By Jim Colton
I have often said that a good picture has to be “affective” to be “effective.” A truly great image causes a visceral reaction within us. It makes us mad, it makes us cry, it makes us laugh - it makes us feel something. If an image hasn’t done one of those things, then it hasn’t done its job.
Finding and capturing those images is another matter. Where do you start? What homework is involved? Truly moving images and engaging stories are generally not the result of serendipity. Yes, there is the occasional spot news image that unfolds in front of our lenses but even then, there is usually some preparation that takes place before that happens. Luck favors the prepared.
But when it comes to finding that perfect feature story or personal project, Washington AP staff photographer Jacquelyn Martin describes the process as being, “…vital to have work that feeds your soul.” And with that hunger comes preparation, sacrifice and dedication…knowing full well that the results may never see the light of day in print.
Her self-funded story on albinism in Tanzania, “Tribe of Ghosts,” is hauntingly beautiful…and affective! It required months of research and contacting nonprofits and NGO’s but her hard work paid off…perhaps not so much monetarily, but her images not only feed the soul but also shine a light on the souls of her subjects.
Martin is a much decorated photographer with awards bestowed upon her from the White House News Photographers Association to the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism contest. She is also the President of the Women Photojournalists of Washington (WPOW) where she is a champion in educating the public about the work and accomplishments of women in the field of photojournalism.
This week, Photo Journal has a conversation with the very passionate Jacquelyn Martin about early influences, women in the industry, balancing the personal project with her full time gig as a staff wire photographer…and “feeding her soul.”
Jim Colton: When did you first become interested in photography? Who or what were your influences?
Jacquelyn Martin: Growing up, my father loved photography as a hobby and always had an SLR camera around. I was interested in art – I often joke that photographers are artists who can’t draw – but luckily my high school had a great photography program and like many people I fell in love in the darkroom with the magic of the image appearing out of the ether. I enjoyed photography and was encouraged by my high school teacher, Mr. Parker, who thought I had some talent. So when applying for colleges I looked for schools that had photography programs and decided on RIT. I began in the Biomedical Photographic Communications program, but after exploring a few documentary classes I switched into Photojournalism and I’ve never looked back.
Many great photographers who happen to be women have influenced me. Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and the work of the Farm Security Administration had a great impact on me and shaped my desire to do humanistic photography that tells us something about the human condition and encourages empathy, while also documenting history. Modern photographers whose work I admire include Stephanie Sinclair, Ami Vitale, Carolyn Cole, Ruth Fremson, Carol Guzy, and Mary Calvert. I am drawn to long-form documentary work done with a compassionate and intelligent eye. In the political arena, photographers Stephen Crowley and Melina Mara give me a high bar to reach for and I’m constantly inspired by the work of my AP colleagues.
JC: I know that you attended Barnstorm XVI at the Eddie Adams Workshop. What can you recall from that experience and what lasting effects did it have on you (If any)?
JM: The workshop was a wonderful experience. First, it taught me the value of perseverance as I was accepted in the very last year that I was eligible, after several years of rejection. Ruth Fremson of the New York Times was one of my team leaders and she became a mentor for me in those early years which I will forever be grateful. One thing I didn’t expect is how the other photographers attending the workshop would become future colleagues and friends. It’s been great to watch the career paths of other attendees. I attended EAW the last year that Eddie was alive. I also met Joe Rosenthal before he passed away and it was an amazing experience to be with so many iconic photographers in one intimate space.
JC: I understand that you are the president of WPOW: Women Photojournalists of Washington. Can you tell us a little about the organization and its mission?
JM: The mission of WPOW is to educate the public about the work and accomplishments of women in the field of photojournalism and to instruct and train women within the Washington D.C. metropolitan area with the purpose of improving and developing their professional capabilities. WPOW engages in educational and instructional activities and provides opportunities for women in the field to discuss the unique challenges they face.
We host inspirational speakers, hold workshops, engage in monthly social events, and have two shows annually of our juried exhibition. We also have a traveling show that tours universities across the country…and we encourage mentoring.
I joined WPOW immediately after moving to Washington and the organization means a lot to me. I’ve made many of my closest friends in WPOW, and I’m constantly inspired by the work and passion of our members. A man once asked me if WPOW was a place (where) we could do women things, “like get together and cry.” He was serious! That is not what we do. That kind of thinking is honestly why WPOW needs to exist. I’m proud that we’ve built WPOW not just to be a home for female photojournalists, editors, and multimedia producers, but a place where the entire photo community can come together, learn, and be inspired.
JC: Has gender ever played a role in your career in regards to discrimination? Have there ever been times when being a female photojournalist has been a detriment or an advantage when covering a story?
JM: I can’t give a concrete example of personal discrimination; it can be subtle. From a wire perspective, there are very few women working in wire services on staff. I often find myself to be the only woman photographing at a given event in the White House or in Congress.
I’ve also noticed a gap among mid-career women in the industry. There are many young women graduating college and 20-somethings working their first job. Then there are older women. But in the mid-career range, there seems to be a drain that happens. Although there are many female photojournalists starting at newspapers, how many women make it into the upper echelons of their organizations? How many get top assignments? What happens when women photojournalists decide to have children? Is there a perceived weakness when they do so? It’s hard to say whether this drain is from personal choices or being professionally pushed out or discouraged. Work-life balance can of course be a problem for both men and women but I haven’t noticed the same drain among mid-career men. This seems to be an industry wide problem.
I don’t think of myself as a female photojournalist. I’m a photojournalist…an individual. Part of what I bring to the table is how I interact with my subjects and obviously being a woman may impact people’s responses to me. But most of it is how I interact with you that affects whether I can take intimate pictures of you or not. In shorter-term work I find that men may underestimate me, thus letting down their guard, while women and children often trust me. I wouldn’t trade my gender. I feel it more often gives me an advantage than not.
JC: I was an AP brat in the early 70's. Much has changed since then. You work as a staff photographer for the Associated Press in Washington, DC...a politically charged city to say the least. Can you give us a day-in-the-life of a staff photographer for the AP? And what kind of assignments are the ones that motivate you the most?
JM: I joined the AP in 2006, only my second full-time job after the newspaper I was working at (The Birmingham Post-Herald) folded overnight. After the paper I spent a year freelancing and doing personal work. It’s hard to sum up a day-in-the-life at the AP in Washington because it depends what your shift is that week. No matter the assignment I often file mid-shoot to the wire. It’s an extremely fast method of working and very competitive.
We cover the president - both at the White House and when he travels. We also cover Congress on Capitol Hill, where you have to know all the players and the story of the day or you’ll sink like a stone. There is general assignment as well as major sports coverage. And of course, spot news. I’ve been fortunate to be sent around the world as the pool photographer for the secretary of state and the secretary of defense.
In general, working in Washington is competitive, cerebral, challenging, and often fun. It’s a privilege to be a witness to history. Working for the oldest and largest wire service in the world is a heavy responsibility and an honor. You have to be constantly vigilant, fast, and accurate. It’s a high profile job that leaves no room for error. You have to be at the top of your game at all times.
JC: I understand that you have tried to work with NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) on some of your projects. Can you tell us what's involved from the research stage to actually writing a proposal?
JM: I’ve never written a proposal to an NGO. I have applied for grants, which I’ve found can help to clarify your project idea even if you don’t end up getting the money in the end. When I contact an NGO it’s usually via email or old-fashioned phone call. I tell them who I am and what I’d like to do. Honesty about your motives is really the key. When an NGO who cares about a certain topic hears me speak about how I also care about that topic and would like to show the world more about their issue, they often respond positively. NGOs are a good place to find and approach the subject of your project and to find people who can help you on the ground with logistics. However, I don’t get hired by an NGO to do my project. As a journalist I might be wary of working directly in that way as I’m not doing advocacy, I’m doing journalism. Freelancers might do work directly for nonprofits without an issue, but I have to tread carefully as a staffer for the AP.
As I was researching albinism in Tanzania, I looked for nonprofits working on the issue. Asante Mariamu is a small nonprofit and the founder (Susan DuBois) lives in northern Virginia. I contacted her and arranged to have lunch. She is amazing! She has two children of her own who both have albinism and was so moved by the plight of albinos in Tanzania that she started this nonprofit and devotes so much of her time when she's not working as a lawyer. You couldn't meet with Susan and not feel moved. During our lunch I asked who they were working with on the ground in Tanzania and she gave me a list of names and emails to contact. One contact wrote back right away and offered to find me a place to stay, connect me with the center, offered a teacher from the Anglican Diocese school who knew english to translate for me -- all free of charge. He was so passionate about the issue that he was willing to take me on sight unseen. The woman who translated turned out to be lovely -- an english teacher to secondary school students who was on break before beginning university. She was very green with no experience working with journalists, so I had to do a lot of coaching, making sure she didn't speak over people or paraphrase. I recorded the interviews as a backup. I also had to explain to her how to ask questions so that people would rephrase and open up.
JC: Speaking about that project on albinism in Tanzania, "Tribe of Ghosts," which is hauntingly beautiful...what drew you into it and how did you finance it? Where has it been published?
JM: "Tribe of Ghosts" is a personal project looking at the dangers facing people who have albinism in Tanzania. I looked into current and past projects for photographs that move me and saw a beautiful image from a photo essay on the topic of a child with albinism and a child without albinism in a school classroom, leaning into each other. It was a lovely image and really stuck with me. I dug deeper into the issue and learned the horrifying reality that people with albinism in Tanzania have been hunted, maimed, and killed, as part of a black market. This black market is led by witch doctors exploiting traditional beliefs that albinos have magical powers which can be accessed in potions made from their body parts. As a result of these killings, the government has put adults and children with albinism into centers for their own protection. Often these centers are placed in existing boarding schools for people with disabilities, with little preparation to deal with the special educational and health challenges facing albinos. Through interviews, I learned that there is really no long-term plan for the people placed in these centers.
There were a few articles done about the killings from 2006-2008, but then the stories tapered off and I thought the time was right to take a new look at the issue and see what was being done now in Tanzania. Other people have done projects specifically on the killings. I wanted to look at the aftermath of those killings, focusing on the people currently living in fear and those ostracized from their communities.
The project is self-funded. I saved the money from my tax refund to put into this personal work (much thanks to my understanding husband). Due to the help of locals who were interested in these issues and were kind enough to host me much of the time, the most expensive part of the trip was the airfare. Lodging and food costs in this rural part of Tanzania were minimal. Now that I have a concrete body of work, I may use these images to apply for future grants for future projects so that I don’t have to completely self-fund my work. However I like the idea of saving a little money each month so that at the end of the year you’ve made your own grant. I like being self-sufficient when possible.
As a staffer with the AP, we currently have a sharing agreement where images done on personal time can be represented by the AP – similar to a typical photo agency. Two edits of the project are being represented by the AP, resulting in the story being published digitally several times, most notably in National Geographic Online. I have not made back my monetary investment and it’s yet to be published in print that I am aware of. NPR used some of the pictures with an article on the topic and they also featured the portrait series on their blog, The Picture Show.
I’ve also been interviewed several times about the work, from the Daily Mail Online to the Image Deconstructed website.
JC: Technology has changed our industry dramatically…for both good and bad. How has it changed how you go about your projects and assignments? Is multimedia/video becoming an essential tool?
JM: The beauty of working on a personal project when you have a staff job is that the pressure to produce something that will sell is greatly reduced. I can tell the story the way I want to and highlight what I think is important. Although I appreciate the value of using the subject’s own voice to tell their own story, and love audio as an element, I find my priority is doing a solid stills package in the short time I have available. I always carry an audio recorder and sound I recorded of children singing at the center is a really humanizing element that adds to the work. However, I think collaborating with an audio/video professional in the future (a-la Media Storm) would be the best approach. One-man-band is tough to do well when you are working on a tight turnaround time. If I can do it well, I would love to expand with more audio and video or ideally interactive multimedia components. I brought audio equipment to Tanzania but between the technical considerations and the complications brought by the need for translation, I only minimally included some audio and none of the video that I recorded in the final package. I’d rather do it all the way and well, than to do it badly.
JC: What lies ahead on your horizon? Are there any projects that you are currently working on that you are at liberty to talk about?
JM: I’m hoping to arrange an exhibition of the work that could tour universities in Tanzania. I am speaking with a nonprofit to collaborate on that educational effort. It would be very exciting to bring the conversation about this issue back to the people who can do something about it –Tanzanians.
I never expected last year’s project to take up so much of this year. What I mean by that is that interview requests, new requests to publish, inquiries from non-profits, lecturing, showing the work, applying for grants with that work and considering an exhibition, has taken up so much of my time that between that and my full time job, which has ramped up in the last year, I haven’t been able to complete research for the next project. There is a next project but it’s tentative. I hope to pursue it in early 2014.
My goal is to work on one personal project a year. So I’m always on the look out for ideas. I think it’s vital to have work that feeds your soul – and I’m fortunate to have a staff job with sufficient vacation time to pursue personal work while still having the stability of a staff position. I fully understand I have a unique and privileged situation.
JC: Lastly, are you optimistic or pessimistic about photojournalism and the role of professional photographers in the future? Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for the next generation of professional shooters?
JM: This is an interesting time to be a photojournalist. With adversity comes opportunity and I’m hopeful that we are entering a new golden era. The main problem is monetizing the many online venues for work. It’s tough to get any money at all for use online right now. This can be discouraging but we have to hold our ground and not give away our work for free. Touchscreen technology has interesting potential and everywhere you look more and more images are being used.
Persistence is the key. Our careers are tough and constantly changing, but in many cases if you can hang in there for five years you can make it for the long haul. This career is too competitive to do unless it’s the only thing you wake up in the morning wanting to do. Journalism needs to be a passion.
You can’t tell what might happen with a personal project until you finish it. You have to be proactive, show the work to friends, editors, and colleagues. Find a way to get your work out there. Apply for grants and look at venues outside traditional photojournalism publishing. Don’t take no for an answer. I am lucky that as a staff photographer for the AP I have an outlet. But I made sure to be out there showing the work. Many outlets were not interested. But NPR’s Picture Show was…and National Geographic online picked it up from a showcase on the AP site. An article I wrote about albinism in Tanzania ran on the AP wire, but only after months of re-editing and perseverance with editors did it go live.
We are in a subjective business. As I’ve said in other interviews, believe in the importance of your work. Don’t let the people who let you into their lives down. Don’t let the work die a slow death on an external hard drive. Do all that you can to give life to your work. Continue working to strengthen the body of work. Projects that you are passionate about, that you have put your full self into…those are the projects that tend to take on a life of their own. Don’t give up!