Have you ever wondered if you had what it took to be a working photojournalist? Many professionals have earned entry into the field by working as a freelance stringer. In the journalistic profession, a stringer is a freelance photographer or journalist who is paid by the photo (or article) as opposed to being a salaried employee of the newspaper. Even though the freelance photo stringer isn’t a traditional employee (s)he can build an ongoing relationship with one or several news organizations and create a steady stream of income through ongoing submissions (and acceptance) of work.
We turned to Nell Carroll, who currently serves as photo editor for the Austin American-Statesman for advice on what it takes to become a successful stringer in today’s competitive climate. Nell earned a degree in photojournalism from Syracuse University and got her start working for a small newspaper with a total staff of four people. She served as sports editor for USA Today for several years and then left Washington DC for Austin, Texas, where she currently serves as photo editor for the Austin American-Statesman. She has also served as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
When we asked Nell what it took to make a mark in this industry, this is what she said:
Be Different: “The market is saturated. Everyone with an iPhone thinks he’s a photographer. The available work can be spotty at times so folks should learn how to fill off time with marketing and promotion.” Being a working stringer means that you are, in essence, operating your own enterprise, and this requires making sure that your work and expertise are promoted. It’s important to understand that you are competing with countless other photographers. Marketing is an ongoing endeavor, so plan on building these efforts into your workweek.
“One of the most common mistakes I see involves weak portfolios,” Nell offers. “Many people fill their portfolio with shots from the same event and that does not show me any versatility. I need to see that a photographer can shoot many different types of things.” She adds, “However, if someone specializes in sports, I may like that and know I can hire them just for sports.” Nell offers a word of caution as well. “Don’t oversell your talent. Just because you had a head shot published in the New York Times does not mean you can call them a client.”
Be Aware: You need to have your eye on current events, so leveraging social media to keep current is an important part of the job. “Social media leads me to many photo opportunities so I keep a close eye on Twitter and Facebook to make sure I do not miss a beat,” Nell states. You’ll want to be aware of upcoming newsworthy events to make sure you’re positioned to be in the mix and ready to shoot.
Be Tenacious: While you don’t want to be a nuisance, you do want to follow up on occasion after submitting a query or photograph for consideration. There is also a fine line between bugging me about work and not following up at all. I am super busy, so things and people fall off my radar pretty fast if I am not reminded of them. I love when freelancers tell me their weekly availability, I may not use them for months but then BANG, I will need them immediately.”
Be Available: As a freelancer, being available is extremely important. Even if your calls have not been returned, when a newspaper calls you, you need to take it. Nell puts it simply, “Freelancers, always answer your phone.” You’ll need to consider your current life and commitments before venturing into the field of freelance photojournalism. News happens all the time, at any hour, and when an editor needs something covered, your answer needs to be ‘yes.’ Nell says, “Being a freelance photographer is a tough profession. You need to be on call at all times to be successful. One “NO“ from you can mean months of no calls from an editor.” If your schedule is one that allows this kind of flexibility, this can prove to be a true competitive advantage.
Be Tenacious: Work can come in many forms and in many niche areas, so being available also extends to being open to other possibilities. She says, “Realize that no assignment is beneath you, unless you are morally opposed it. I would never shoot paparazzi assignments because I feel they can be hurtful to the subject, but I would have no problem shooting a boring picture of a car for a car story.” She reminds us that there are many niche opportunities available including realtors, animal shelters, family portraiture and more. Be open to alternative opportunities as they can add depth to your portfolio.
Carving a space for yourself as a freelance photo stringer can be demanding but such coveted positions require a particular tenacity and dedication. While this career can be challenging, it doesn’t mean that you have to surrender your entire life. In fact, having outside interests is an asset. Nell says, “Your hobbies and other interests are important to maintain because they add dimension, perspective and texture to your work. Having a multi-faceted life is beneficial and those outside hobbies should be nurtured.” Nell adds that these outside interests encourage curiosity, which is an important component of photojournalism. Nell also enjoys mentoring other photographers when her schedule allows. “I really enjoy looking at other photographers’ work and helping them find the obvious and hidden gems.”
The arena of photojournalism is one that offers variety, excitement and the opportunity to share local and national stories with your community. It’s a career that many photographers dream of achieving and one well worth pursuing. If you’ve ever dreamed of trying your hand as a photo stringer, we hope you’ll take the first step. Start building your portfolio and keep Nell’s advice in mind.
Grab your camera and head out. The world is waiting!