It’s Not Easy Being a Photojournalist

It’s Not Easy Being a Photojournalist

I am a sucker for a good movie.

Despite having my eyes fully dilated following a trip to the eye doctor, I found myself watching “Man of Steel” with rapt attention.

The movie wasn’t outstanding, but what stood out was the fact that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lois Lane was relegated to taking her own photos with her Nikon D3s instead of sending a photojournalist to travel with her (Her flash startles a robot, and it subsequently destroys her camera and photos). It reminded me of the Chicago Sun Times’ recent layoff of their entire photo staff and their proclamation that journalists would be using iPhones to photograph their own stories.

It’s not easy to be a photojournalist.

Vice Magazine recently reported on this very fact when a naive 25-year old from London tried to become a war photographer for a few weeks. After chance encounter with a freelance photographer in an Internet cafe, Sunil Patel decided to take his camera and a dream into the Syrian Civil War.

The whole affair sounds a bit suspicious. The freelance photographer, Carlos, doesn’t sound like much of an experienced photographer. There is no fixer, no translator, no budget, and no external support. Instead, it’s like they’re trying to re-enact “Almost Famous,” except it’s not the 60s and they’re in a war zone.

The affair ends after only a few days with Sunil realizing that he doesn’t have the gumption to photograph the gruesomeness of war, not to mention their complete underpreparedness. Patel also mentions that another reporter took a photo with his flash from a taxi which resulted in Assad’s fighter jets “swooping back around and firing two missiles at us on the highway.” Like Lois Lane found out, you shouldn’t use the flash in combat situations.

It’s not easy to be a photojournalist.

Photo by Sunil Patel

Curious, I pulled down one of the image files (above) and examined the file info hoping to discern a little more about the author. All the IPTC was stripped (if there was any to begin with), but there was a bit of EXIF left. Turns out the photos were taken with a Canon EOS 1100D (aka Rebel 3), which is a $379 entry level DSLR. It was clear that Mr. Patel didn’t work for the Daily Planet (they use Nikon), and he wouldn’t be shooting much in low light situations (his variable aperture zoom had a max f/3.5). It’s also pretty curious that he shot the image at f/11 ISO1600 because it’s daylight and all. You could make the argument that the equipment doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t as long as you get “the” picture. But when working in a harsh environment, it helps to have weather-sealed magnesium bodies instead of cheap plastic cases built for soccer moms. It also helps to know how to use your camera.

It’s not easy to be a photojournalist.

So thanks to Lois Lane and Sunil Patel for reminding us that the job of photojournalist isn’t an easy one. It’s best left to the professionals whether you’re trying to photograph Zod or Assad.

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There are 12 comments for this article
  1. Kevin at 11:07 am

    What makes a photographer a professional? Would this Sunil Patel have been considered as a professional if the exif data read 5DMarkIII, 70-200mm f2.8L, etc..?

      • Jay at 4:22 pm

        At least he had the balls to go down there and live his life. Instead of worrying about whatever specifications he had. Either way, it is always the person behind the tool than the tool itself.

        You sound like such a negative, whiny nancy. Worry about yourself

        • Allen Murabayashi Author at 4:27 pm

          “Live your life?” Given the number of photojournalists that have been killed, I think your statement is irresponsible. If you’re not well-equipped nor well-trained, you shouldn’t be going into a war zone. Go hike a mountain instead.

  2. Dave May at 6:02 pm

    I totally agree with Allen. There’s more than just equipment that makes a professional, but having appropriate gear for the job is key. As pointed out in the article you need equipment that can stand up to the environment you’ll be working in. In a studio you would be less likely to need weather sealing and fast glass since you’re controlling the light indoors.

  3. Jim Colton at 10:02 am

    Allen hits the nail on the head again. And re: the equipment…Ansel Adams said it best: “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”

  4. Mike Glenn at 3:59 pm

    In this case the equipment didnt matter,…because he didnt even know how to use the equipment he had. If he had Pro Equipment it would not have raised his skill level.

  5. Ricardo Thomas at 10:16 pm

    after working as a news photographer (for more than 30 yrs), this does not surprise me. I have watched reporters lose more that just camera’s. experience and planning can save your life!

  6. Christopher Scarpino at 1:42 pm

    Well, I will take a crack at this issue, even though I am an amateur among the professionals here.

    First, although it may sound contradictory, I agree with most of the posts here. But the circumstances of war are not normal or rational, either as a photographer or as a combatant. I think Robert Capa said that the wish of a war photographer is for unemployment…suggesting that he didn’t want to be there – even though he went and went until he was killed in the First French-Indochina war.

    I certainly agree with the issue of these camera settings and the professionalism of the equipment and the photographer. Most photographers wish for better equipment. They never stop wishing for better equipment. In order to afford quality gear, I only have used & manual equipment. They serve my purposes as photographer of ocean scenes. True, my old Leica 90mm f2.0 and my 300mm f2.8 Minolta lenses would surely suffer in the dust & heat of the Middle East, or the chaos of war zone. But, most equipment would.

    Yes, a photographer who goes to a war zone should be properly equipped and trained. But, what about the early photographers, what equipment did they have? Pretty primitive by today’s standards. How about Soviet photographer Yevgeny Khaldei, who photographed the Russian war against the Germans in WW2? I have a book on him, and his early photographs were taken using a cardboard box camera he made himself. Later, he got a cheap camera, but he had only a few courses in photography. His formal schooling ended young. Early in the war, all he had was a Soviet FED camera. As for military training, they didn’t have much training for the wars they covered. They went and learned. I expect it would be the same for most people.

    Still, I wish I had been there. You can’t deny it takes bravery to go there. I have considered it. And as writer and documentary filmmaker Sebastian Junger said recently on the radio, the field is wide open. I met him in Cambridge after the premier of his latest film “Korengal,” on Afghanistan. He confirmed to me personally that a freelancer could go. But did I go this summer? No, too cowardly.

    As for the quality of Sunil Patel’s photos, I enjoyed them. I am glad he went and showed us what was really there. Did he add what the war photographer adds to our understanding? Yes. Could they be improved, sure. Should he give up? No. But as you say, it isn’t easy to be a photojournalist.

    On the other hand, what lies did the corporate media tell everyone about the war in Iraq, or any other place in the region, including Afghanistan or Libya or the Ukraine? Lots. While that isn’t the fault of the professional photojournalists assigned to cover these regions, the presence of a brave amateur like Sunil Patel have made the picture of war in these regions more diverse. As a result, it is harder for governments to control the message. There is now too much information coming in. That is a benefit to society.

    So, let’s celebrate the mad spirit of Sunil Patel. We all had such mad schemes once when we were young…

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