Photojournalism: Every Career Affected in an Internet Age

Sam Abell

Last night I was delighted to attend the National Geographic LIVE! event with photographer Sam Abell, and came away with something I didn’t expect about professional photography in today’s internet age. More on that in a bit, but first a story on how I came to attend this talk and some impressions.

I’ve been clear while on this new adventure Connecting the Dots and fulfilling my intention as a management consultant in all things internet, web and social media, that I had to be attuned to “the signs” pointing me along my path. These signs are usually tiny and insignificant unto themselves — and therefore most of us miss seeing them — but I’ve been hyperaware and on the lookout for over two years.

As an amateur photographer, I’m always seeking ways to improve my photography through making my lens clearer and ensure I’m using the right filters. This isn’t the camera lens or filters I slap on to them, but rather is the lens through which I view the world (my perceptions, prejudices, curiosities) and the mental filters I apply to a photograph’s outcome (knowledge, ego, and my inner drive to show technical competence) and strive to convey in a photo what I’m feeling inside.

Last week I scanned my bookshelf and grabbed an early 1990’s book on photography (from National Geographic (NG)) to re-read it. Flipping through this nicely done smallish paperback, I settled on a sidebar about the techniques of this guy, Sam Abell, and how he’d almost been fired by his first editor for his dark and non-use of the tricks-of-the-trade (e.g., fill-in flash for underexposed subjects on a bright background). There was something about his approach that resonated with me and caused me to go back and look at his photos and dwell on them awhile.

Two days later I’m on my way to an appointment and Minnesota Public Radio has an interview running with him that I listened to for 45 minutes. Then I read a newspaper article about him. Later that day I come across the event linked to above and broke into a smile…

….”OK, I get it and see the signs,” I thought, and bought tickets to last nights event.

Poking around the ‘net at lunch yesterday in order to prepare myself by learning something about Abell, I came across several comprehensive sites (like this one) with his photography, some videos of old interviews he’d done, words written by him, and I learned that this was one incredibly sensitive man who clearly had evolved into someone wide open to the world. No question (since he said it in the video interviews I watched) that this allowed him to be fully present, completely awake and attuned to why he was there on assignment for National Geographic: to capture the mood, the feeling, the essence of a place, a person or people, a period in history or whatever the intent of the assignment.

When time came for his talk, I didn’t know that I’d pretty much consumed the content of it earlier in the day! Still, it was nice to hear him deliver it even though his talk devolved a bit into a history lesson (and felt a bit like it had turned into a family slide show) instead of what I’d come for: to tell us how you lived the photographers life, leveraged your senses, soul and curiosity into great photographs, and how we could learn from you on how to do it better.

Also, NG LIVE! really needs to get their content on to Apple’s Keynote. No question the focus is on the photography (no pun intended) but this slide show could’ve been a lot sexier and visually appealing with just a few of the “cinema quality” capabilities Keynote provides. It was pretty flat and lifeless.

Abell masterfully communicated his near reverence for those who’d sparked his interest in photography: his amateur photographer father with his darkroom in the house; a teacher getting him involved and mentoring him with high school yearbook production; a famous National Geography photographer that took a shine to him and helped him in the 1950’s when he was first starting out. Abell is a man wise in the ways of mentoring, aware of the power of those of us who’ve already made it being looked up to and admired by those wanting to break in to our field, and how he’s always ensuring that he’s attuned to the possibility a remark, a handshake or a kind word might do in setting the tone for a young person’s career.

Here’s what happened that I didn’t expect…

  • At the end during Q&A, he was asked about digital vs. film photography and which he used. He said, “I’ve just taken my first digital photograph this month,” which brought forth several murmurs from the audience.

He went on to describe his 50 year relationship with film (“I’m a film guy”) and that he didn’t have anything against digital, it’s been as good as film for many years, and that it clearly has brought the magic of photography to untold millions.

Also, he wished that digital had been “introduced 10 years from now so I didn’t have to deal with this matter.” As a 62 year old guy, he’s got at least three decades left in him so what’s up with THAT!?!  😉

  • The big revelation (which shouldn’t come as a surprise, I guess) was when a young woman asked, “How could a young person break into the field and become a National Geographic photographer today?

Abell’s answer was a stunner: He reported on a meeting held by National Geographic  president John Fahey, where Fahey talked about the expense of assignment photography and how that must change in today’s diluted media world and fragmented audience consumption.

Fahey apparently then instructed all the photographers that, going forward, they’d all be required to carry video gear and shoot footage for the NG Channel and video production!

Again, this shouldn’t be a surprise or a stunner, but I didn’t expect that NG would be affected quite as profoundly as other traditional media types with their unique and valuable world perspectives, but how could they not be?

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what those little signs were pointing to and why I was compelled to go to see Sam Abell. I don’t yet know. Hope that doesn’t disappoint you, but I often have experiences like this one that don’t become fully clear to me until some time has passed or this experience informs something else I’m involved in.

Maybe it’s the lesson of living ones life in a way that affects our work in a positive and meaningful way. Perhaps it’s further opening myself and attuning to the world and people around me. Or that it’s understanding that even a master photographer at the pinnacle of his career — working for arguably one of the finest institutions and set of media assets on the planet — isn’t immune to the shifts in the marketplace.

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  1. Jo Jordan on February 28, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Found the signs yet? Found this post while I was writing on the future of careers in the age of the internet.

    I would love it if you took a look and gave me some comments. And if you are interested in collaborating, I think it is time we wrote ahead so to speak, and help people anticipae how work will change.

    28 February 2009

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.