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Shoot at sight

A photo journalist uses images to tell a story. The work is exciting and much of the learning is on the field Vimal Chander Joshi Reports

education Updated: Sep 25, 2009 09:41 IST
Vimal Chander Joshi

In 2004, when Mustafa Quraishi came away from a Maoist camp in Nallamala, Andhra Pradesh, a glance at the previous day’s newspaper sent a chill down his spine. There had been a police ambush on the same camp the night before… Such a close shave with death, he says, made him realise how scary as well as thrilling his job as a photo journalist was.

Lack of a Bachelor’s degree did not keep Quraishi, 30, from climbing the career ladder in photo journalism. Working with the international news agency Associated Press (AP), he also has a media fellowship to his credit.

“I wanted to join the Army but couldn’t match their physical standards, so I set my eyes on photo journalism,” he says. “When the Army job didn’t come my way, I chucked college studies as it seemed futile at that time. One must have talent, not a degree, to become a good photographer.” The profession of a cameraman was “looked down upon by the aunties and the uncles but my passion couldn’t be suppressed”, he recounts.

It is this passion that drives a photo journalist, as one has to struggle very hard to find a job or regular work in the initial years. RS Iyer, a qualified lawyer, quit his practice within a year to become a shutterbug in the early ’90s. He went on to cover the 1999 Kargil war and is now photo editor in a well-known news agency.

At 18, Quraishi’s career took off at The Indian Express, where he covered civic problems and later, the entertainment beat. After a five-year stint, he got a job offer from AP.

“For a photo journalist, a news agency is the best place to be in,” Quraishi says. “Here, we have flexibility and scope to explore our potential. I could never have experienced such quality journalism while in a newspaper.”

Field training
Though Quraishi took formal training in photography at Delhi’s Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communications, the real learning was on the job.

A photo journalist not only learns the nuances of journalism on the field, but also polishes his/her skills there — sometimes the hard way. “You might even get beaten up on assignments, which should be considered a part of learning. Each assignment makes you a better photographer,” says Quraishi.

What excited him the most was his encounter with the Maoists in Chhattisgarh. “When a journalist goes to a Maoist-infested zone, he puts his life at risk. Even the mobile connection goes off. My assignments in the Maoist-infested states were probably the scariest yet.”

Photo journalism is about using images to tell a news story. It refers to still images in print journalism, while for broadcast journalism, usually a video tells the story. A photo journalist is also a reporter but s/he must often make decisions instantly. S/he is often exposed to significant obstacles (physical danger, weather, crowds)

9 am: Leave for work
10 am: Reach office
10.15 am: Check out the list of assignments
10.30 am: Fix up appointments with contacts
11 am: Leave for assignments
2 pm: Lunch
2.30 pm: Follow up on assignments again
6 pm: Come back to office
6.30 pm: Correct pictures in Photoshop and then file them
7 pm: Check out pictures clicked by other photo journalists on the Internet

Most photo journalists initially work as interns and might not get paid for work. That six-month period (which sometimes continues for a year) is followed by a trainee position where you can expect a salary of Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 a month, depending on the organisation you join. The money increases with experience, hard work and skills. Within 10 years, you can earn between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh a month.

Foreign agencies like AP, AFP and Reuters give rich exposure and pay well, compared to publications

Physical endurance and a certain level of fitness
. An eye for detail and a knack for photo composition
. Curiosity about events and quick reflex
. An inclination for reading up on current affairs

How do i get there?
You can learn the basics of photography from a good institute. Later, you can freelance or do an internship with a media house (newspaper/ magazine/ website) for a year or two. You can, during this period, apply for a job in a publication. The Internet is emerging as a reliable option, especially for beginners. If lucky, you can find a decent job within that time. Until you find something you like, keep sending your pictures to as many publications as you can. If you have it in you, you will be noticed

Institutes & urls
India International Photographic Council, Delhi,
Tel: 3327 762
. Triveni Kala Sangam, Mandi House, Delhi,
Tel: 65751099
. Sri Aurobindo Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi
. Xavier Institute of Communication, Mumbai

Pros & Cons
. Academic brilliance not required. This job is all about spontaneity and creativity
. You get to travel to a lot of places, constantly meet people, explore cultures
. The work remains physically demanding even as you become established in your career
. You might have to go on hostile terrain while on duty
. Freelancing may not pay well

You have to be on your toes always

An industry insider introduces us to the challenges of his calling

What’s important for an aspiring photo journalist?
One must be extremely hard-working and should be on one’s toes all the time. Having spent more than two decades in the profession, I still go on assignments to click pictures.

Photographic skills can still be developed over time.

After news channels came into our lives, has still photography lost its sheen?
No, it hasn’t. Still photography will continue to play a pivotal role, always. Still pictures are used even on the Internet, which is becoming as popular as news channels.
I see no reason why still photography would lose out. To my mind, the print media are a better alternative to photo journalists [than the electronic media] in today’s fast-paced life.

Print is handy and is preferred by the educated middle class.

What changes have you witnessed in photo journalism over the past few decades?
A lot has changed. The present generation enjoys the technological boon, which has made lives simpler. Earlier, we used to click pictures and send the photographic rolls with an acquaintance so they could be developed the same day for publication. Now, it’s delightfully convenient to take pictures, save them on the computer and use them online for publication.

How is photo journalism different from other kinds of photography?
In photo journalism, a professional must have presence of mind and a nose for news. For this, he or she should also have an aptitude for journalism, while in other domains, it’s simply the love of photography that matters.

There is more stability in the career of a photo journalist — many people can aspire to become journalists and they can be successful, too. In comparison, in wildlife or fashion [photography], very few are lucky enough to earn money as well as fame.

Pramod Pushkarna, Group Photo Editor, Good Morning India Media Pvt Ltd Interviewed by Vimal Chander Joshi