My parents were older when they had me, so growing up, we always watched old movies that inevitably had those iconic press photographer scenes. You know the ones I’m talking about. Guys wearing fedoras with their “PRESS” pass tucked into the hatband, Graflex Speed Graphics around their necks and flashbulbs popping while a newspaper graphic spins into frame talking about whatever gangster was heading to court, normally with a clever headline like "GANGSTER GOONS GRIPE AFTER GUILTY PLEA."
I knew I wanted to be one of those guys in the gaggle. The problem was, as a Generation X kid, not only would I be made fun of if I wore a fedora, but a Speed Graphic was so 1930s. With my friends, if you weren’t shooting with a Kodak Disc Camera or Polaroid 600, you weren’t cool.
The dream of being a press photographer was put on the back burner when I decided to head into radio for the first part of my adult life, but photojournalism was never far from my mind. I was always the guy at the station taking pictures for events.
By the time I found my way into photojournalism, it had changed dramatically. Newspapers were trying to navigate the new digital age with constant content updates. They weren’t hiring photojournalists anymore, they were laying them off. Photojournalists I had admired for years were running past me screaming, "Ain’t nothing back there, kid. It’s nothing but clickbait and followers! Run away, boy! Run as fast as you can!”
Well, I didn’t exactly run. Instead, I went down the path that said “freelance” and never looked back.
I knew that when I made the inevitable switch to being a full-time photographer, the first organization I was going to join was the NPPA. That was the gold standard for me.
After a few years, I started going to the Northern Short Course. I knew one day into the conference that these were my people and I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I went from being a member on paper to being an active member.
I started as a local leader in my hometown of Philadelphia. From there, I was asked by then-Mid-Atlantic region chair Kyle Grantham to be his associate chair. When Kyle was elected NPPA treasurer, I was asked to be region chair for the Mid-Atlantic.
I hit the ground running. I wanted to connect every photojournalist with other photojournalists. I tried to organize local meet-ups in Philly, started a weekly newsletter and began reaching out to members to submit personal or professional projects so we could highlight them each week in the newsletter. If this went well, I thought I might try to reinstitute the fedora look for all working photojournalists.
These were lofty goals, but this was the NPPA I’d heard about and idolized for years. We would make it happen. Photojournalists, while solitary by nature, are at the same time pack animals. We travel as herds, we work as herds. Herd mentality would eventually take this over.
But the truth was, the meet-ups were hardly attended. There was almost no feedback from anyone on the newsletter, and I had maybe two or three people reply about being showcased. Out of those two or three, only one submitted images and a bio.
Where was my NPPA? Where was the camaraderie I found at the Northern? Where was the brotherhood and sisterhood of photojournalists I’d been hearing about for years, that I’d dreamed about joining as a teenager? Where was my herd?
The members I’ve spoken with all have variations of the same idea: “I don’t know if I get my money’s worth from NPPA.” “There’s really no reach-out from anyone. I don’t even know who our NPPA president is anymore.” “It’s not the old NPPA.” From the newer, younger members came, “I guess it makes sense to be a member, but it seems a little outdated to me.”
In speaking with my fellow regional chairs, it would seem we’re all having the same problem with our respective herds. It’s not just a Mid-Atlantic thing.
So what can we do about it? What would you, our members like to see from us? What are we doing right? More importantly, what are we doing wrong? Should we be holding more educational seminars? More social gatherings? NPPA President Melissa Lyttle and the board have been trying hard to get our members “value-added” with perks such as gear insurance, among other things. Are there things we are missing?
Like any major organization with multiple moving parts, it’s hard to please everybody all the time, but to help you we need you to help us! More than anything, we need volunteers. Every single chair and board member is a volunteer position. We volunteer because we care deeply about our organization, and we care for every single member who makes it up. You can help too.
We need local leaders all over the country. The local leaders are the first lines of our engagement. Without them, it’s hard for the associate and regional chairs to do everything in every state they manage. This is a great position for photojournalists just getting out of school or just starting their careers. It doesn’t take up much time, and it will help you build your own network.
It would also be great to see our members out in the field with other members. Now more than ever, we need one another. So if you’re at a presser or an event of some kind and see a fellow NPPA member, snap a quick picture of each other and post it on your social media using the hashtag #MyNPPA and @NPPA.
Along with the other regional chairs, I would love to hear from you on what we could be doing. We encourage you to join the conversation on our NPPA Facebook page, where you will find new and engaging content from not only your regional chairs, but from the national level as well. Today’s NPPA is a proud amalgam of newsroom photographers, freelancers, videographers, documentarians and more. To be the voice of visual journalists, we need to band together, learn from one another and make the collective stronger.
If you’d prefer a more one-on-one conversation, feel free to email me directly at [email protected].
(I also promise not to make fedoras a thing again unless you really want me to. I think it’s a good look. Maybe we’ll do a Facebook poll.)