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Interviews

November 2010

The prestigious World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass is taking place this month in Amsterdam - the seventeenth time it's been held. Twelve up-and-coming photographers have been selected from 162 nominations around the world to spend a week with a group of prominent experts to discuss the technical, journalistic and ethical aspects of their work.
In an exclusive CPN feature, five of the experts (two photographers, a publisher, a curator and an agency director) give wide-ranging advice on how to get started in photojournalism and documentary photography.

Maggie Steber

Maggie Steber is from the USA and has been a photographer, educator and picture editor. She has worked in dozens of countries focusing on telling the stories of underrepresented people. She covered Haiti for 22 years, which led to the publishing of the book, 'Dancing on Fire: Photographs from Haiti'. The recipient of several prizes and grants, including a World Press Photo first prize, Steber also worked for Associated Press and newspapers such as The Miami Herald where she was director of photography. Her images have appeared in magazines all around the world and at Visa pour l'Image International Festival of Photojournalism.

My experiences have allowed me to see photography from every angle and gain a greater understanding of the demands, limitations and inner workings of publications and the internet, but we are all trying to figure things out in a shifting world.

It is critical to understand there is no single way, no 'one size fits all', in photography. Do what you do best and want to do. Find a niche for the work. It's hard work so you had better love what you do. But always remain flexible.

Work on a long-term project, whether documentary, photojournalistic or artistic. Editors and curators need to see bodies of work that reveal the following: your intellectual and emotional approach, your approach to people, your persistence, your understanding of an idea, culture or issue.

Find picture editors who really like your work and you. Their jobs are thankless and one of the few pleasures is discovering and guiding new talent. You don't have to work for everyone at once.

Learn how print/website publications and galleries operate. Understand there are budget limitations and space issues. Being turned down doesn't mean they don't like the work. Go back and try again. Research corporate foundations for sponsorship and grants.

Be open to learning. Look at the work of all kinds of photographers, past and present. Read literature about a culture or place where you want to work. Remember, almost everything has been done. What makes a project, essay or series different is what you bring to it.

Be a 'warrior' in all you do. How you are perceived in the photo world, and in the wider world, is important. Get your work seen - show it to groups, use it to inform on a local level and expand from there. Photographers have changed things with photography because they took it out of the photo world, into the real world, and made it ameliorate the lives of the subjects and inform a wider audience.

Santiago Lyon

Santiago Lyon has been director of photography of The Associated Press since 2003, and is responsible for the AP's global photo report and the hundreds of photographers and photo editors worldwide who produce it. Lyon joined AP in 1991 in Cairo, Egypt after working for United Press International and Reuters. He served as AP photo editor for Spain and Portugal from 1995 until 2003, when he accepted a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. In 2005, under his direction, the AP won its 29th Pulitzer Prize for photography for a package of 20 photos from Iraq by 11 different photographers, five of them Iraqis. The agency added its 30th Pulitzer two years later for an image by Oded Balilty.

In order to establish a professional relationship with a major news agency it is important, in my view, to have a well-presented portfolio on either the web, disc or paper (8x10" prints) displaying a wide variety of photographic skills. News, sports, entertainment, stand-alone and long-term feature coverage are the pillars of wire agency work and a good display of 5 to 10 well-captioned photos in each area will show a prospective editor that you have the all-around skills required.

The images should, where possible, show different approaches to coverage that are storytelling, and where applicable, be eye-catching. Emotion, action, perspective and mood - these are all things that make a successful photograph.

Aside from proficiency with a camera, good journalistic skills are crucial. That means being well read and up to speed on the intricacies of domestic, regional and world affairs. In addition, foreign languages and an understanding of different cultures can be useful, as can experience traveling and working abroad.

Another crucial component of working for a news agency is the ability and willingness to be a team player and do what is required to help produce the comprehensive multi-image, coverage that wire agencies are so good at.

Once all or most of the above requirements have been met, the next question is where to make the initial contact. Sometimes this is best done at the agency headquarters level; sometimes it is best done at a local, regional or country office level. In any case it is good to get out and meet prospective agency colleagues, show them your work and ask their advice. Your pictures will usually do most of the talking for you.

And finally, set a goal, or series of goals and try to achieve them. Decide where and how you want your career to proceed and set out to try to make it happen. The advantages of working for a wire agency are primarily those of infrastructure and exposure. This means that you will have all the resources you need to get the job done and the delivery mechanism to ensure your photographs are seen by hundreds of millions of people the world over.

Dewi Lewis

Dewi Lewis founded his publishing company in 1994. Its list of authors includes internationally renowned photographers such as William Klein, Martin Parr, Simon Norfolk, Fay Godwin, Frank Horvat and Bruce Gilden. His own book, entitled 'Publishing Photography' was selected by Photo-Eye (USA) as the Best Photography Resource Book of the Year. He is a founding member of The European Publishers Award for Photography, now its 16th year. Lewis was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the UK's Royal Photographic Society in 2004 and in November 2009 was awarded the inaugural Royal Photographic Society Award for Outstanding Services to Photography.

In recent years the number of photography portfolio events has grown exponentially. While they can seem expensive, they enable photographers to meet with leading galleries, publishers and magazine editors - people often unwilling to meet with you to view your work at any other time.

Preparing a portfolio can be daunting and increasingly photographers are presenting digital books. These are fine as mailers to potential clients, but for face-to-face meetings it is always best to prepare a focused portfolio, individualised wherever possible for the person you are meeting. As a publisher, for example, I'm not impressed that you can cover everything from portraiture to reportage. Instead I want to see a single project of real depth.

Time slots are short - rarely more than 20 minutes - and so you need to plan exactly what and how you are going to present. You need to be able to describe your project simply and clearly, in no more than a few sentences, and this is well worth rehearsing. You should also limit yourself to no more than 30 images and have them sequenced in a way that makes the story both interesting and understandable.

A further benefit of portfolio events is the networking opportunity to meet other photographers, establishing not just friendships but also practical links that can often prove just as valuable as meeting the portfolio reviewers themselves.

Jodi Bieber

Image: © Stevan Buxt

Jodi Bieber is a photographer from South Africa. She has focused on long-term projects, such as one describing young people living on the fringes of society in her native country, which grew into the book 'Between Dogs and Wolves - Growing up with South Africa'. Her most recent book, 'Soweto', was published in 2010. She attended the 1996 Joop Swart Masterclass as a student and has since won eight World Press Photo Awards and First Place in Picture of the Year International (POYi) 2009. Bieber is represented by The Goodman Gallery and the Institute for Artist Management.

Being a student in the Joop Swart Masterclass in 1996 was a turning point for me, so I'm happy to be a teacher there this year. The world wasn't as connected then and we photographers from Africa were quite isolated, so when I was nominated to go and be a student with the likes of Paolo Pellegrin I thought, 'maybe we're not that bad after all!'.

I knew nothing then. I didn't know about magazines or how a picture editor worked. But I was hungry to learn and knew this was what I wanted to do. So I saw magazines in Germany, London, Paris and New York, and having the Masterclass behind me opened doors for those meetings.

For young photographers, it's not about being discovered first; it's about creating work and finding your own way. I didn't say, 'I'm going to do this or that' - I put my head down and created bodies of work and because I had the essays people became interested. By the time I got to the Masterclass I had four or five projects about my own country that I could show to the agencies and the magazines.

I would advise young photographers to live a modest, affordable life so that they can put all that they have into their work. You can be exposed to lots of photography these days via the internet, but I would also try to get some formal training on a recognised course. I don't believe it's only natural talent that gets you by. You also have to have passion and drive, and work hard.

Make sure your work is personal to who and where you are. Many students, especially in the west, make the mistake of immediately getting on a plane and trying to cover something foreign. If you tackle issues in your own backyard you'll probably understand the politics and economics, and you'll be more emotionally involved in it. I always tell my students, 'closer can be stronger'.

Alejandro Castellote

Alejandro Castellote is from Spain and began working as a photography curator in 1982. Between 1985 and 1996 he was Director of the Photography Department at the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid and created the Minerva Photography Gallery, a space devoted to young photographers. He was a founder of the International Photography Festival, PHotoEspaña, and its artistic director between 1998 and 2000. He is a teacher, and a writer and critic for various publications, and continues to work as a freelancer curator. In 2006 he was awarded the Prize Bartolomé Ros for the best professional track record in photography in Spain.

Every year thousands of students graduate from universities or private schools all around the world prepared to become photographers. The view that "there is nothing left to be photographed" does not seem to stop this massive migration towards the visual arts.

But to generate good images it is not enough to have a place in the photography panorama; it is also necessary to make them visible in the middle of this vast ocean of images that surrounds us. One has to find different strategies to approach and represent a theme that has been photographed a thousand times before and also strategies to make your work known, such as portfolio reviews at photo festivals, through websites and publications, etc.

We often find that literature offers answers that can be applied to the field of photographic narrations. Although literature has dealt with all kind of themes, it still captures the reader's attention. The story a writer tells is different from the rest when he looks into the world from his own particular point of view and he creates his own narrative structure to tell the story.

In photography it is necessary to develop a similar process that will exceed the mere copying or repetition of successful methodologies that have already been used in the art market or with publishers; it is necessary to risk in the search of our own grammar, a grammar that should be consistent with our inner world and/or our own culture; to extend the lifetime of a photograph by adding multiple layers of meanings into the image, going beyond the mere anecdote, eliminating tautologies and introducing visual signs that will make the spectator reflect on the interpretation of the image.