Tag Archives: David Burnett

Advice From The Field: Part 2

As a continuation from my previous post on the process I took to get advice from photojournalists in the field, this post will provide their answers to help guide you in your process. I sent out a handful of emails to photojournalists across a broad platform of news agencies and I will be sharing two email responses from David Burnett and Jim Richardson.

Burnett is a magazine photojournalist who began his career working for Time and Life magazines.  Burnett was one of the photojournalists present at Trảng Bàng when Nick Ut of the AP captured his famous image of the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl Phan Thị Kim Phúc  fleeing a napalm attack. In fact, he was standing right next to Ut when the shot was captured, but Burnett’s camera was busted and he missed the shot. He’s won many awards including the World Press Photo of the Year and co-founded Contact Press Images, a news photo agency in New York City where he also freelances for The New York Times.

His advice is as follows:

  • The ‘business’ side of our business is crumbling, but there needn’t be despair alone. There are still things to do, places to see and photograph, and projects to make happen.
  • I got my B.A. in Political Science at Colorado College, a school where no photo classes were offered. Most of the photogs I know who were/are successful are self-taught. They may have had a few classes along the way, but most did it by trial and error, driven by desire and curiosity.
  • I think the things you need to know include :  web usage and design; and corresponding to that, layout (magazine/book/newspaper/web), and the ability to navigate happily in Photoshop, ancillary tools, and Final Cut Pro.
  • You need to know video and how to edit it, even if only to edit your stills (and audio) into something that is web useable.
  • You should have some language skills and know something of the world. For instance, read newspapers either in paper or online form. Having some insight into what is happening in the world will give you a leg up over others.
  • History, sociology, political science, economics, and marketing…all of those NON photo subjects are probably THE most important in my view.
  • Study the great photogs of our time. Start with August Sander, Martin Chiambi, and shoot right through the 20th century. KNOW good photographs and why they are good. Cartier-Bresson (who shot with the simplest Leica, nothing ‘auto’ about it), Gene Smith, Leonard McCombe (LIFE), Grey Villet (LIFE), Bill Eppridge (LIFE), Salgado…the list goes on and on, but only good can come from your paying attention to what has been done by those who went before you. Just because you can see your work instantly on the back of a digital camera doesn’t mean you’re special.
  • Take your inspiration where you can and never stop looking for good images both by others and those that happen in front of your own eyes

Richardson has been a freelance photojournalist for National Geographic magazine for almost 30 years, making him one of the top contributing photographers at the publication. He is also a contributing editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine, where he both writes and photographs.  He leads photo workshops in the U.S. and abroad. In 2001, he was featured in an ABC News segment for a piece called Yellow Journalism : The Making of a National Geographic Story.

His advice is as follows:

  • I am not able to describe one surefire path to a successful photojournalism career. For me, it took experimenting with a camera throughout my childhood; a series of aborted majors in college, finally ending up with the most credits in psychology.
  • I landed an internship at the Topeka Capital-Journal and then worked there alongside Pulitzer-Prize winners and some of the best in the business for 15 years.
  • I freelanced for Time, Life, The New York Times, and Sports Illustrated while publishing my self-assigned documentary projects in both book and magazine form before I even came to the attention of the National Geographic editors.
  • If you were to examine the backgrounds of 40 photographers who shoot mostly for the National Geographic magazine, you’ll see men and women with all sorts of backgrounds and paths to their jobs. A good number have newspaper backgrounds; many of the newer generation of photographers have backgrounds in the sciences.
  • I tell students that they should get an advanced degree (MS or PhD) in a science or in sociology and at the same time develop their photographic skills, using not only cameras, but also computers.
  • The future of editorial photography is likely seated in people who have particular expertise in parts of the world or in a specific species of animals or insects, or in cultures.
  • Editors were looking for generalist photographers 25 years ago, but that won’t do now. If National Geographic wants someone to shoot an underwater story or a tribe in South America or excavations in Egypt, editors don’t often look at me.  I have been able to carve out areas of expertise…British Isles, Celtic history and influence, environmental issues like water supply and quality, agriculture, volcanoes, and Cuba, Kansas.
  • I generate my own story ideas rather than wait for ideas to come from editors.
  • The bottom line is this: You should seek an education through which you can develop great photographic, organizational, research and writing skills…plus have a depth of knowledge in at least one area of science or culture, preferably more.
  • Study the works of photographers you admire.
  • Shoot, shoot, shoot. There is no substitute for working with a camera in your hands every day. Give yourself ideas and figure out how to tell stories. Take workshops and photo classes as often as possible.

Some of the advice they both give overlaps and I would stress that those parts are very important to consider. Reaching out to these photographers taught me that they want to help all of us get to where we are going. We are the next generation of photojournalists and they want to prepare us as best as they can, so don’t be nervous to ask for help. Ask more questions, take creative risks, and develop an understanding of the world around you…through pictures, of course.