Finding stories isn't easy, even for old hands. Here are some tips.
Recently I spoke at Texas Tech University and had coffee the next morning with a small group of student photographers, all of them anxious to find their way in this bewildering business of photography. (My thanks to their professor, Jerod Foster, for making that possible.) I exhorted them to consider environmental photography as an option for work in their careers, alongside photojournalism and other already established career paths.
As usual, I used the metaphor that I explored in a my previous blog posting about the rapids and the river. A few days later I got this query from Jacob Baker, one of those students. Jake remembered my quote a little differently, but he got the idea.
"At one point during our meeting you said something to the effect of "Everyone is paying attention to the rapids when they should be paying attention to the slow current." I have been thinking about that quite a bit and what it means for my development as a photographer. I am extremely interested in photographing the slower processes of the planet and its people, however I'm not sure how to find those stories. And I know, I must be inventive!" ~ Jacob Baker
Thoughts from Jim:
Jake, you caught me offering clever advice and then leaving you to sort out the messy details. And you are right, just saying “be inventive” doesn’t quite do it. So let me offer a few more thoughts, then I’ll add what Dennis had to say.
How do you find those stories? Start with your interests and work your way backwards (and up the food chain) to the big ideas behind them: food, population, environment, energy, etc. Those underpinnings will automatically guide you towards subjects of lasting importance. Dig into researching the big issues, then see where you find traction where your interests and the bigger issues intersect. When you start seeing connections, when the light bulbs start to come on as you explore a big issue and you find yourself thinking of local examples, then you’ll know your are getting vital traction. Then break the Big Ideas up into smaller pieces that you can attack seperately. From there it’s a process of seeing if you can find individual stories of immediate interest that ALSO contribute to your bigger picture. (Tip: Think about taking pictures that would still be relevant a year from now, long after the immediate news angle is gone.)
Collect ideas and information widely. Make a separate folder for all those various things that interest you. Stuff the new finds in the folders and see what grows over six months or so. When one of the folders gets thick and fat open it up and see what you can make out of the pieces you’ve collected. (Tip: one individual news story or scientific paper is not enough to base a story on. If a subject is really important it will be generating multiple news stories and research papers.)
Don’t worry if the process doesn't seem very directed or the results very immediate. You are building a career, not just a portfolio. In my own case I worked on a number of agriculture stories over several decades before I started to see that they added up to something. Over time I developed a body of work, and I could see which images had staying power and which were flashes in the pan.
Think of my “Rapids vs. Rivers” dictum as a sort of compass that points consistently in the right direction and by which you sift and sort story possibilities and guiding your efforts towards a greater whole. Over time your path will become less erratic. Then you’ll start knowing your way. After a while you’ll look like a genius.
Thoughts from Dennis:
It took me a long time to realize that the slow current is the part of life and photography that matters, that endures.
This month in Washington there will be a big march by scientists, arguing for their rightful place as participants in the trajectory of civilization. Photographically that will be pictures of people holding signs, and no doubt it will get all sorts of play in the news business. These are the rapids that Jim describes, these are the shiny superficial things that most everyone in media and the world of instant analysis responds to.
But that is not what matters. Appearances are not what they seem. Finding people swimming - working - in the slower currents, the deeper water, are what matters if one wants to create enduring work.
Some examples: Scientists who study the long-term changes in the Arctic ice cap. What will this mean for mid-latitude weather? Agriculture? Scientists who work to develop new varieties of heat-, drought-, and salt-tolerant crops that may keep producing harvests as the climate keeps warming. Scientists who study the range of crops, where they grow, and who realize for example that the corn belt has been shifting north and west because of rising temperatures and shifts in precipitation and growing seasons. Where will we eventually grow our food? Will there be soils in these emerging grain bowls that can support agriculture? And lastly, scientists who are trying to determine where human societies will get water supplies as aquifers and snowpacks decline. What will we do?
I could go on. These are the slow currents, the deeper quiet waters.
These deeper ideas will endure and dominate long after we have passed through the rapids (the new shiny things). These slow currents and others like them are what we seek to explore here. These longer-time scale shifts represented by the slow current are what has underpinned human societies since the end of the last ice age. These longer time-scale shifts are what will determine our own fate in decades and centuries ahead as population keeps growing and our needs for food and water expand, and our finite planet keeps showing more signs of stress - climate change, pollution, extinctions and the like - because of our ongoing expansion and exploitation. What are the underlying long time-scales, look for those to inform your quest.
Finding stories that tap into these cycles are what will endure. They may not be noisy and shiny like the rapids, but these stories will be the more contemplative and thoughtful stories that in the end help us understand why there are rapids along the journey.
It takes a long time to create good things. Children take at least two decades. Soil takes centuries. Like parenting and soil building this kind of work will require patience and a willingness to tap into the cycle of the seasons, years, decades, and even lifetimes.