“I have never heard of you,” and the Realities of Getting Known

Keeping visible during a TEDx event presentation in Chicago.

“I’ve been working in this town for 30 years and I’ve never heard of you”, the head of production at a Chicago ad agency said, impressed by my work but mystified about my perceived invisibility. A well-known commercial and editorial photographer who works for the same editor as I did as a staff photojournalist at the Tribune for years, had no idea who I was at a mixer.

This was shortly after leaving the Tribune. I knew then that things were going to be a little more uphill than expected.

The problem with working at one of the largest circulation news organizations in the country is that you assume people in your backyard creative community might know your name.

I didn’t think it unreasonable. I was one of the more public photographers at the paper before leaving three years ago. I had a Sunday column for years sharing photo tips. I was interviewed on radio and television numerous times, and presented work before thousands at events such as TEDx Midwest, Chicago Ideas Week and Chicago Lit Fest.

I had even worked large commercial jobs while freelancing during my free time from the Tribune, of course under the watchful eyes of that friendly person in Human Resources who would call me on Christmas Eve to make sure my freelance gig was approved by my supervisor.

So to any photojournalist looking to transition to the commercial world, that should be something to think about. You certainly shouldn’t wait until your buyout money starts to fade to get yourself going, because it can take a year of getting to know people before work starts coming your way. The one mistake I regret was not marketing right away after leaving, mostly because I was busy with a big client who helped make the leap possible.

One experienced commercial photographer seeing that I had prepared myself for freelance remarked, “It takes photographers normally 5 years to really get things going. It might take you 3.” I’m at 3 years now and finally things are jelling. I’m very grateful for the projects that come my way through relationships, many of them friends and colleagues who know and trust my work. It’s a lot of fun. It’s been a continuation of our relationships, in different stages of our lives.

So it doesn’t matter if you were a star in your industry. You might have a Pulitzer, put your life on the line in combat and worked in awful and dangerous conditions that would make a studio photographer crumble in fear and stress. You might have won awards in World Press Photo and been asked to mentor the next generation at some of the most prestigious workshops and universities in the world.

But once you leap into commercial or advertising worlds where you may not have as many contacts, prepare to prove yourself all over again to each and every new client. They may have heard of you. They likely haven’t. Either way, they assume you have set patterns and might not understand the sensibilities of project or client management or how to be guided by a creative brief, or more importantly, how to get along in their culture. I’ve written about the similarities of production between news and commercial work, but really, that’s all logic. In the end, we all make decisions based on gut and emotion.

The good news is that, if you ever learned to accept the editor phrase, “what you have done for me lately?” you’re well-prepared for future humility and the constant need for self-promotion.

There is another silver lining – proof you can have a career in photography without being known whatsoever. It’s not uncommon for me to stumble upon a commercial photographer or director I’ve never heard about, happily and successfully working for years in the city, oblivious to his need for a big reputation. He just knows the right dozen people to make a great career.

So I hope this is a great kick-in-the-pants about getting known before you hang out your shingle. One person’s “superstar”, which I was once called at a photo conference (true story), is another person’s unknown character lingering at an APA networking event (also true).

In the end what I’m discovering is a truism:

Being known helps create a relationship. Having a relationship brings trust. Trust brings work. And that process takes time.

Many photographers feel that social media fame is the way of the future. You see twenty-somethings getting offers of work from brands eager to connect to their audiences. Indeed, on assignment, I was impressed by the kitchen that McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook had devoted entirely to Instagram influencers. But I know a lot of very busy commercial photographers whose Instagram followings are abysmally low by superstar standards. It’s because they are proven talent – experienced, reliable and dependable. Your real life social network can be just as valuable as your online social network.

It all reminds me of a surprising conversation I had after a talk about storytelling I gave at the SoHo House here in Chicago. I was sitting with a group of photographers, talking about self-promotion. After I finished saying something about what it took to find new clients, a complete stranger across the table said to me, “You really disappoint me.” I stared at him, mystified.

Then he says, “If you, with all your experience and reputation, still have to work hard to find clients, how am I ever possibly going to make it? ”

I felt bad for him and didn’t know what to say. Honestly, I imagine it would be hard to start from scratch in today’s competitive photo world.

The first thought that occurred to me, sitting at an exclusive club of creatives from various industries, reflects a reality any self-employed person can relate to:

“Welcome to the club.”

What Makes for Compelling Images? Reflections from the Pictures of the Year Contest

This past week I was a judge for the Pictures of the Year International contest at the University of Missouri, where we sat in a room for 12 hours a day, for four days, viewing over 18,000 images from thousands of photographers across the globe. Per contest coordinator Rick Shaw’s guidelines for judging, we viewed each image three times, in order to give every image the benefit of the doubt. (So it was more like 54,000 viewings). At one point it felt like I was in the “Star Gate” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey as we hurtled through images from all over time and space, inundated with light, color and scenes of intensity from around the globe, filled with awe.

I was absolutely delighted to fulfill a professional milestone, alongside Elizabeth Krist, Bruce Strong, and Moe Doiron. Our job was to evaluate the Reportage multiple pictures categories on our way to choosing the Photographer of the Year. I had been to a POY judging – but only as a participant. This time, I was out of the armchair and into the hot seat – especially because our comments were at times recorded on Facebook Live.

As someone who has written about, taught and presented on effective visual communication, it was also a great opportunity for me to gain further insights into the urgent question that I often think about as a visual creator helping clients reach audiences.

What makes for compelling images?  

What images not only win contests, but also break through the visual noise and clutter to make a viewer stop, linger and look?

So as our group propelled ourselves through the images, I tried to answer this question. I paid attention to what was going through my mind (and gut) as I experienced the multitude of amazing images. It was not easy. We made split-second decisions that were often visceral.

I concluded that it came down to four criteria. They reflect image perception from the eye, to the mind and ultimately and most importantly, to the heart.


1. Beautiful

When your eyes are inundated with images, beauty always makes you stop and fill with awe – an underlying character of many viral images. So in this case, it became a bare minimum to move forward with an image.

Images had to combine light, mood, emotion and composition in a visual coherence that were just plain beautiful. If it was color, it had to be beautiful color – not necessarily bright and beautiful, as it could be high key and muted, or even dark and brooding. It just had to be done skillfully to heighten an aesthetic.

We had long discussions about post-production and color treatments, etc. As a photojournalism contest, it’s generally frowned upon for ethics reasons. If it supported the content, I was all in favor of it. If it became a look for the sake of a look, then I would argue against it. The winning portfolio had a series of images with a post-produced look that I felt was completely unnecessary. But I voted for it anyway on the strength of the content.

I will say that post-produced images are more likely to be given a second look, as you first experience the style and what it has to say, and then dig deeper into the image itself. In that pause, there is likely an opportunity.


2. Storytelling

Storytelling creates motion between images – a narrative thread that engages a viewer. We started with overviews of essays, where we could experience their overall context. This is where editing really became key.

Visual variety, identifiable faces or characters to put a face on an issue – all of these things help when viewing a body of images. Photographs shot at a distance were not quick reads and were a bit of a challenge to appreciate when viewed as a grid. Nonetheless, we lingered on them to give every entry its due.

When there is a push-and-pull between images shot at different distances and focal lengths, it produces a narrative motion that propels a viewer forward through a set of images. You can see the flow and it enhances a story. (This translates to sequencing for videos as well)

So it was very easy to quickly scan a grid of 12 or 40 images to tell whether there was a breakdown in the story in the form of repetitive or weak images.  The flow was also interrupted when a photographer put together two images that were just too similar to each other, but were likely separate in his/her own mind.

Because we all have short attention spans as humans, you don’t want any of these things to distract from the motion or sequencing of a narrative.

If images are all photographed in a similar manner that can work too, as long as the viewer is brought to an unexpected place by the repetition and uniformity. But it’s a delicate dance to make sure images are not redundant to the point that you lose interest.


3. Engaging

Images had to engage the mind. For this, a cognitive reaction of, “What’s this?” had to happen. New and fresh always get more attention in visual communication.

If an image makes you ask questions, all the better, but not to the extent that you walk away without enough information to understand what you just saw.  Then it’s just an irritation to your cognitive curiosity and the image gets dropped like a rock.

Rodeos or boot camps or any number of clichés got passed over quickly, unless they were exceptionally and uniquely presented. We’ve seen it. No surprise.

Engaging stories are ones that usually relevant to the cultural conversation at large – images that speak to ideas, thoughts and emotions that are swirling in our world.

For example, we all admitted to leaning forward in our chairs looking for picture stories that spoke to some of the bigger news stories from last year, such as Standing Rock or the Fidel Castro funeral.

For the stories about drug violence in the Philippines, we saw many photographers’ work. Which won? The story with contextual scenes that showed how the deaths intruded on daily life. Those were more engaging. We wondered what it would be like to have to deal with that on a day-to-day basis.

Another takeaway was that it’s important to relate any story back to shared human experience, to stir a connection (see below).


4. Emotional

Perhaps most obviously, emotion was the rule. It was the ultimate arbiter, how images made us feel, after all was said and done.

As a photojournalist at my news organizations, I always keyed on the emotion of a story in the limited time I had. You have to find the heart of a story.

But there’s a very important caveat that I think eludes a lot of people.

Emotions are only valuable to the extent that it makes the viewer care.

The images had to spur compassion, fun, anger, injustice, inspiration etc. Yes, it’s great if the subjects are emotional in the frame, but capturing emotion was not enough. As viewers we had to care about the subject to care about their emotion. Otherwise there is a disconnect. We have to know enough about the story and the context to be able to relate

Foreign ceremonies, unusual events, strange traditions, fetishes, or ethnic group profiles can all be interesting, visual and even emotional. But does it really matter to a viewer except in an anthropological – external observer kind of way?


As busy humans with short attention spans, we need to feel the urgency of caring, now.

That’s the challenge of any contest – to thread a narrative through beautiful and engaging images that make jurors care.

But that goes for just about all visual communication, and the everyday jurors who make split-second decisions that can determine your future.




New Gallery: Wildlife Foundation Image Library

I finally had some breathing time this month to upload photos for a picture gallery of a non-profit foundation project that I just loved working on. Over a year ago I was contacted by a former colleague who realized that his organization really needed to showcase the tremendous work it does, for members, supporters and the general public. Since then, I dropped in during different seasons to document the beautiful landscape in a creative photojournalism style for an image library for its internal and external communications. Their annual report is about to be published, which I’m excited about because it makes ample use of this imagery. I also shot some aerials and edited a video for the organization’s anniversary, which can be found in the motion-video category of my site, but also on their foundation’s page. Give them some view-love:-) if you have a few minutes. For visual consistency, I gave the images a creative treatment that reflects the feeling and mood that I experienced in my wanderings there, which was often during the Golden Hour. Hope you enjoy!

Printed Portfolio or iPad? It Could Depend on Your Genre…


When I first started attending portfolio reviews as a commercial and editorial photographer a couple years ago, I was faced with the question: Printed portfolio or iPad? I wanted to position myself among others who I perceived were mostly using books, so I created a printed portfolio. I even enlisted a friend who is a wood artisan, to create a gorgeous portfolio book made of black walnut. I loved it (and strongly recommend his work). I had something that was unique. On a conceptual level, it suggested the “real nature” of the “real people” that I generally work with. 

I spent days printing work at great expense, after making difficult choices about what to include and what not to include, mindful that a reviewer has a compressed period of time while turning oversized pages.

I wanted to distance myself from the digital media of an iPad. I thought printed material would convey a certain seriousness of my work as an artist, which is also something I had read in some interviews of portfolio reviewers.

But in the end, I decided to use an iPad Pro. Why?

Having gone through a few reviews with both a printed book and an iPad, this is what I’ve personally found:

  1. You can’t control for the light in the room when viewing prints. There’s no doubt that prints can be impressive. But if you’re stuck in a dark corner with a reviewer, your prints could appear dark and suffer from the lack of radiance they had while making your gorgeous print. If you’re stuck in an incredibly bright part of a room, your prints can look washed out. At least when you’re printing for a gallery show, you have some control over user experience. You can’t really say at a review, “Well, trust me, this looked fantastic in the room where I printed.”  Yes, it’s true that the iPad can have glare, but usually by tilting the screen, using a non-glare surface screen, that goes away. I personally haven’t found that to be an issue. I’ve certainly found that colors on an iPad will often sing more than on a printed page.
  2. Having a reviewer slow down to see every detail of your large print may work for your genre but it may not. In fact, it can steer the conversation away from the strengths of your abilities. I’ve observed that a reviewer will take more time and consideration with a print than a screen they can swipe. This is great if you’re the kind of photographer who invests hours or days into making a single image with detail, complexity and a level of production that you want the reviewer to notice and appreciate. But if you’re a storyteller like I am, “real moments” are more important. You might want someone to see a number of photos on the way to a mood, feeling or sense of intimacy. I also like to show I can work quickly, creating image libraries with emotion and action.
  3.  An iPad offers more potential to customize your presentation. This is more important when you attend a portfolio review event with multiple reviewers.  I happen to have many bodies of work, some with more commercial flavor, some with more editorial flavor and others in between. But at reviews, you can’t bring five printed books with you easily (just the optics of that raises eyebrows) but you can quickly customize your portfolio based on the research you’ve done. Easily customizing your galleries helps keeps your conversation on target with your reviewer and leads to less confusion about who you are as a photographer.  
  4. If you have a lot of work to show, an iPad is less overwhelming. At my most recent review, I showed far more work on my iPad than I ever could have shown via a printed book, and it still wasn’t enough for some reviewers who enjoyed the pictures and wanted to see more. Conversely, some reviewers appeared overwhelmed when a photographer’s voluminous portfolio book landed with a thud on the reviewing table. I would think the more you can show while respecting a reviewer’s time, the better. 
  5.  If you have motion to show, you’ll have an iPad there anyway. 
  6. There will be reviewers who enjoy printed books, and there will be some who like iPads. But will it really affect whether you get work? I’m guessing the greater influencers are whether they have need for your type of photography, whether they like your work and whether they trust your skill sets. I would think your conversation and your personality, more than the style of presentation, would give someone a greater edge.

If you do decide to bring an iPad, however, here are a couple tips I hope will be helpful:

  1. Be sure to completely charge the iPad, and to bring a portable battery charger or long battery cord. Or both. Like with any photo shoot, back-up your back-ups.
  2. Bring a soft cloth to wipe off fingerprints from the screen in between reviews.
  3. Turn off all notifications, update the system software and put the iPad into airplane mode. The last thing you need is a text or system message to pop-up during a review.
  4. Turn off the auto-lock, so you won’t have to deal with punching in your code in front of the reviewer. If you end up chatting for a few minutes in between viewing images,  the iPad may decide to take a breather.
  5. I personally use Foliobook, but there are many different types of iPad apps out there for photographer portfolios.


Don’t Fly Through Fireworks and 16 Other Ways to Avoid Crashing Your Drone


It’s the Fourth of July and there was a UAV flying over our town’s parade. Maybe he was taking a lead from that viral video of a drone flying through fireworks on the Fourth of July that made a stir awhile back. Was it a hobbyist flouting laws this time or a professional with permission? I was too busy selling lemonade for the Cub Scouts to investigate.

Either way, I’m hoping they’ve taken all the necessary precautions.  As I grow my experience with UAVs, my caution has only grown. It’s not just about protecting your investment, it’s protecting people on the ground, including the pilot. I know of a photographer whose octocopter took a chunk of skin off his leg, to the extent that he’s written them off as “flying chainsaws.”

I’m sure others have more tips to add, but from what I’ve learned, here are 14 observations about how to avoid a drone crash that could do damage to yourself and others on your very first flight.

1. Treat Murphy’s Law as if it ends with heavy fines passed by the FCC. To avoid the worst that can happen, learn all you can about flying and your drone in particular. Consult all the manuals and follow all federal and local laws. The Know Before You Fly is a great website to start with.  An educated pilot is a better pilot and a more skilled aerial photographer/videographer.

2. Don’t ever panic.  The physiology of fear will cause you to either freeze up or freak out.   I’ll never forget helping a friend fly a drone. When it started to veer away, he threw the controls in my hands and shrieked, “Get it under control!”  It’s up to you to have steely nerves even when everyone around you is flipping out – not unlike Denzel Washington in the movie “Flight”. (Just don’t get coked up beforehand).

3. Eliminate reflections on your control screen. I’d suggest either using a hood, or even better, a non-reflective screen protector for your tablet or phone. Or both. Either way, I’ve had to make split-second or fast decisions while flying and making pictures. Making those crucial decisions while struggling with reflections is like trying to see the road at 65mph while driving into sunlight.

4. Remember that inasmuch as you should always fly line-of-sight (LOS), you can’t gauge the distance of obstacles from a distance. Always refer to the live view which you use for photos and video, but don’t trust that either. The wide angle view of the camera lens can fool you, the delay of transmission can delay imagery if you’re flying fast, and power lines can escape notice of your screen’s resolution until it’s too late. 

5. If your flight path is straight, don’t assume you can fly UAV backwards to retreat safely. If your drone ever flies out of your LOS – never on purpose right? – there is a very good chance that, whether by wind or by controls, its flight path has subtly shifted. Flying it backwards in retreat could fly it right into an object you passed safely on the way out. I narrowly avoided making a drone into a Christmas ornament on a 100 foot tree this way.  

6. Don’t rely on DJI’s safe flying website. It’s helpful, but if you want even more detail about determining safe flight paths, consult SkyVector.com. Yes, it really is intimidating, I totally agree, but we’re all pilots now.

7. Don’t fly over people, especially crowds. It may not be news yet, but the FAA has stepped up its enforcement of risky UAV behavior by making examples of those who flout laws, especially on the East Coast.

8. An obvious one, but don’t fly over places that might generate electromagnetic interference or interfere with signals to your craft. You don’t want to have switch flight modes mid-air when the GPS mode loses its bearings.

9. Set an appropriate altitude for the Return to Home or Failsafe mode of your drone.  You don’t want your UAV to automatically fly into anything on the way back to the home point. 

10. Moreover, make sure your home point is set correctly every time you fly.  You don’t want the Return to Home function to send your drone to the home point from your last flight. Keep as much clear airspace around your home point, because the UAV won’t necessarily navigate automatically back to the precise spot of departure.

10. Wear bug spray before you fly outside. If you’re outside photographing in a rural area mosquitos will come over and feast on your hands and face while you’re trying to fly an expensive object in the air. It really can be a dangerous distraction.

11. Perform test runs in the days leading up to your flight. Update the flight app, calibrate the compass, the gimbal, the batteries and even the cardboard box if you could. You’ll likely find that there are new updates to firmware that could be useful or warning alerts you should investigate. I would check forums to see if there are complaints before you update because you know how that goes. You don’t want to be struggling to revert back to a previous version of system software on the day of a flight.

12. Batteries, batteries. Make sure they are securely positioned in the drone. Vibrations from flight have been know to exacerbate loose connections, causing a drone to lose power mid-flight. That would be a bad thing. Also make sure your batteries are retaining charge well. Checking up on your batteries every dozen flights is not a bad idea.

13. UAV’s can defy even those with the most experience, so resist the urge to be daring. The minute you get over-confident about its safety or your control is followed a few minutes later by the sounds of you screaming inside, “ABORT! ABORT!” 

14. Avoid wildlife. I was flying once in a private nature area and a few birds parted from their flock to flirt with my drone.  I’m hundreds of yards away and I was trying to shush it away like teenage boys from my daughter. “Go away! She’s not your type!

15. Just like any vehicle, I would recommend not flying angry, drunk, scared, or with too much swagger.

16. I would also agree with what Know Before you Fly tweeted today on our nation’s holiday, “Leave the fireworks to the professionals this holiday weekend & keep your drone at home, #KnowBeforeYouFly on #July4”


Why Photojournalists Understand the Needs of Production

During a recent panel discussion of art producers at a photo community meeting, a questioner in the crowd asserted that Instagram photographers (the kind who only work with phones) and photojournalists were ignorant about the needs of production. It was as if both lacked an appreciation of the complexity of producing a shoot.

At best, the analogy was a woeful overgeneralization. At the very least, it was uninformed. At the time, I figured it was the wrong time to divert the discussion

But it’s an unfortunate perception that breeds distrust and missed opportunities.

Ironically, what I’ve been most buoyed by in my commercial work have been the logistical similarities of producing shoots from my background in photojournalism.

As an example, recently I was looking over a spreadsheet with a photojournalist friend on a huge budget shoot for a well-known international magazine. 

It was the kind where you are your own cost-control expert, combing through budget line-items looking for efficiencies to keep a client calling you back. It was fairly typical planning for that kind of trip. 

His spreadsheet rated locations around the world, according to a dozen different criteria. He had consulted with top-level scientists around the world to confirm his perceptions and findings. He had articulated his vision on a creative call (or, conference call with editors and writer) and all were excited about the project. 

The project would take him to many rural areas off the grid. These were the kind of places where a random police officer could shut down the entire shoot with arbitrary and opaque laws, confiscate all your equipment and/or detain you and your crew unless you had cash available for “instant permits“. 

He needed to find experienced producers (orfixers) way ahead of time to help avoid any problems. The best are natively bilingual, with deep contacts, a nuanced understanding of the culture and an appreciation of the needs of photographers. The worst are government snitches who’ll sell you out if you’re in touchy areas around military installations or persecuted communities.

Moreover, he needed a location scout to vet identified places. Locations often hold more promise in theory than reality. You can’t waste valuable time and money to discover that what you expected to find only happens there in a different season.

If he were to lose power, or even lose one piece of equipment, the whole trip would be torpedoed, since he’s in the middle of nowhere and can’t send an assistant to a rental house the next country over. His backups needed backups. 

Food and catering?  On-the-go packaged protein would replace any available street fare that could sicken his team for days, an intolerable outcome, especially at a distance from healthcare. But then, he’d already arranged to be evacuated by helicopter in case of a medical crisis.

On his way to a “hero shot” he’ll have to streetcast talent (or, subjects) willing to be photographed. As many pre-interviews he can get done, the better. Even in news environments, you’re something of a casting agent looking for the most visually-compelling individual that fits the dimensions of the story.  

If it’s a portrait, he’ll ask them about props or clothing that reveal more about their lifestyle or character. Unlike the commercial world, you can’t rely on post-production to change colors of clothing or to remove an unwanted object later from a photograph. For reasons of journalistic ethics, you have to get it right in-camera, the first time. A certain amount of color-grading could be acceptable depending on the magazine.

Even if he finds the right subject, he’ll have to use every technique in his interpersonal toolkit for them to avoid the deer-in-the-headlights look, abject fear, or amusement at facing a foreigner and his team.

All the while, he should keep his art director (orphoto editor) updated so that everyone involved in the project could sleep safely on the days before and during the trip.  That requires communication, so he’ll probably bring a satellite phone just in case.

Of course not all photojournalists run productions like these.

These complex productions are often run on deadline on a news cycle. They’re competing with other photojournalists in the field like a crazy Survivor game where brand reputations are at stake. 

Moreover, in addition to news and news features, photojournalists also run fashion productions. Some run lifestyle productions. Others run food productions. Some construct sets for studio shoots.

It just depends on what lifestyle section, fashion supplement, special section, multimedia project, magazine shoot and/or budget they may be working with. In the end, you get it done, with little pretense and fanfare. 

I’ve had experience with all of these kinds of projects before moving to the commercial and advertising world, where I’ve discovered the sheer joy of being able to hire people to do the work that I used to do alone.  

But there is a tension I’ve found as productions grow in size.

When you scale up a production crew, it can exert a form of gravity on a set that interferes with the ability to create the authenticity in which moments can occur.Experienced photojournalists possess a sense of story that comes with shooting them on a daily basis. They also have an anticipatory sense of the moment, and the ability to capture it. So they know that if a real person finds themselves surrounded by strangers, trust can dwindle, and intimacy can fly out of the room like a butterfly.

So for valid aesthetic reasons on some types of projects, a photojournalist may not be inclined to want a big production.

Either way, a frank discussion needs to happen with the art buyer – about what level of production is required, and what kind of results are expected. The benefit of clarifying these issues is that you work with a photographer who is adept at communicating story and its emotional core.

For the photojournalist, emotion is the currency of meaning. In the back of their mind, they’re always answering the compelling reader question, “Why should we care about your story and what you have to say”?

There is great diversity in the term “photojournalist”.

For those who are savvy to this, there are many opportunities that are yet to be explored.

The Elusive and Sometimes Funny Quest for the Perfect Photographer Job Title


On the hunt….©2016 Alex Garcia

Are you a Chief Visual Brand Storyteller?

An Editorial and Advertising Photographer?

A Senior Visual Content Specialist?

A Multimedia Photojournalist/Video journalist?

Or, maybe “Lead Picture Guru”?

If you’re a professional photographer, you’ve probably pondered, paused or even struggled to figure out how you should describe yourself on your business card, social media profile, or during an elevator pitch.

How you refer to yourself often depends on your audience. But in person or especially online, you’re both unsure of their specific need and their sophistication with imprecise job titles.

If I introduce myself with the term “photojournalist”, someone may see me as the crazed Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now or clueless Jimmy Olsen from Superman, depending on their Netflix history. Getting past the strange depictions of photojournalists out there, there is a huge creative difference between a photojournalist who uses studio lighting for location portraiture, and a conflict photographer who is a pure documentarian. 

I may introduce myself as a “storyteller” – if they understand its potential for advertising and marketing. If not, I might get invited to the next meeting of the National Storytellers League

Of course you have a niche but you’re also quite capable of applying your talents to other projects. Labels can seem limiting to the person who does many things well.  

But there’s that persnickety little acronym, SEO. Why turn away traffic when keywords can make the difference of being found, even within online directories? For kicks, you can call yourself “Lead Bottle Washer” at “XXX Pictures”. Or maybe “Visual Widget Maker”. I’ve even seen “Photographer Extraordinaire” and “Creative Genius” while browsing social media. They’re funny relief from titles that can seem bland and rote. But searchbots being robots, they don’t get the joke. 

Most would agree that in the marketplace, it’s not enough to be a “photographer”. Top dollar and creative respect goes to the specialist.  Photography has become differentiated, specialized and segmented, so the market has responded.  There are specialties of specialties. 

As trends continue, it won’t be enough to say you’re an adventure photographer. You’ll have to say something like, “I’m an extreme polar arctic photographer specializing in aerial drone photography shooting 360 degree virtual reality – in HDR! 

To which a client may say, “Oh that’s too bad, I have a huge project for an extreme polar arctic photographer specializing in aerial drone photography shooting 360 degree virtual reality – in black and white! Can you recommend someone?”

As your business grows, your photographic specialty and the market ideally mesh in a glorious symbiotic relationship. You have all the business you need. No fuss, no hassle. That is, until your high-key, sun flare, blown-out photos become dated, forcing you to regenerate like Dr. Who.

So my best (and perhaps unsatisfying) advice is this,

Be specific, but not too specific.

Be general, but not too general.

Of course, this is all coming from someone whose business card succinctly reads: “Alex Garcia: Photographer”. 

I’ll explain more in person…

A Healthy New Gallery


I just added a fifth photo gallery to the “Health and Wellness” section of my site, in this case largely consisting of healthcare photography. With just three sections overall on my site, the 5 health documentary photo galleries weigh pretty heavily.

Hmm, funny how things work. As the son of a Cuban doctor and a pre-med in my college days, I swear I’m not overcompensating for not going into the medical profession (or at least I think I’m not). None of my brothers became a doctor, but I did give it a try until I realized that the creative-associative way of thinking was how I was wired.

In the grand mysteries of the subconscious and the laws of nature (and the creative process I’ve written about), I’m sure there’s something that would explain these rather unusual convergences. What many photographers find is that projects choose them, they don’t really choose their projects.

Largely. I have realized moments where project ideas that I subconsciously let pass were then picked up by other photographers – almost as if life was allowing me first rights of refusal before showing what could have been.

Free will happens.

As 2016 gets underway, I look forward to more blogging (I’m shy about making resolutions…), so thank you for those who have stuck with me during my semi-hibernation from the blogosphere:-)



Come to Cuba with me and the New York Times!


As an independent photographer, little did I realize that you don’t actually have to be on staff at the New York Times to be a guide for a Times Journey. A friend there recommended that I reach out to be one of the “experts” for their educational trips to Cuba. To my delight, based on my background and experience, they accepted. I will be on the Feb 19-27 trip, giving short talks about various topics of Cuba while we make our way to various destinations. I say “our” because you’ll be there, right?

A Times Journey is very cool. The excursion brings you to a locale based on their institutional knowledge and contacts of the location. In Cuba, it’s 9 days and 8 nights. On the link above it takes you through what will likely be the itinerary, day-to-day, in Cuba. I looked through the itinerary and was impressed. I’ve lived in Cuba for some ten months starting since 1995 and was intrigued with some of the places that they’ve arranged.

For example, I don’t know how you could possibly get a tour of Granma, the party newspaper, without an organization like the New York Times arranging that kind of meeting. We’ll also visit the beautiful and eerily prehistoric Viñales Valley, as well as visiting Las Terrazas, a sustainable community in the mountains of Sierra del Rosario and a Unesco‐designated Biosphere Reserve. We will be busy meeting interesting people, including tobacco farmers, a world-class artist, Afro-Cuban dancers, a famous chef, an art historian, gender rights activist, architect and planner. In between we’ll be seeing the colonial architecture, the lush countryside and above all the people. I’ll see if my cousins and uncle can stop by… Once you get a flavor of Cuba, I think you’ll be planning your next trip.

If you’re a photographer, not only will you be getting an education from a New York Times tour, but photo advice from me in a small group setting. It’s not a photo trip per se, but we’ll have lots of time together, as I’ll be with the group throughout the trip, except when people want to go out on their own.

Obviously, above are the plans but they can change since there’s some time between now and then. That’s part of the adventure, right?

If you’re thinking about it, don’t take too much time to decide. The January trip is already sold out. One of my former editors at the Tribune already signed up, and I imagine Cuba is in everyone’s mind to visit, especially during the winter. (I don’t get paid anything for recruiting students, or by how many sign up – I’m only letting you know as a courtesy)

If I can answer any questions, shoot me an email!

Joining the NPPA Board of Directors

It’s an honor today to be appointed to the board of directors of the National Press Photographers Association by president Mark Dolan. I’ll be serving out the term of a director who is leaving.  The NPPA has been a powerful voice for photographers, finding itself on the front line of issues affecting the livelihood of photographers.  Most of the photography community at large probably isn’t even aware the debt it owes to the advocacy done by NPPA and its general consul Mickey Osterreicher on such contemporary legal issues such as Orphan Works and drone photography.  It’s a privilege to be a part of the organization, and I’m grateful for the invitation.

My involvement, which I’m sure was Mark Dolan’s intention, was to bring more voices of independent professionals into the room at a time where there are less and less photographers who are full-time staff photographers.  After I decided to leave the Chicago Tribune, I came to acutely understand the challenges of being an independent contractor while staying true to oneself as a storyteller. I join the ranks of many other photojournalists who either left their companies, took buyouts, or were let go.  The challenge for the NPPA is to help those photographers who wish to continue their important documentary work when the business model is in a tailspin.

NPPAboardSome perspective about the value of photojournalism – at a recent portfolio review, I met with several art buyers from ad agencies who with few exceptions started our conversations professing an admiration for photojournalism. They, like the world at large, understand that photojournalists are non-fiction photographers whose images have the ring of truth. Their clients and audiences are becoming more sophisticated about imagery and are demanding less spin and more authentic documentary storytelling. Like what happened in the wedding market, real-life documentary is a trend in the commercial world. This should come as some encouragement for those wondering if there a ways to sustain one’s career as a narrative storyteller.

From my perspective, there are economic trends in the market that cut both ways for photographers. But some may not wish to go down any commercial or corporate route, preferring to double-down on the editorial world. Others pursue the wedding market to support their photojournalism. The challenge is to support, encourage and strengthen the work of photojournalists however they wish to stay in business. As someone who has worked more than twenty years at newspapers, I hope to bring some ideas and energy to the association’s mission.