writer-as-photog: painting the picture with more than words

Hello, my name is Jeannette and I’m a writer. <insert chorus of “Hi, Jeannette”>

Writers have a sweet gig – it’s a tough slog most of the time, but it’s also pretty rad. I work harder at this than at any other job I’ve had and earn the least amount of money I’ve ever made (if I sit down and calculate the hourly wage, which I try hard to avoid), but generally we get to be at / experience / talk to / investigate / research the coolest events / places / people / subject matter you can think of. And when we’re the person who came up with the idea, it’s magical.

Increasingly often in the digital realm, freelance writers are asked to provide photographs to accompany an article or story. With digital SLRs and pre-programmed shutter speeds, it’s getting easier for us to accommodate those requests. But does that make it right? Are we taking a piece of the photographer’s market? Probably. For that, I’m sorry.

Here’s the thing: writers largely remain underpaid – if paid at all – for online content. It takes no less time to craft a story for a digital platform than it does for print, yet it doesn’t command the same compensation – and many writers are contributing online content for free (or really cheap). So when we’re asked to provide passable images, we will – because we want to keep the gig.

To my photographer friends and friends-to-be, please accept my apologies. I don’t pretend to be one of you and I never will. I’m somewhere between a hobbyist and an enthusiast, and I struggle with the technical aspects of photography that you learned at school because I didn’t study photography like you did. Your time is worth money, and I totally get it.

When I can encourage a publication – online or print – to spring for a photographer, I do. Yet the demand for photographs has forced me to practice and (I think) improve my picture-taking abilities. Will any of my images win awards, receive notoriety, or make anyone other than my publisher/editor and me happy? Probably not. Okay, maybe my mom – but she’s supposed to like everything I do. I’ve been fortunate to find a photographer whose style of photography is similar to how I write: the talented Melissa Voth McHugh and I have worked together for a few years, and I’m grateful to learn from her as we grow together.

Writers try to paint pictures with words – and sometimes, we get it right. But the same rule applies for photography as it does for writing: you get what you pay for. So when I’m asked to provide images, my photographs won’t be in the same stratosphere as those of a professional photographer. Hopefully my readers understand this and can forgive my photographic indiscretions.

Research for my latest writing involves hanging out with chefs Cam and Dana of Joy Road Catering (see? rad). As I tried to remain unobtrusive yet ready to snap a photo of culinary awesomeness, I realized that writers see things differently than photographers. I happily shelved my photographer-to-be and snapped away. Thank you Cam & Dana, for trusting me enough to allow me to sneak into the kitchen while you prepared for a marathon catering weekend.

Here’s a glimpse of how a writer thinks while she’s playing photographer-wannabe.

This is one of the largest rubber band balls I’ve ever seen. It was huge, so they’ve started a new one. Where did all those rubber bands come from? Answer: produce.
As a writer, these little jars caught my attention. I had created an entire backstory for them the moment I saw them.
Photographically awkward, but compelling hidden story. Where did this come from, and who has used it? This is how we (well, I) see things before I write.
What a photographer sees: a cluttered image. What I see: chef Cam and chef Dana, working within feet of one another… but in completely different worlds.
Awkward perspective, yes. I should have been focusing on chef Dana’s hands, but I was distracted by this wee little wire chair on the knife rack.
Too many intersecting lines = visual confusion. I cop to that. I intended to capture Joy Road’s beautiful nature-surrounded outdoor kitchen. Instead, the writer in me thought: “how do they keep the wasps away?”.

**  want more? watch for my article with EAT Magazine – online as of Aug/Sept.

0 thoughts on “writer-as-photog: painting the picture with more than words

  • August 2, 2013 at 11:09 am
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    My ravenous friend – thanks for commenting.

    I get the urge for newer writers to work for free (or almost free) – I did it, too: building a portfolio, gaining an audience, etc. Not anymore. It’s my only income.

    Hopefully, we can soon find some sort of middle ground. I’ve had magazines assign photographers less often than I’ve had requests that I take photographs; I ask if the publisher/editor would like to consider a photographer I would recommend. No one has taken me up on that (yet).

    And yes, stress on “professional” for writers and photographers, indeed. Neither will – nor should they – work for free. 🙂

    PS: 10K for photographs – le wow…

  • August 2, 2013 at 9:38 am
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    Personally, I don’t write for free. Sure, at the beginning, you have to fulfill your “intern” responsibilities to prove yourself, but, after a couple years, it begins to directly take money out of the pockets of professional writers. Correspondingly, by supplying photographs for free to high-profile publications, you eliminate the role of the professional photographer in the publication industry (stress on “professional”). Over my 8 years as a travel writer, I haven’t seen much hope for the photographer. I’ve had everyone from in-flight magazines to top-ranking travel blogs request photographs from me without a thought regarding payment, so I know that they aren’t hiring photographers. And I still hear the stories about $10,000 photographs from photographers in their 40s (40s!). Hopefully writers will find a way to stick together before we go the way of the professional photographer.

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