Buyer beware: Trendy labels may be misleading, and a wedding photographer who claims to have been a “photojournalist” may not always be who you expect.
These days untold numbers of wedding photographers state in their bios that they have a background in photojournalism. Yet many do not really have any actual professional experience as photojournalists. Some have maybe published just one or two photos, or work occasionally as a freelancer for a newspaper or magazine, while others fudge their own work history and interpretation of the term in order to bolster their own image.
So what, in fact, does this label mean, and can you trust it? Does it even make a difference? When you see this claim, even on the sites of WPJA members, you should definitely ask some questions to determine whether your candidate really has the background and ability to fulfill your expectations.
The terms “photojournalism” and “wedding photojournalism” are used quite liberally on thousands of web sites to imply that a photographer has the skills to capture unscripted moments, tell the story of the day, and richly document events as they unfold. Many wedding photographers like to say they are photojournalists, have been photojournalists, or come from a photojournalistic background when this is not the case at all.
This practice became more prevalent in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when photographers who did not have the word “photojournalism” as a part of their marketing, had the potential of losing business. Now this term has become a more popular buzzword than ever, which certainly means you cannot take every claim of “photojournalism” at face value.
“Wedding photojournalism and photojournalism are two different things,” explains Virginia-based wedding photographer Greg Gibson, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his images covering the 1992 Presidential campaign and the 1998 Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. “A lot of wedding photographers take the word ‘photojournalism’ to mean storytelling, where photojournalism is really about news gathering and being the public’s witness, more so than just being a documentary photographer.” It is important to understand, that just because someone is a “wedding photojournalist” does not qualify him or her as a “photojournalist”.
There are many fine wedding photojournalists who have never worked at a newspaper, and it is clear from their portfolios, awards and legions of satisfied customers that they do an excellent job at covering weddings. Others do have a news photography background, which adds another layer of skills to their arsenal, since they have been paid to work every day, making quality images, sometimes up to six or seven days a week. Under those conditions, “There’s a much higher expectation to get the job done consistently and at a high level,” Gibson notes. “If you miss the moment and the person sitting next to you gets it, then their picture is going to be the one that gets all of the play and the attention, and your boss is going to be asking you why you didn’t get it.”
Identifying that bona fide, field-tested photojournalist is often a matter of looking beyond the biography and asking some precise, informed questions.
“It’s amazing to me how many wedding photographers try to capitalize on the ‘photojournalist’ label even though they may have extremely limited publication experience, no news reporting experience, and don’t even practice a photojournalistic approach to their wedding coverage,” states the WPJA’s founder, David Roberts. “Everyone is claiming to have a photojournalism background these days and few are willing to back it up with solid, detailed info in their bio/about page, and perhaps a collection of true photojournalism images that extend beyond photographing pee wee sports and the homeless sleeping in parks.”
For those photographers who make unsubstantiated statements of having a background in photojournalism, Roberts illustrates the possible misuse of the term “photojournalist”. “When my son was only ten years old, a local newspaper published a full page of his color sports images,” Roberts notes. “A fine accomplishment, and I’m a proud dad, of course, but neither I nor anyone else would classify my son as a photojournalist. And yet in my book, having his images published under deadline by the media puts him light years ahead of many wedding photographers now claiming they are photojournalists.”
You should also take into consideration the level at which your candidates worked. The better photographers generally move up the food chain. Usually the larger publications acquire the more credible photographers. Those who have worked at big daily newspapers are going to have more experience than those working at the weeklies.
“People who have worked on a national or high state level where they are competing with photographers from other publications certainly get a different kind of experience,” Gibson notes. “Their job security, pay and promotion are dependent on them performing at a high level very consistently.”
Some wedding photographers attempt to support their “photojournalist” credentials by fudging their experience in unethical ways.
Gibson notes that even since he’s been retired from journalism, he has taken pictures and sent them to his local paper, so it’s easy to get a picture in print. The frequency with which people are contributing to publications or getting assignments is a much more important qualifier than whether they have ever been published.
“When photojournalism became a buzz word, there were so many photographers whose bios said they had been published in The New York Times or Time Magazine, where the reality is that maybe they had one picture published in their career," he says. "So the bride and groom should ask ‘How often did you get assignments from that publication?’”
And in some cases, there actually was no assignment whatsoever! Roberts points out that many times couples will submit their engagement portrait to newspapers as a wedding announcement, only to have their photographer then claim that he or she has shot for that publication.
“Some even include the names of publications to which they have paid money to run a photographer advertisement,” he notes. “That takes a lot of nerve because obviously, that’s not photojournalism…it’s paying to get published!”
Of course, having that news background is not a prerequisite for every couple that is looking for their perfect wedding photographer. Ultimately, a photographer’s body of work is usually the final qualifier. But even then, looks can be deceiving unless you do some inquiry.
Regardless of the criteria most significant to you, the important thing is to not be misled by trendy claims. You have every right to expect that someone who claims to be a photojournalist really is one—a staffer at a newspaper or wire service who has been tested under fire. Do the research, ask some probing questions and you’ll truly get what you expect.
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association