This is not definitive in any way. It is simply my experience and opinion formulated from twenty years experience as a photojournalist. No doubt others can weigh in and improve this with their comments and ideas.
I started as a photojournalist by going to art school. I thought I would be a fine art or landscape photographer, but I took a photojournalism course and was quickly hooked. When my money ran out after a year, I dropped out of school, but continued to work as a teaching assistant for photojournalism classes. I may have learned more in this way than I did as a student. I received no credit, but photography is a meritocracy. In over 20 years, I have never been asked for my degree; in the world of photojournalism, your portfolio is your degree.
I also learned a great deal from spending days in the library, reading about photojournalism and looking up, and discovering, each new name that I chanced upon. In this way I found Robert Capa, Robert Frank, Larry Clark, Alex Webb and dozens of others.
If you are going to be a photojournalist, you should have a good working knowledge of the history of photojournalism, and of the mediums iconic images. You can show me nearly any often published photograph from the 20th century and I can tell you who took it and where. Ive studied the pictures carefully and memorized details about them. This is extremely useful and will help you later as you shoot.
As you study images, you should think about where the photographer is in relation to the subjects, study how he or she has managed the light and the angle of the camera. Is the photo effective because it is compressed with a telephoto, or opened up with a wide-angle lens? And how did they get access, how will you gain access to a similar situation?
I believe that the written word, still photos and film are connected. Artists in the above disciplines are telling stories, whatever the medium. It is important for those in one area to study the work of documentarians and artists in the others. At the bottom of this page is a list of recommended writers, photographers and filmmakers all personal favorites.
To be a photojournalist, you should be informed. Im was appalled at a group of photographers who showed up in Haiti a few years ago, but did not know who the Duvaliers were, or know even the most rudimentary history of the country. These countries are not there for you to practice photo-tourism and have an extended holiday. These are peoples lives you are documenting. Be knowledgeable and show respect.
At the very least, you should read the front page or lead web stories each day from either the Washington Post, LA Times or NY Times. The New Yorker has the best long-form journalism in the English language. I read it every week.
A second language is probably the most important skill you can acquire far more important that the latest camera gear or a diploma from a photo school. It takes time, but you should speak at least basic French or Spanish in addition to English. Arabic, or a language spoken in China, would be an excellent choice also, especially as I write this in 2007.
I began my career by photographing street demonstrations in New York and taking the pictures around to newspapers and wire services. There was easy access to what was happening, which is important when youre starting out. And even the pictures I was not able to sell helped me to build a portfolio. I also began, almost immediately, to work on long-term projects.
I cannot overstate the importance of long-term projects. Rather than run around taking hundreds of pictures of dozens of subjects, it is much better to spend a few weeks or a month with a family, or a group of people and get to know them. Your pictures will reveal your commitment as subjects become comfortable with you. Choose your projects carefully. There are hundreds of important projects out there waiting to be discovered and photographed. Photo editors know the commitment behind this kind of in-depth work, and they respect it. A good photo-essay on one project will be remembered and will help to get you assignments.
You are going to have to promote yourself and your work. If youre afraid of rejection, find another line of work. You have to take your work around, or send it out to editors constantly. Most will turn you away. Thats the nature of the business. Get used to it and dont take it personally. I was crushed in 1985 when Fred McDarrah, an editor at The Village Voice, spent 30 seconds flipping through a portfolio I had spent months creating, then dismissed me with a flip of his hand. It took me a long time to get my courage up again, but I eventually did break in to The Village Voice, then a major photo publication.
So you must be persistent. And remember that editors are extremely busy. Expect them to take a few minutes to see your work, not more. They dont need to see hundreds of photos on many subjects. Show them 20 or 25 photos they will remember and youll be much better off.
Notes on technique:
When I am photographing, I often approach my subjects and explain what I am doing, then ask permission to take their picture. In the ideal situation, I will spend hours or days with a subject; they become comfortable with my presence and I can capture what I want. Sometimes I will carry a small album with my pictures, which I will show to people. This helps them to understand who I am and what Im working on—there is some give and take. People always want to feel that you are not there to exploit them. Be sensitive to this.
In a news situation I never ask permission, nor do I do anything to alter the situation as it is happening. Likewise, if I am on the street and see a moment in time that would be destroyed by my asking permission, I shoot without asking. I feel that this is my art and I have the right to practice it. I do not pay my subjects—it is unethical and makes it impossible for those who come after you to work without paying also.
Notes on equipment:
There is no magic camera that will make you take great pictures. Use what works for you. Develop a system that is reliable and that you are comfortable with. Never, under any circumstances, go on a major assignment with brand new equipment that you have not used. I dont care if it is the latest and greatest. Often there will be glitches and growing pains, you donâ€™t want these when youre under the gun.
For two decades I used primarily Leica rangefinders. Im now doing a lot of work with Canon digital EOS models, mostly a 5D and a 24-70 zoom lens. In Africa, where Im based, I always have a Hasselblad for portraits and usually a Leica as well. I still believe in film but have to acknowledge that for a newspaper photographer, it is impractical at best.Im a bit of a techie I carry a lot of gear when doing long assignments and am always experimenting with some new piece that will give me an edge. I know photographers far better than me that walk around with one battered body and a single lens and do great work. I hate flash and avoid it at all cost. Other photographers who I admire shoot with flash all the time. There is no right way to do it. I would say that a low light lens, preferably a wide-angle f1.4, or at least an f2, is a good investment. I shoot at night frequently, and here in Baghdad I am out with soldiers on night raids inside homes flash is out of the question.
There are exceptions to what I wrote above: in a combat situation, I do not carry a lot of gear. Usually one camera and one lens. Under fire is not a time to be fumbling with gear. Shoot what you can with what you have.