Advice for a Freshman (Applicable to Everyone)

The first few weeks of school are over now, as hundreds of new photojournalism students have embarked on the adventure of the lifetime, filled with ideas, passion and aspirations. Yet this is also a time of uncertainty, nervousness and finding one’s own way.

Ryan Henriksen, Philip Scott Andrews, Joshua A. Bickel, Andrew Spear and Maddie McGarvey during a break from sessions at the Atlanta Photojournalism Workshop. Photo © 2010 Maddie McGarvey

After talking to some current students and PJ grads, I wanted to put together some advice about starting out for a young PJ. Here are some of those thoughts – some brief, some long, but ultimately useful to anyone interested about this opportunity to learn with some amazing people. While many of the comments here are from Missouri and Ohio University students, good advice is good advice – pretty much applicable to any one, anywhere. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. What would you say to yourself on the first day? – Patrick Fallon, Visual Student Editor.

“Keep an open mind as you grow as a photographer, because everyone’s field of interest in photography changes over time.” – Clint Alwahab, graduate, University of Missouri

“Do everything you can in your first year to get your feet wet and get a better idea of what exactly you want to do. Wanting to explore and do lots of different things is good. I think everybody goes a little nuts for at least the first few months after they “discover” photography or get their first camera. Try working at the student paper, especially if you are interested in sports. Get to know the editors there and learn from their experiences.” – Chris Dunn, graduate, University of Missouri

Patrick Fallon shares his newest Facebook album, a parody of two Missouri and Ohio photo students both named “Joel” with remarkable similarities besides their names with MU photojournalism chair David Rees (center right). From left to right, fellow photo-j students Grant Hindsley, Sam Gause, Nick Agro and Jeff Lautenberger gather around. Photo by Chris Dunn.

“We all learn a ton when we get here and it is a total wake up call. Try things out and be active in the community in any way you can be. Don’t be a negative person, there is enough of that out there. Use the fuel of your excitement to make better pictures and learn from those around you. A strong community of people to help you with honest advice and who can push you is better than any class or accessory.” – Grant Hindsley, junior, University of Missouri

“Dork.” (Translation: Don’t take yourself too seriously)  – Ryan Henriksen, graduate, Ohio University and 64thCollege Photographer of the Year

“Find out if your J-School has an early enrollment program for PJ courses, so you can see if this is really what you want to do earlier.. It was for me.” – Taylor Glascock, graduate, University of Missouri.

Students listen to professor Rita Reed during the last day of their picture story class at the University of Missouri. Unlike some previous classes, this years class developed deep friendships and trust among each other in and out of class, a sense of openness that enabled better critiques and helped everyone grow as a photographer and a person. Photo © 2011 Taylor Glascock

“Everyone has a dream and a goal when they first start, we pursue it by seeking out advice from older photographers… and I think that is awesome.

Where would any of us be if we hadn’t wanted this really, really bad? It all starts with some sort of dream and then you shape it until you find what fits for you. I didn’t know shit about photojournalism before I started college. When I started, my portfolio consisted of photos of animals, plants, and black and white photos where I made one color pop.  But I got to school and learned. So, so much and most of that was from guidance from older photographers who I trusted and looked up to.

Don’t be afraid to talk to an upperclassman who can help you grow as a photographer. Some solid mentoring can definitely help you out. As for the older PJs, remember where you were once and don’t forget to take that opportunity to help.” – Maddie McGarvey, senior at Ohio University and current NPPA Board Representative for Students.

Students trade prints with each other at an Ohio University print swap. Photo © Dustin Franz.

“We all go to school to learn, even if our heads are in the clouds. Get involved and meet the community of older kids. With hard work and an open mind the shooting will all fall in to place. I certainly didn’t have a photography website when I was applying to schools. I had a portfolio, but I had not a clue what I was doing.

Get amped up and talk with your advisers and professors about how you can become more involved. A strong PJ community can push you to great heights, but you have to become a part of it.” – Nick Agro, junior at University of Missouri

“Keep your chin down, work hard and don’t make a name for yourself for the wrong reasons.” – Daniel Berman, senior, Western Washington University.

“Just this week I went back and looked at a bunch of stuff I shot in my first few weeks and months at Missouri. Most of it is total crap by what I’d deem acceptable today. But I know that in those few weeks and months I was giving it everything I had. I never half-assed something. Have a work ethic. Have goals. Bite off more than you (or your editor) thinks you can chew. A will to work, to teach yourself, to take risks and do crazy things are some of the best things you can do to help yourself learn to find your voice and style of photography, and to become a better visual journalist.” – Jeff Lautenberger, graduate, University of Missouri.

“Stay focused – but don’t stress as much! Whatever is going to happen will happen – just push through it and smile. Nothing is the end of the world! I would also suggest really paying attention in those dull classes (comm law, history of journo etc…) in the end they are really helpful! AND back up EVERYTHING and start a good naming and archiving system early, you will thank yourself for it years down the road.” – Chelsea Sektnan, graduate, University of Missouri

“Take non photo/journalism classes… and take photos for yourself.” – Karly Domb Sadof, graduate, New York University.

“Know that you aren’t going to be good automatically, and you’re going to be surrounded by a million people that you think are more amazing, but with super hard work and persistence, you will look back in a few years and realize how far you’ve come.” – Katie Currid, senior, University of Missouri.

“It’s all going to be ok… you can do this,” – Cody Duty, graduate, Western Kentucky University

And finally some fantastic thoughts from Joshua Bickel:

“The last thing any of us needs to hear is how bad it is out there. It’s always been hard to pursue this as a career and I think we all know that.

Be encouraged to make pictures that you want to make. And if they’re all pictures of deer frolicking in the woods, then it needs to be the best damn picture of a deer in the woods ever. Find people who can help you be better photographically and in the process become the best damn editor of deer-frolicking-in-the-woods images.

I think at one point we all imagined ourselves working for a place like National Geographic. But, I’d bet that most, if not all of the photographers who work there, never went in expecting that they’d ever be on assignment for the magazine. They went out, made the best images they could, and eventually that led to a career. We all know this, and we’ve all heard older, wiser photographers repeat this a thousand times: Shoot for yourself. If you care bad enough about what you photograph and it shows in the image, the career will come, I promise.

More importantly than the act of photographing, though, spend as much time – if not more – finding other people who you trust. People who will critique you and help you grow, and to ignore the ones who don’t give two shits about you. I’ve been away from Missouri for less than three months, but now that I’m not around people who think kinda like I think and learned kinda the same things I learned, I realized one really important thing:

Not having those people physically around sucks.

Columbia, Missouri is unique that way and I don’t think you realize it until you’re not there anymore. It’s a blessing to be surrounded by people (once you know who they are) who both care about you and the work that you do. There’s always going to be somebody (who’s probably in charge of you) who doesn’t see things the way you do, and who might try to force you to do things the way they would do them. When I read this Magnum post, this advice punched me in the face:

“Make the pictures you feel compelled to make and perhaps that will lead to a career. But if you try to make the career first, you will just make shitty pictures that you don’t care about.” – Chris Anderson (Magnum)

Whoa. Ain’t that the truth.

– Find people you trust, keep them close and always seek their advice.

– Be a human first, be a photographer second and try to turn that into a career third.

– Fight for stories you want to do. Then fight to do them the way you want to do them.

– If you’re lucky, work with people who won’t make you fight for these stories, but will help you make them, and yourself, better.

– And finally, remember to relax every now and then and put the camera down.” – Joshua A. Bickel, Masters Graduate, University of Missouri, and former adjunct professor at MU.

Feel free to leave your own advice in the comments!

More great advice on the Magnum Photos Blog


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