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.