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.

Brand Storytelling Video – “Behind the Idea”

I’m delighted to announce a new “motion” category on my site, starting with two videos recently completed for Richards Patent Law. You would think, a law firm? Yet this firm has an appreciation of visuals and most importantly, the power of storytelling.

They gave me the creative freedom to profile two of their very cool clients, Gramovox and Everpurse. Brand storytelling in the legal world. The videos will be part of a series called, “Behind the Idea” where viewers are given a backstory about the businesses and how RPL helped them protect and develop their innovations.

I’ve been asked, who did the interviews, storyboarding, creative direction, sound, video, editing, coloring and titles? Just me this time. Pete Noback narrowed down the music choices to find the right tempo for the pieces. Going forward, I’ll be collaborating with a crew, but I wanted to get a greater sense of all the needs of production for the coming series.

With my background as a photojournalist, this kind of storytelling is a natural fit. It’s not just telling a story. It’s figuring out what the best storyline and honing the elements to reach an intended audience, while determining visuals to illustrate the necessary concepts. It’s very gratifying to see video projects come together, and to experience wonderful serendipities of words and visuals during the editing process.

It’s not documentary in the sense of unvarnished reality, but for the ring of authenticity we stayed close to environments that are/were part of their natural experiences.

As you can imagine, when dealing with real people and not models – especially busy entrepreneurs, there’s not a whole lot of time for several repeated takes.

You make choices and work with what you have, or what you can imagine, to fill the gaps.

Below are the first videos in the series:



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.


Loop Photos at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Center

©2015 Alex Garcia 708-824-7778

chicago el train from above in the lobby of chicago mercantile exchange

©2015 Alex Garcia 708-824-7778

When a real estate company asked whether it was possible for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Center to display photographs on my website from the Loop in Chicago, I was delighted. I’ve wanted to find a venue for the images for some time, but was more thinking about book form. After receiving permission from the Chicago Tribune, which has rights to most of the images from my series, we arranged nine backlit displays in their public lobby. The gallery is rotated about every year. As you can see from my main site, the images were composed horizontally, so there was some cropping to make them fit in the new format. But they’re huge! I was delighted when I stopped by last week. I was also delighted when a security guard came by to wave away my camera until I said was the photographer. Instead, I was able to wave away the security guard. How often does that happen? Please stop by if you’re in the Loop. The images are well captioned, giving a sense of the importance of the images to the importance and history of the Loop.

TedX Midwest Youth – Of Story and Hope

TedX Midwest Youth – Of Story and Hope from Alex Garcia on Vimeo.

I have a heart for high schoolers and the decisions they have to make, especially on the cusp of graduation. It’s a little disorienting all the freedoms coming their way. Especially with the power to drive, teenagers can make decisions that shape their lives for years to come. When you’re a teenager you may not realize the implications of all your choices, but you do in hindsight. At this particular talk, we were asked to impart advice to hundreds of top students gathered from high schools around the Chicago area. I settled on some of the most important lessons for young people based upon my experiences as a photojournalist at the Chicago Tribune (I’ve since left the newspaper to pursue a freelance career). I was joined by MIR Space Station owner Chirinjeev Kathuria, Entrepreneur Emerson Spartz, top Google engineer Brian Fitzpatrick, and serial mountain climber Samantha Larson. I reference some of them in my talk. (There are a few spots of rough audio that were outside my control).
My highly subjective guiding principles came down to these:
1. Pitch and Practice
2. Create a Visual Buzz
3. Polish to Excellence
4. Calculate Risk
5. Dream and Plan
6. Don’t Drop Trou (not what you think)
7. Blink Your Eye
I talk about the power of story in shaping a life, but ultimately the greater theme is hope. Thank you for giving it a listen and sharing it with those who might appreciate it.

Speaking at Casa Central



For 60 years, Casa Central, the largest social service agency in the Midwest,  has been transforming lives in Chicago – with a special emphasis on the Hispanic community. The organization is on the front lines of providing education for children, health services for seniors and help for families struggling to be self-sufficient. With the finances of Illinois in deep trouble, cuts to social services and those in need are just around the corner. Organizations like Casa Central deserve all our support. On June 1st, there will be a reception for its annual Week of Hope. Please consider attending the reception and learning more about this organization. More information can be found on its website. I’ll be presenting images about healthcare in Cuba and famous chef Carlos Gaytan will be working his culinary masterpieces. Hope to see you there!

Image Library of a Consulting Firm


I was delighted to visually express the personality of the principals and associates at the business and technology consulting firm West Monroe Partners for their new website and branding makeover. The assignment was to create an image library of portraits and candids in the workplace, so as a photographer I didn’t want to overwhelm the environment with lighting but to accentuate it. The portraits were often between what you would call an informal portrait and observed moments. Most situations were arranged to some degree, with an assistant and a stylist professional. The goal was to meet the creative brief’s need to create intimate images with a diversity but a common vision to the photography. I had website mock-ups that acted as a creative guide. Between moments of portraiture, I was able to roam and capture candid moments happening in the people landscape as well, at both their Chicago and Seattle offices.

Our team produced so much more that what you currently see on the site, but since it was an image library, their needs will be met for some time in the future (the whole goal) as the site expands and changes to accommodate their business. Bringing out the personality and capturing authentic and candid moments of people is essentially what I’ve been doing for twenty years in reportage, so this project was a lot of fun to work on.  Nonetheless, it helps to have great subjects who are confident about their work. The company has been voted one of the top workplaces  by the Tribune (my former employer), and the high morale shows in the energetic faces of those you see on their site.

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