Recently, a query from Dan Reimold of College Media Matters/University of Tampa landed in my inbox, requesting an interview for a forthcoming journalism text book he is working on now that will offer advice and experience from journalists. With his permission, I am publishing the contents of our online interview, which was conducted from July 1-5, 2011:
DAN REIMOLD. What are the best pieces of advice you have received or given about capturing quality photos?
AMANDA RIVKIN. Most of the best macro-level advice I have received has been from photographers-turned-editors like Santiago Lyon, the Director of Photography at The Associated Press, who has spoken to me and many, many other young photographers about the difference between taking pictures and making a picture and thinking about the frames you are taking as opposed to merely clicking away. Other photographers have undoubtedly helped along the way and too many to name, but the best advice I have found is only pertinent when it is later engrained in experience.
AR. The one time I talked with photographer Chris Hondros about this craft was at a bar in Brooklyn several years ago. One of the things that stuck with me from that encounter was his advice that “if you stay in this long enough, you will lose people along the way.” Hondros was killed last April in an artillery strike in Misrata, Libya along with filmmaker and photographer Tim Hetherington. There is no question that advice remains that until it is put to practice.
DR. What has been a particularly memorable moment for you as a photojournalist/photographer– during your student or professional days? A few lessons learned?
AR. When I get asked this question, I have learned that all most people really want to hear about is Rod Blagojevich since I was the only photographer to follow him his final day in office for The New York Times. I think in twenty years nobody will know the name Rod Blagojevich, yet shockingly almost three years after his initial arrest he has not yet exhausted the celebrity industrial complex to the extent he has the corruption that appears to have once characterized his political career.
AR. The first thing people most people want to know is how is this access arranged? I had nothing to do with it – I entirely credit the reporter Monica Davey, who I had never worked with before but then worked with many times since – and can imagine it was a series of negotiations but also in part because we were not the Chicago newspapers the former Governor felt had so wronged him at that moment.
AR. For me it was a case study in the neediness of politicians – Blagojevich called his wife with every move of the arm it seemed – and the mob mentality the press so often readily signs up for. It was really a chance to stand back and garner a different type of coverage, which I think is at least one of the goals of strong photography is that it seeks out and portrays a perspective that does not necessarily conform to the tried and tested formulas. People are drawn to Rod Blagojevich similarly for this circus-like atmosphere void of choreography or prediction, and so I suppose the subject in this case taught the photographer a great amount about what makes for an interesting photograph.
DR. What are the most common rookie or amateur mistakes you see new or untrained photographers make?
AR. Sadly most of the time it is not the amateurs I see misbehaving for they are still so green and fearful of failure that they are hesitant, cautious and perhaps make too few mistakes to learn from. Too often, though, I suppose they allow themselves to be intimidated by certain older photographers who work for marquee publications or wires adept at using their experience and position to nudge out someone younger in the way of their shot. I don’t blame them, but there are ways to accomplish this without ego waving or professional yardsticks. I think timidity is the greatest mark of an amateur, at least when I am out shooting for assignments that involve being in a highly competitive press box because then the only game until “the show” (whatever event you may be covering) gets going is just holding your own ground.
AR. The other mistake is very serious and that is the mistake of not understanding one’s own limitations, sort of the opposite problem of timidity. A camera on your shoulder is not enough to understand an extreme situation like a civil war or military engagement and neither is a view from a foxhole. The press often has a limited understanding in its own role in the promotion of armed conflict and so consequently to a certain breed of young photographer – and I am weary of being very critical here for the motivations and ambitions are not too far from my own – does not understand that the height of irresponsibility involves entering a hostile environment with no training, no insurance, no backing and no understanding.
AR. War is serious and so consequently should be approached in a serious way. Photographers who have covered in all or in part the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan can speak to the divergent experience of covering poorly trained, equipped rebels in Libya who were primarily comprised of the formerly professional classes. If there is a difference between regular and irregular armies that defies mere experience and years on the beat, than the same can be said of the difference between photographers who have military experience or knowledge and those who are comfortable merely chasing light and shadows in conflict zones. The AP Director of Photography Santiago Lyon refers to the different between seeing and thinking photographers, which I think is part of this difference, but it is something still more than that. Like most things, you can see war from a foxhole and from the level of grand strategy and I guess the photographers whose work I really love approach things from enough different foxholes to intimate at grand strategy. This is very tough for an amateur.
AR. They always say nowadays that no picture is worth your life and I am not sure that I agree with that but I will say that the pictures photographers have made in the final moments before their death are never the ones that would be worth it, however iconic the culture and times may pronounce them later. As someone once said to me, “Nobody cares if you climbed the mountain, wrestled the bear – all anyone cares about is if you did what you needed to do to get the shot and got out of there alive.”
DR. What are the keys to building and sustaining a worthwhile photo blog, and getting people to actually check it out?
AR. I am perhaps the wrong person to ask about building and sustaining a worthwhile photo blog as mine still feel so promotional and were started less than a year ago! I do think it is essential now, even if it is just to keep people who may be interested in your work aware of recent publication credits, work, or as I am fond of, combing through my photography archives to produce a series of “From the Archive” posts that are relevant to whatever may be happening in the world on a given week, sort of a photographic ode to the long march of history.
AR. I guess market research and knowing what you like and what you don’t like, what ways media works for you and does not work for you are the most successful ways to build a photo blog. Trends change constantly and as relevant right now as a photo blog is a presence on the social media sites, especially for individual or collectives of photographers, in time it is safe to say this too will be passé.
DR. What are the photographic ethics you rely upon most while shooting and editing??
AR. Honesty and integrity. While shooting you want to be faithful to the scene you are capturing and when editing you want to be faithful to the scene you captured.
DR. A bit tongue-in-cheek but truly curious… Is there a cosmic connection between photog and camera? (I hear rumors of some photographers naming their cameras or rescuing them from a fire before family pets…)
AR. Not that I am aware of. I don’t believe in such cosmic connections, but I do believe very much in karma. I once had a camera stolen by another photographer and if there is any cosmic connection between a photographer and his or her camera, that would be karma. For whom yet, I am not sure.
DR. What are the keys to establishing a quality online photo portfolio?
AR. It is tough to say what makes for a quality online portfolio beyond the basics: clean presentation, easy to read captions, and variety of work and experience. Otherwise I think it returns to the question of photographers blogging, which is to say, it should represent who you are and the work you currently produce and hopefully a glimpse at the work you would like to produce or might produce in the not-so-distant future.