Over-caffeinated creative directors may insist that the fate of humanity hinges on getting that ad shot, and your favorite photo editor may purr that your conceptual fashion spread will shift the course of history. But let’s get real. It’s photojournalists who capture the images that really need to be seen. We talked about what it takes to work in the field today with photojournalist Michael Christopher Brown, who, still in his early thirties, has seen his images published by major media outlets during a career that has taken him to Chinese back roads, Russian isles, and the 2011 conflict in Libya.
Photos courtesy of Michael Christopher Brown. You can view a selection of his work in the gallery above. To see more of his work, visit his website.
Aimee Baldridge: You have a master's degree from Ohio University's School of Visual Communication. What were the most important things you learned there?
Michael Christopher Brown: I learned how to slow down, be patient, and get into someone’s life. In an environment that was uninspiring for me in many ways, I learned how to look past the exteriors of my surroundings, to connect with people I wanted to be around and photograph, and to begin photographing things that spoke to my curiosity and sense of meaning from a particular person or situation.
AB: Did you have advisors or mentors who helped you get off the ground? How did they influence the path you took, and what were the most important things you learned from them?
Michael Christopher Brown: I almost left the Ohio University program in the first quarter. I was frustrated and had spent six weeks in Mexico just before enrollment, traveling by bus and hitchhiking around the country. I went from one of the most warm and colorful places to one of the most drab locations, as I thought then. The people at Ohio University, like Terry Eiler, who helped pick me up and kept me going, inspiring and encouraging me, are too many to name. I picked and chose bits and pieces from those instructors I met and used their wisdom in a way I thought would benefit. Most of the graduate students were in their late 20s and early 30s and already had experience in the professional world of photography. They helped greatly in terms of perspective.
AB: A young photographer told me recently that he decided not to go into photojournalism because he thinks the increasing quantity of images generated by nonprofessionals will make it obsolete. What would you say to him?
Michael Christopher Brown:
I think he’s been reading too many articles and interviews and is making excuses, or is just genuinely not very interested in photojournalism. And both are fine; it’s not a field for the skeptical. It’s like bookbinding: It should be done for the love of it, despite the lack of money and work, and despite the future of it.
That said, there is a certain craft one develops as a photojournalist that an amateur is not able to replicate. One becomes a journalist and a photographer, both themselves a craft and an art. One becomes an expert in doing this, an independent voice with a certain credibility: “I was there, and this is what I saw.” This is more important now than ever, like in Syria where journalists have become activists due to their situation. There are few independent voices and independent foreign journalists on the ground to verify anything coming out of that country. As a result, the world is caring less and less as time goes on, because no one knows who to believe.
AB: You've been wounded during the course of your work, notably during the incident in Libya that took the lives of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. Did that change the way you approach your work?
Michael Christopher Brown: In terms of practical measures, I recently took a RISC course in New York that taught basic combat medical training, the essentials for anyone going into a war zone. I feel foolish for not having this training before, though when I first went to Libya I didn’t expect to photograph a war.
In terms of the meaning of what I do, I can say that yes, thinking I might possibly die while losing 45 percent of the blood in my body, with shrapnel nearly piercing an artery and lung, I look at the world differently now. Basically, before I was largely being used by photography and now I intend to use it more than it was using me. The difference is between wanting and needing, absolutely having to make pictures.
The strongest pictures in my short career were in Libya, and it wasn’t just because I was photographing a war. I connected with these people—a people I didn’t know at all—in the deepest way, just knowing what was happening and what was at stake. It might sound cheesy, but perhaps because I’m an American, their fight for freedom (for lack of a better word), and what they risked and lost, touched me in a way I hadn’t felt before. Seeing the millions of people in Tahrir Square, in Egypt, gave me the same feeling.
AB: You've used a camera phone for some of your work in Libya. Some people think using a mobile app to create images is unethical for a photojournalist, because the look created by software processing is a form of editorializing or aestheticizing that isn't appropriate for the genre. What is your perspective on that?
Michael Christopher Brown: What is appropriate? Using a Leica and shooting black-and-white film, then developing, dodging, and burning? Or using a Canon 5D and shooting in raw, recording a flat, grayish image, and then correcting it later, perhaps adding some vignetting and selective toning? Just by, for example, using a wider aperture and black-and-white film, one is editorializing. So is it unethical to use Hipstamatic, a software that creates a look where everything is in color and in focus? Which seems more “realistic”?
Libyans have seen these pictures and approve of them. The late Tim Hetherington, among the best war photographers in the world, was using an iPhone with Hipstamatic in Misrata. So were Ron Haviv and Ben Lowy while in Tripoli. The people saying it’s unethical are largely the couch-surfing or coffee-shop-going photographers and critics; they have a right to their opinions, but they’re not in the arena.
AB: There have been a lot of young photojournalists working in conflict zones recently, and some have lost their lives. What should young photographers know before they go to work in a conflict zone?
Michael Christopher Brown: Take a combat medical course and hostile-environments training. Get war zone insurance. Know the war you’re going to—if you should be using satellite phones or sending e-mails without encryption (for example, governments like Syria’s can track all these things). When I went to Libya I went for myself. I needed to go, and there was no question. When I stayed and went back after some brushes with death, it was because of that need, more of a must, though I knew what could potentially happen. This is most important—that when you go you know the risks. One should not go just to get assignments, or just because one has an assignment, or for any other reason than one’s own ambitions. If those ambitions include working for somebody, great, but one’s conscience should be in order.
AB: To make a living today, photojournalists often have to put together a combination of income sources. How should young photographers approach this complicated situation?
Michael Christopher Brown: Exactly as you say: by doing a number of things if they have to. To give a brief rundown of what I’ve done: Tried to photograph for my high school newspaper (they wouldn’t run the pictures). Tried to photograph for two college newspapers (they wouldn’t run the pictures). Photographed for a college magazine (they ran some pictures). Photographed sports for a weekly newspaper in my hometown (they always cropped the images terribly). Interned at the State Journal-Register in Illinois for a year (much better publication), then at National Geographic. Then began working for them and other magazines, but mostly after working in New York for a year, often for the New York Times and Getty. Throughout this time I’ve done weddings, annual reports, corporate portraits, and other commercial-type photography. A photographer who knows what he or she wants must go after it. I know this advice has never been given, but: never give up.
AB: What do you think students need to know about how to prepare themselves financially to go into journalistic or documentary photography after graduating?
Michael Christopher Brown: Personally, I didn’t become a photographer to become a working photographer. I just always had an interest in photography, and coming out of school it was the only thing I knew how to do that could generate income. That said, it might have been better had I worked at a coffee shop or something, and done photography on the side. Sure, the more you take pictures, perhaps the more visually advanced you become, but you don’t necessarily get closer to those musts I mentioned above, to the state that will enable you to use photography and not the other way around. It also depends on whether you feel more like a journalist or an artist. I’m in a sort of in-between phase. I don’t feel like an artist (I don’t like that word), but feel more like an artist than a journalist. I just work as a photojournalist to make a living. Documentary photography is different and requires much more time commitment. I think people should think about sacrifice and analyze their lives in terms of what they really need to do. I think it was Edward Weston who said a photographer who spends a lot of time doing what he doesn’t want to be doing should simplify his life to the point where he doesn’t need to make much money. And of course that sounds a lot easier than it is.
AB: When you work for a magazine or a news organization, what do your editors want from you?
Michael Christopher Brown: It depends on the story and what is needed. At the end of the day, if you’re working for someone, then what is most important is what they need. The best editors try not to give you a shot list; they try to trust you to find the best pictures to tell the story. I say “try” because photo editors are often not their own bosses. There are creative directors and other editors watching over their shoulders to make sure things are done a certain way. So I make sure I have what they need, often before I photograph whatever it is I’m interested in. If you work that way, you always have what is needed for the job, though it might not be a bagful of great pictures. But that said, I mostly try to follow my curiosity and instincts. That leads to better pictures. It’s a real balance. You don’t want to leave an assignment feeling like you didn’t get the pictures a client needs, but you also don’t want to leave feeling like you didn’t get any pictures for yourself.
AB: When you're working on a story, what are your hours like?
Michael Christopher Brown: It depends on the story. If I’m on a three-day assignment, I try to work 18-hour days, minimum. I try to photograph situations and people more than once, and to think about all angles of the story to give the person who hired me different options and more than they expected. If I’m on a month-long assignment I have a bit more time, though I still try to get the content needed towards the beginning so I can loosen up and experiment towards the end. That’s often when better pictures come, and often those are the pictures the client are really looking for.
AB: Is it more difficult to get access to subjects if you're not affiliated with a well-known news organization? How do you handle that?
Michael Christopher Brown: It can be easier to get access to some situations (political events, corporate offices, etc) while on assignment for, say, Newsweek, but often it’s just a matter of body language and how you engage someone. Everyone has a different way of working, and one needs to experiment with approaches while being themselves to find the best way. There can be a bit of acting that goes into it, in terms of gaining access, and everyone does it a different way. Documentary photographers often work for long periods of time without an affiliation, but they’re usually fine, as subjects realize that anyone spending long periods of time around them must really care for them and their situation in some way. This builds trust, and subjects realize it’s just as, if not more valid than another photographer briefly photographing them due to an assignment.
AB: What do you love most about doing what you do?
Michael Christopher Brown: I like to think of photography as being like working in a studio. I could be drawing or painting or making something with my hands, but I use a camera, which is another tool. If I think of it this way, my mind isn’t limited by the camera, by the frame, by the picture-taking process and the field of photography. With that limitation gone, the world becomes a much bigger place. What I do is about life, since I’m a human being before I’m a photographer.
I also love having my own schedule much of the time. Though I often can’t say no to assignments, meaning there is some loose schedule there, I live simply and cheaply, and that frees me up to do what I want to do.
AB: What do you dislike about it?
Michael Christopher Brown: That I’m not always engaged with people and spend a lot of time alone, though it is part of the job in some ways. Also that I don’t have a huge loft in SoHo and am not making millions of dollars a year.
AB: What do you think are the most important qualities and skills for a person to have in your line of work?
Michael Christopher Brown: When I think of, say, Tim Hetherington or Chris Hondros, both of whom represented the pinnacle of photojournalism and documentary photography, I don’t think of their pictures as much as the great men they were.
When we die, as photographers we leave the public with our imagery. But as humans we leave our immediate family and friends, colleagues, and followers with a more intimate memory of who we were. One’s most important qualities and skills as a photographer depend on how one wants to be remembered.
The better person you are, the better photographer you should become. More specifically, stay curious and open and interested in yourself and others, continue asking questions, and continue to grow.
In our Breaking In series, we ask successful young professionals in photo- and video-related fields about what it took to get into their line of work, what it's like to make a living doing what they do, and how they made the transition from student days to working life.
This article first appeared in Resource Magazine, a quarterly photo and video publication for forward-thinking image makers worldwide. Dedicated to working and aspiring industry professionals, it is a comprehensive photo, video, and lifestyle platform offering readers the latest insight on photography skills, tech news, gear, and marketing techniques, all brought together with awe-inspiring images. Resource offers a unique, fresh perspective on the innovative, quickly evolving photographic world, emphasizing the work, art, and power of imagery.
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