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Career as a War Photojournalist

Jennifer Betts
Photojournalist

In your lifetime, you've likely seen an emotional picture depicting the horrors and devastation of war. You've witnessed the plight of the soldiers and studied the path of the refugees through the lens of a war photographer's camera. They battle bullets and grenades not with guns, but with a keen eye and framing.

Getting Into the Field

These highly trained professionals use the lens of a camera to immortalize what war truly looks like. Not only does this career require a solid background in technical knowledge of cameras and framing, but it also requires years of journalistic training and a certain amount of passion and courage. Given the subject matter, you've probably already assumed any person off the street can't just walk into a war zone and become a photographer. This takes years of dedication and training.

Education

While some photographers in this field might be self-taught, an education in photojournalism or journalism can help you to get your foot in the door. This program can last two or four years and will typically include coursework in:

  • Composition
  • Lighting
  • Exposure
  • Depth of field
  • Lens and camera mechanics
  • Color theory
  • Film development (yes, photojournalists still often shoot in film)
  • Darkroom printing

You might also explore communications, mass media, journalism techniques, multimedia, and video. The National Press Photographers Association also noted college training in another subject, like sociology or foreign languages, can be helpful.

Training

The New York Film Academy noted most war photographers start as media or news journalists and work their way up; therefore, getting training through an entry-level position or internship is key to building credentials. In this capacity, you will have the opportunity to work alongside other professionals and fine tune your skills. You might do photo shoots for local news or take images for the paper or magazine you work for. Through demonstrating yourself, you will slowly create a network and hone your craft for storytelling. This will also afford you the opportunity to build your portfolio.

Portfolio

Photography at any level, including war photography, requires you to build a portfolio. A portfolio demonstrates your skill to potential employees. These technically proficient photographs can be stand-alone or a collection, but they will improve with your experience. Therefore, your portfolio is an ever-revolving collection of your best work.

Other Things to Consider

In addition to education and training, you'll need drive and conviction to become a photographer of war. You will be a witness to human tragedies. This can leave a mark on even the strongest individuals. For example, Don McCullin notes how scenes he witnessed in the Congo have come to haunt him because he was simply an observer, a witness to human tragedy. According to the NCBI in a research study conducted in 2013, war journalists develop emotional distress, and their job affects their psychological wellbeing. They also had a higher instance of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Not only can this affect your psychological wellbeing, but you will be purposely putting yourself in harm's way. It is not unheard of for a war journalist to become injured or killed in the crossfire.

On the opposite side of the coin is the fact your images will be shared with a global audience. While you will witness tragedies, you will also witness the triumph of human nature. This work can be exhilarating.

Finding Work

As a war photojournalist, you have a few options for finding work. Most photographers either work on assignment for an organization like the military or newspaper or go as a freelance photojournalist.

Assignment

If you are working on assignment, you might be hired by a media outlet or another organization.

  • News camera
    It means a media company has paid you to capture a series of specific shots.
  • They might pay your expenses for the project. In this case, they may arrange travel, transportation, and accommodations.
  • These positions are harder to find. According to Paul Melcher of Black Star Rising, war photographers are a dying breed because of financing and budget cuts. You'll need experience and a great reputation as a photographer if you want to work on assignment for a major media outlet.

Freelance

Becoming more common among war photographers is the freelance war photographer.

  • Freelance work means you're out taking photos, which you will sell to the media after you've finished a project.
  • You probably won't have your expenses covered.
  • Travel arrangements are up to you.
  • There is a chance you will not find buyers for your photographs.

Preparation and Forethought

One common misconception is you can just enter a war zone and start snapping photos. This is most certainly not the case. You'll need a variety of documents and resources, such as passports, visas, work permits, and more. Depending on where you are shooting, there may be military requirements for being in the middle of battle. You'll need contacts and places to stay, as well as sources for information and possibly protection. This is a big deal, and not something you should jump into lightly.

Perfect Shot of War

War photography can be an exhilarating career that can display your work on an international level. However, training and possibly education are required to break into this field. You'll also need an impressive expanse of work to showcase your talent and a drive to tell the untellable or iconic stories. While this career can be exciting, it is wrought with physical danger and highly emotional situations. Therefore, you'll want to weigh your options before joining this commendable career.

Career as a War Photojournalist