Breaking In and Breaking Out
June 1, 2011
Travel is not only one of the most sought after market segments for photographers, it’s perhaps the toughest nut to crack. “If you want to be a photojournalist/travel photographer, stay focused on that end goal.” states Jolene Hanson, curator of L.A.’s Nature and Wildlife Gallery (www.theg2gallery.com), which houses the works of renowned travel photographers Robert Glen Ketchum, Art Wolfe, David Muench and Jack Dykinga, among others.
Hanson says photographers need to do their homework by researching both the places they plan to photograph and the venues where they want to show their images, be it a museum, gallery or magazine. “Do the research,” she reiterates, “and then without being overbearing—meaning, be nice, kind, considerate and caring—introduce yourself to the people that can put your work out there (editors, curators and the like).”
For example, one of the gallery’s artists, J.J. L’Heureux, decided that she wanted her work shown in museums. L’Heureux went to Antarctica nine years ago to study icebergs for a painting series and fell in love with the penguins; now she photographs penguins every chance she gets. “That’s an example where a passion has given a photographer the ability to focus their energy in one area,” Hanson says.
“Having a passion and a focus behind your projects lights the fire within to make it happen. That passion has to exist,” says Hanson, “in order for a photographer to succeed.”
To achieve her goal, L’Heureux literally visited museums around the country and met with people at those institutions. Today, her work can be seen in numerous museums including Grants Pass Museum of Art (Oregon), the Las Vegas Art Museum, Tallahassee Museum of History & Natural Science and Museum of the Rockies (Montana). “It’s an old-fashioned way to do things,” Hanson admits, “but it works. She has a good personality, knows her subject matter and knows where she wants to exhibit her work.”
Research, Research, Research
Hanson says that for photographers, learning as much as possible about your subject can make a huge difference in quality. “If you’re traveling to an area to photograph wetlands, find out what bird species live there, etc. Take the time to call the people on the ground that can give you the most information possible. Jack Dykinga is a perfect example of a photographer that does background research,” she says. “He takes the time to find the people that know the areas he’ll be photographing and who are willing to share and teach with him.” Research, says Hanson, is especially important in this Internet age where people do a quick Google search and think they know it all, then grab their cameras and run out and shoot. Hanson believes photographers need to dig deeper for information both before and after they shoot.”
Technical knowledge is extremely important, as well. But Hanson says it doesn’t mean you have to upgrade with each new camera release. “But you do need to be aware of all the details. You have to have knowledge of your equipment and what you’re planning to do with the images—files or film—after the fact. We live in a society where everything eventually goes into a digital format, so knowing what you’re doing and what the current industry standards are, is really important.”
Of course, having a good eye is a given. At least one would think it is. “Shockingly,” Hanson admits, “a lot of times it’s the one thing that’s lacking. Photography is something everyone does and everyone wants to do,” she continues. “Finding those people who have that combination of vision, technical knowledge and research capabilities is more rare. That’s the full package.” From a gallery director’s perspective, when considering photographers to showcase, Hanson looks for a very strong, cohesive portfolio with a clear path. The photographer should know who they are, their direction and what their vision of the world is. “[Having] style and vision is the line between amateur and professional,” Hanson says, “and it’s a make or break issue.”
This is a Business
Jay Dickman is no stranger to travel photography. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and Olympus Visionary since 2003, has photographed everything from who’s who in the corporate world to Super Bowls to the Olympic Games.
Recently, he completed his second “Around The World By Private Jet” tour, which covered six continents in 24 days. During the National Geographic Expedition, Dickman photographed many of the most natural and cultural world wonders in Peru, India, Egypt, Morocco, Easter Island and Samoa. “Everybody’s a photographer today,” he says. Dickman who says it’s critical photographers understand how brutally competitive the travel photography business is. He agrees wholeheartedly with gallery owner Hanson that, no matter where you want to show your work, be it publications or Web sites, you must research them first. “This sounds obvious,” Dickman admits, who is constantly surprised by the number of people that approach a publication with a body of work that has nothing to do with the publication’s style and content.
Dickman advises photographers not to overwhelm their target audience. “When you approach a publication, don’t send them 500 images,” he explains. “Send a link to a Web site or a group of photos—25 images—because these people are very busy and they can see very quickly whether or not you can produce what they need. Leave them wanting more, then come back to them in six weeks.” Another important tip, Dickman says, is to let the contacts you’ve made know when you’ll be traveling. “I can’t tell you how many assignments I’ve received because I’ve provided that service. This is a business we’re in and you better darn well approach it like that, even if your goal is only to write off some travel by selling a few photos (please note, the IRS will only let you write off travel if you’re profit-generating).”
Hence, if you go to the Grand Cayman’s and you’ve made contact with a few people, send them notice of your plans, Dickman reiterates. “They might need a photo of a dive instructor, etc. And even if they don’t have something for you to shoot, send them a small postcard of your best image from the trip with a short note, e.g. ‘Here’s a picture from such and such.’ Don’t tell them your life story on the back of that card and don’t send them a poster (which often winds up in the trash due to a lack of office space). Don’t overdo it. Just remind them you’re out there. So many photographers drop the ball on this,” he says. “If you don’t do something to keep yourself in their memory, all your hard work will be for nothing. Once you get your foot in the door at a few places, there’s a domino effect,” says Dickman, “as it’s a small community that moves from publication to publication, and they’ll take you with them. You’ll become one in their stable.”
Don’t expect a lot of assignments, says Dickman, as most publications can no longer afford to send photographers to all the locations it covers (today, most purchase stock). That said, publications, Web sites, etc., have to fill space and are always looking for good story ideas—always. “Pitch a specific idea,” Dickman says, “and if they respond, even to say ‘No,’ try again. If you present a small body of work with a great look, even something that’s been done, they’ll be interested.” Dickman explains 40 to 45 years ago photojournalists both wrote the stories and took the photos; then photography became more of a specialized niche. While on assignment for National Geographic, Dickman would spend the majority of his time researching the story and perhaps 20 percent of that time shooting. So if you know how to write, you have a leg up on the competition.
While traveling, Dickman suggests that photographers check out local tourist stands and look at postcards, which feature a kind of “best of the best sights” that locale has to offer. “Take the silly bus tour around town because that is a great intro to the area. It provides you with both a sense of place and your own mental road map.” If you want to know what the “hot” destinations are, he says, flip through travel magazines to see what they’re focusing on. However, when all is said and done, no matter your reasons for wanting to be a travel photographer, it still comes down to honing your business skills.” I can’t say it enough. Travel photography is a business and a business operates and succeeds because it has a business plan. Some people actually listen to me, and then become my competitors,” he says.
To see more of Jay Dickman’s work, visit www.jaydickman.net.
Lorraine A. DarConte is a freelance writer/photographer living in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has appeared in numerous publica­tions including, Rangefinder, Studio Photography & Design, Newsday and Tucson Visitors’ Guide.