Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Photojournalism is a great way to develop social skills

photo by Jeff Raymond
Being a visual storyteller requires you to capture a wide range of information and distilling it down to the essential elements to capture an audience's attention and inform them about a subject.

When starting out in this profession you learn a great deal from your mistakes those first few years. One of the first things most newspaper photographers fail to do early on is getting all the information necessary to write a caption. You cannot do this job like a tourist who just snaps photos as they travel. You must interact with the people you photograph and get some basic information necessary to the story.

Born with Asperger's Syndrome and an Introvert

I am an introvert and also have Asperger's.
An INTROVERT is a person who is energized by being alone and whose energy is drained by being around other people. Contrary to what most people think, an introvert is not simply a person who is shy. Being introspective, though, does not mean that an introvert never has conversations. However, those conversations are generally about ideas and concepts, not about what they consider the trivial matters of social small talk. Introverts make up about 60% of the gifted population but only about 25-40% of the general population.
Asperger’s Syndrome is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.
Introverts are drained by talking to people about subjects they don't have an interest in. People with Asperger's struggle with verbalizing their thoughts.

The most difficult thing that I continue to struggle with even today is empathy. True empathy is the ability to be aware of one’s own feelings and thoughts at the same time you are aware of another person’s feelings and thoughts (or several other persons’). It means having the wherewithal to speak about this awareness. It also means creating mutual understanding and a sense of caring for one another.

I had to learn that I had very little empathy. This took until my 30's to start to deal with this flaw. Since I am not wired to naturally observe other's feelings I needed to work on this skill.

This is where photography became an asset. To make my photos better I had to get better at analyzing situations and seeing those visual clues to pick up on the emotions of people. DING! DING! Eureka moments started to take place once I had training in body language. I first started really studying body language in Social Work, but it was my time with Don Rutledge, my photo mentor, who really taught me to see emotions.

It would take years before I could take what I was being taught and actually start to capture it with my camera.

photo by Ken Touchton
I had to learn I needed to stop expecting that my grasp of the facts should rule. This was a trait that I share with many who have Asperger's.

I couldn't continue to say I was the arbiter of truth and protected by the second amendment when working for all my clients. Social skills had to be developed to navigate the intricate path to gain access and cooperation to tell stories and to get the assignments as well.

photo by Jeff Raymond

Journalist Questions

The formula for getting the complete story on a subject starts with answering the Five Ws.

  • Who is it about?
  • What happened?
  • Where did it take place?
  • When did it take place?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen?
Curiously none of the answers to these questions is a simple "yes" or "no".  My first experience was shooting for the East Carolinian, the East Carolina University student paper. I remember editors looking at my photos and loving them and then saying they couldn't use them because I didn't have the names of the people.

I learned quickly that if I wanted to get published and paid I had to have the Five Ws. 

I loved doing photography so much that I would do anything to keep doing it—even talk to people about subjects I wasn't interested in at first. What I started to learn through the years was that everyone has a story and that by just spending some time listening and asking questions I found out I was interested in a lot more subjects than before I started as a journalist.

I am critiquing students work with Morris Abernathy and Warren Johnson

Photo Critique Sessions

I went to experts in photography to have them review my work. Each time I learned things that I could do to improve my photos. Then I would work on these recommendations and then come back to those people and ask how did I do in implementing their suggestions.

I did this for a good twenty years with Don Rutledge and never did he not have something that I could work on to improve. I went to the Maine Photographic Workshop and studied with Steve McCurry and took that time to work on other aspects of my storytelling. Over time I got my work in front of the industry leaders. Each time I learned something else that if I tweaked would make my images better at storytelling.

I remember the first time I shared my images with Tom Kennedy. At the time he was the director of photography for National Geographic Magazine. I was terrified. He complimented me about it being solid professional work and then he said that I needed surprises. He expected to see the level of work I was doing, but to grab Tom's attention for National Geographic Magazine I needed to surprise him. It would take a good ten years to really understand all that he meant with that statement and where I started to shoot for a unique and different photo.

I learned that when I started mentoring and critiquing other's work that I started to grow even more. To teach photography means you must understand the subject at a much higher level.

Teaching Photojournalism—Icing on the Cake

What photojournalism taught me was how to listen to subjects and really do a better job of understanding them and helped me to tell their story. When the subjects would contact me and thank me was when I started feeling like I was finally doing a good job.

Teaching made me really start to understand the audience more than I had done before. I could communicate something to them, but unless the message was received and understood then the story would fail.

When students didn't get a concept then I had to think of another way to get the message across. Do this a lot and you start to understand how to do a better job starting off. You start to learn how to do a better job of presenting the subject in the first place.

What I also learned is that no matter how well I do my job sometimes those messages that are really important may need different stories told to reach more of your audience.

Everything to make your photos better with storytelling are all the things that will improve your social skills. One of the best examples is the quote from the famous photographer Robert Capa, "If your photos are not good enough, you are not close enough."