Monday, December 04, 2006

Why We Do What We Do

I've often said that being a photographer is more an education than a job, describing it as, "like having a master's degree in everything." I've been told that it's a self-serving way to rationalize dropping out of college (more then 30 years ago), but it's essentially true and it has nothing to do with psychology or any attempt on my part to justify lacking a diploma.

Today, in the new edition of The Digital Journalist, Peter Howe's column contains the all time best description of the job usually known as "photographer," and while he's actually writing about Digital Journalist founder and editor Dirck Halstead, what he says about the job, applied broadly and minus, in most cases, the danger aspect and the hobnobbing with government officials (though I have met a few of those and more than my fair share of celebrities), sums up the situation very nicely.....

"Photojournalism is a strange way to make a living. For one thing the living you make is pretty marginal; it's not a career anyone ever undertook for the money. Furthermore, the working conditions under which you earn the pittance offered are appalling. They include getting shot at, being sleep and food deprived, spending way too much time in the coach section of an airplane, and way too little time at home. There's a reason that photojournalists don't have a union – any union organizer worth his or her salt wouldn't know where to begin righting the wrongs. And yet paradoxically it's also a life of incredible privilege. The average photojournalist, if there is such an animal, gets to go to more places, meet more people and experience more things than one could reasonably expect to force into three or four ordinary lifetimes. What other career would give its practitioners the opportunity to witness the fall of Saigon, photograph Louis Armstrong, Andy Warhol and the cast of "Star Trek," document eight presidencies, including accompanying Nixon on his historic trip to China, and to capture Clinton hugging an unknown White House intern named Lewinsky? This job gives those who embrace it an unparalleled front seat in the long-running show called history. The reason that most photojournalists put up with the low pay and difficult circumstances is that they are amazed they are allowed to do what they do."

Howe goes on to sing the praises of Mr. Halstead on the occasion of the publication of his new book, "Moments In Time." This is praise well deserved by a guy who has been at the forefront of his genre for a long, long time. I met Dirck Halstead once, introduced by a mutual friend, and I recall him telling me about one of his first professional jobs, working the overnight shift at the New York Daily News in 1953. I kept thinking, "Oh my God, he started working the year I was born!!"

Peter Howe has been writing about photographers for many years. He's been a Photo Editor at Life Magazine, a correspondent for American Photographer, and is a fine photographer in his own right. He's the consummate photo-insider and has done a remarkable job doing justice to Dirck Halstead's career in just a few paragraphs (and in the balance given a good insight into the millieu of all photographers).

The Digital Journalist is one of the most interesting publications available, regardless of your vocation, and has been a must-read since its premiere. I encourage you to read it regularly, especially today, especially Peter Howe's column, The Right Exposure.


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