Front Page
Steve Berman's Six Steps To Free-Lance Photojournalism

"When showing your portfolio it is a good idea to offer up a variety of choices--some verticals, some horizontals, some wides, and some tight details."

"If living life on a schedule is for you, then forget a career in free-lance journalism," says Steve Berman, a photo editor at The New York Times. "This job means living your life between assignments. It grinds up photographers. You have to love it. The beauty of journalism (the real news opposed to features) is timing. If you're not there when it's happening, you've got no story."

For Berman personal time and work time are a continuum. "There's no separation," he says. "I can't tell you how many times I have been at a function or just biting into a hamburger at a family barbecue and my pager would go off and it was, `Whoops, I'm outta here.'"

Today Berman has offered Shutterbug six steps on how to make it in the world of photojournalism.

Number one, to be self-motivated and have unbelievable flexibility. Did you say you wouldn't be available on weekends? Oh yes you can. Late at night? Early in the morning? Most papers have large staffs Monday through Friday between the hours of nine and five. Assignments for freelancers are limited during those times. "But take heart," says Berman. "You can go into a store on Tuesday at 11 in the morning and the sales help are falling all over themselves to wait on you."

Number two, examine your motives. There are much more lucrative ways to get paid and it has been said that a photographer can make a better living doing baby portraits than in free-lance photojournalism. So why do people do this? "First," says Berman, "it's the adrenaline experience of shooting an assignment, especially news or a major cultural event. Then it's like performing. We love the applause. When you see your name beneath a photo in a publication like The New York Times that's read around the world by movers and shakers and policy makers, it's a thrill. But," he adds,"you must be committed to the process and believe that journalism makes a difference. Both the story and your art that accompanies it are going to affect people's attitudes. That alone should keep you on course."

Number three is commitment. "You've got to love it," Berman repeats. "It can be emotionally draining. Many stories you cover can be painful--like having to apologize for intruding when someone has lost a loved one and asking for a cherished photograph to copy so readers can see what the person looked like. It's a hard thing to intrude on someone's grief. Then there is the very real element of danger. Every year professional photographers around the world are killed, not only in a war zone but locally. You walk the mean streets and some streets are meaner than others and the photographer is as much a target as the people who live in these communities. A reporter can take notes in the back of his head and when he gets to a quiet place can jot things down in a notebook. A photographer has to be out there and when you pick up your camera, you are focused on what is going on in front of you, not on the side or what's behind you."

Pride in your craft is number four. There's a saying in the police department that a day is seven hours and 50 minutes of boredom and 10 minutes of sheer terror. In the newspaper business you have four days a week of mundane work that you must try to make exciting and the adrenaline rush stories are few and far between. "Every job you do," Berman explains, "is important to the paper. Some are front-page stories while others are hidden deep inside the paper. But some editor is responsible for that story and to him or her, your picture is important even if it is simply a head and shoulders portrait. Every picture you take has your name under it and you have to be motivated by your own self-image. If you don't do it well, then you're in the wrong business and you will be found out in a hurry. Staffers will probably shoot four or five times as many pictures as will actually get published and may shoot hundreds of frames to get a single image in the paper."

Number five, do your homework. "If you want to shoot for a newspaper," Berman advises, "then read the newspaper. Read the stories. Look at the pictures. Do it consistently so you have an idea of how they do things. You can embarrass yourself and lose any chance of work if you walk in with samples of a portrait with somebody staring at the camera when that newspaper uses only "camera unconscious" portraits. The New York Times is a classic. Rarely will the subject be looking directly into the camera. Each paper has its own style and you should be up-to-date on their particular style. So know your market. The Times is extremely objective and does not use terms in their journalism that expresses how a reporter or photographer feels about a subject. It is strictly reportage. That is not to say that there is no emotion, but it must be balanced. Also, if you shoot the exceptional moment in an event and it is not truly representational of what is going on, then it is not what the paper wants.

"So there are parameters and those whose egos are disproportionate to their talents will have a hard time with these parameters," Berman says. "The New York Times is a literary paper. The writing is intelligent and the pictures should be intelligent. It is also a family newspaper and does not put images that are explicit or inappropriately provocative. There is, however, a floating decimal point here. The paper may use a moody image or a detail rather than a full picture. Sometimes the need is for a photo to lead the story and provoke people into wanting to read it. Often a photo is used to illustrate a major point in a story while at other times it is just a factual photo that shows what a person looks like. Sometimes it will be a parallel photo, one that is similar but not mentioned and therefore expands the coverage of a story. A good photographer will give an editor all of these aspects as well as the nuts and bolts. When showing your portfolio it is a good idea to offer up a variety of choices--some verticals, some horizontals, some "wides," and some tight details. If they are portraits, have your model face a little to the right, then to the left. Give the editor as many options as you can to suggest where a picture may fit."

Finally step 6 is the where and how to begin. The traditional route for most "wannabe" photojournalists is journalism school. Then there are people who monitor police scanners to listen for accidents. They race to the scene while things are fresh to get a few good photos, then see if a newspaper is interested. Another way is to find a niche, like music or dance. Berman suggests talking to people at small theaters and giving them pictures in return for the opportunity to photograph, then approaching a local paper. Sometimes an editor will assign on "spec" with no guarantee of payment unless it is published. "Editors love discovering talent," says Berman.

We are talking with Berman at the hard news desk in the foreign section of the newspaper. He is periodically interrupted to process stories being transmitted from a refugee camp in Albania. "Imag-ine," he says. "This photographer has a digital camera, calling on a satellite phone, and using a laptop computer to transmit pictures from an area where bread is a commodity."

For Berman, who once had a career as a high school teacher and counselor, he traveled "the street of hard knocks" before arriving at The Times, hard work was his guru. During a four-year period he worked on over 1600 assignments and had a reputation for never saying no. While covering the TWA Flight 800 disaster Berman was there when President Clinton visited relatives of the victims at Kennedy Airport. "I got a good shot that day while concentrating on the details and following up a notice in a TWA hangar area saying that a specific room had been set up as a chapel." Berman photographed a devastated pilot, head in hands, weeping before the photograph of a fellow pilot who had died in the crash. In another dramatic picture Berman chose to photograph President and Mrs. Clinton as they climbed the length of the mobile staircase to board Air Force One. It had been a long, dark day for them and Berman wanted to show the heaviness of the scene. He framed them from a distance between two flagpoles bearing the American flag and the presidential seal rather than coming in close with a long lens. "It created more a sense of melancholy and sadness than if I had photographed them close up," Berman says. The Times agreed and ran both pictures as large multicolumn photos on facing pages.