDER: U.S. Young Journalist Program, Fulbright Kommission
Eligibility: Must be a U.S. citizen, with academic achievement and a good proposal and good to very good German language skills
Award: 10 month stay in Germany with stipends and expenses, as well as language training
Deadline: Oct. 18, 2010
From the Website: "The approximately 10-month stay begins in September and typically consists of an initial research phase, during which the grantee becomes familiar with his/her project in a German setting, followed by one or more internships with German institutions of print or broadcast media."

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