Many WPJA members can trace their roots to the news profession in some way, having shot everything from small-town stories to significant historical events that have led to Pulitzer Prizes. Likewise, many have felt the adrenaline rush that news photojournalists get from bagging the winning touchdown catch, documenting heart-wrenching tragedies and being on the front lines of history. There’s also the gratification of getting published with a byline in a major publication, and the mass-market recognition that often comes with it.
Those are feelings that are difficult to recreate, making it tough to tear some WPJA members away from the news profession altogether.
But there certainly are enough elements of the photojournalist’s life that make a full-time career in the business difficult. Unless you’re at the top of the game, the pay generally is sub-par, and there are numerous amateur photographers and budding photojournalists willing to step in your shoes. The hours and travel can become grueling for anyone wanting to raise a family or pursue other interests.
The news industry is also in flux, with online Web sites and 24-hour cable networks capturing ever more readers while sucking up much of the advertising revenues that conventional news operations have depended on to maintain their business. According to recent surveys, only about 50 percent of Americans currently read a newspaper during the week, and the number is continuing to drop. The number of newspapers in the country has also been headed downward, dropping nearly one percent a year for over two decades.
“All in all, it's a pretty sad state right now for photojournalists,” states Southern California-based David Crane, whose award-winning work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and numerous other major publications. “Very few outlets offer the space or time to do in-depth photojournalism; especially in Southern California, where in a last ditch effort to get readers attention, photojournalists are more like paparazzi, chasing down the latest ‘celeb miss-step.’”
Given all of this, a number of WPJA members have had to constantly balance the drive to capture the news in pictures with the necessity to create a living for themselves, as news photojournalism has increasingly become a losing financial proposition. For many, wedding photojournalism has come to the rescue, offering a means of flexibility and extra income.
To be sure, keeping a hand in news photojournalism while being an active wedding photojournalist does produce a slew of cross-pollinating benefits. While news photojournalism provides a practice ground to hone trigger-quick reflexes, weddings let the photojournalist bring out some creative tricks.
“It is a great outlet for my training telling stories with images,” Crane says. “It also allows my artistic ability to show through. Editors have always told me my photos are ‘too artistic’ and they end up cropped or in the round file. My style is perfect for weddings.”
Karin von Voigtlander, who works from upstate New York, found her first passion in news photojournalism, but after she started shooting some weddings in the photojournalistic style, she discovered that the marathon days of documenting a wedding pushed her to add more flair to photographs.
“It stretches me creatively and it made me advance so much better as a newspaper shooter, always having to be on top of the moment and being tuned to the event,” von Voigtlander says.
Illinois-based Anne Ryan spent 10 years as a photographer with USA Today, and a couple more freelancing, before she started shooting weddings with her husband and WPJA member, John Zich. She found that adding another skill, documenting weddings, just made her that much more well rounded as a photographer.
“I’m a better photographer because I can do all these types of photography,” says Ryan, who continues to do contract assignments for USA Today. “I now bring more creativity to news photography.”
“I currently don't see a down side [to wedding photojournalism] other than working weekends,” Crane adds. “The clients want me there, they want me to do ‘my thing’ and I always leave happy. It is a great outlet for my training telling stories with images, and also allows my artistic ability to show through.”
The physical toll of a full-time job at a newspaper can add up while bank accounts dwindle in the notoriously low-paying profession. To top it off, photo staffs are dwindling, cutting away the camaraderie that can develop through long and late hours in the newsroom. Also, newspapers, for better or worse, often now accept reporter-submitted or reader-submitted photographs, something previously unheard of at larger publications but nevertheless making full-time photographers more expendable.
Many news stories also may restrict creativity for the photographer, as you’re expected to produce a particular shot for a newspaper. The result can be that staffers spend their days working on drab assignments, taking pictures of buildings or construction sites, days on end, that do little to further their photography skill.
Von Voigtlander watched many of these events occur at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. To top it off, a demanding work schedule meant that she had to pass up destination weddings in locations like China, Thailand and St. Croix.
“I passed up enough opportunities that I realized this is crazy,” says von Voigtlander, who now does freelance assignments for the paper, as well as the New York Post and Toronto Star.
Regardless of the problems with the news business, there’s some sort of mystical pull that keeps photographers coming back. A steady flow of freelance assignments, mixed in with wedding and other commercial photography, can help satiate that desire to keep connected with photojournalism, while delivering a nice mix of topics to cover.
“I’ve always been someone who doesn’t enjoy doing just one thing,” says Ryan. Her photo agency, Polaris Images, helps to ensure that she has a varied diet of gigs for a number of different clients.
That approach will ultimately help keep a photojournalistic skill set well rounded, allowing the photographer to step into either the newspaper photojournalist’s shoes or don a wedding photojournalist cap as needed, and desired. And for many wedding photojournalists, keeping those roots nourished means they and their clients will continue to fully enjoy the fruits of the craft.
—by Paul Ziobro for the Wedding Photojournalist Association