What I learnt from photojournalism and why I chose creative writing.

October 24th, 2008 § 11 comments

Gemma Palmer was a photojournalist. This alone is fascinating but recently she quit her job to take up writing. So, why the switch and is photojournalism as awesome as I think it is?

Gemma Palmer

“I worked full-time for a daily newspaper. I kind of fell into the job – I had just finished my first semester of a Bachelor of Arts and was really disenchanted with the course and looking for a full-time job. The [local] newspaper advertised a position was available for a cadet photojournalist, I put my resume in on the very last day that applications were open and the next morning they rang me to come in for an interview. The day after that I was offered the job.”

What was on your resume that made you stick out?

“It was a list consisting of my employment record, my computer capabilities and my personal strengths. However my cover letter was written with the intention to impress. I think the cover letter is about the most important part of your resume – don’t be afraid to boast about yourself a little. Just don’t lie!

“I didn’t have a degree or anything, but I had been the editor of a youth magazine for three years prior. It was a part-time job and the magazine was funded by the local council.

Photography-wise, I’d studied it for the last two years of high school, but I wasn’t particularly fantastic at it. With a cadetship, you get on-the-job training. I was chucked in the deep end and had to learn to swim pretty bloody quickly.

How did you handle your interview?

I went to my interview in what I was already wearing that day for the youth mag – skinny black jeans, old Converse All Stars and a red hoodie. How professional (I was only 19 at the time). I was friendly, positive and emphasised how interested I was in working for the newspaper.

How did you pitch a story to a newsroom full of pros?

“We had a newsroom meeting every morning where all the journos and photographers met with the editor and discussed what stories we’d be covering that day. If you had a story idea you told everyone during the meeting, and if it was voted worthwhile you got to cover it, basically. Unpredictable stuff would happen during the day and if something huge occurred then whoever was available would go out to cover it.

“If there was an accident the police or ambos would often inform us, but our office was in the same street as the fire station and the police station, so we always heard the sirens and we’d phone them to find out what was going on. We all read other local papers every day and compared our work to theirs.

“Personally, to get inspiration for my photos I looked at a lot of national geographic photojournalists’ work. They are pretty much top of the game in my opinion.

Dealing with stress, staying detached and keeping cool.

“The worst bit about the job was the really horrible things I had to cover; like car accidents and one story in particular where a woman found three newborn puppies that someone had thrown into a council rubbish bin. Thankfully, they were still alive. A big part of the reason I left was because I was covering more and more accidents and I started to suffer from anxiety attacks every time I got in a car. Not fun. It was a pretty stressful job at times and I saw things that I’d have preferred not to.

To be honest, I didn’t deal with it well. I ended up suffering from frequent anxiety attacks in the last few months and my doctor prescribed anti-anxiety medication for me. Before I was taking medication, I would tend to get very emotional, very easily.

When I took the job they gave me the impression that I’d be writing stories, and it turned out that I ended up being a photographer. We only had one other photographer but quite a few journos. I was pretty disappointed about that.

But there are good things too…

“The best parts were the feeling of achievement I got from getting a great story, seeing one of the photos I’d taken on the front page and my name in print, and the times when everyone pulled together and we worked as a team, as rare as it was.

What gave you the courage to change careers?

“I was working on my creative writing in my spare time and I gradually realised that if I was willing to sit down and write for two hours straight after coming home from a hectic eight hour day at the paper, maybe it was something I should be concentrating on more.

Yes, I could have kept my ‘day job’, but I wanted to go back to university to get a degree and I figured that if I didn’t do it now, I might not ever do it.  I quit when I’d been there almost two years… my cadetship was a three-year one, so I didn’t end up getting my qualification.

A lot of people thought I was pretty stupid for leaving but in the end I became very unhappy working there. I realised that working for a newspaper just wasn’t going to allow me to be as creative as I wanted to be, especially when I was taking photographs instead of writing.

I applied to enter a Bachelor of Creative Writing, and the day I received my acceptance letter I went into the editor’s office and told him I was leaving in two weeks. He was really nice about it, I think they may have seen it coming.

And what’s life like post-photojournalism?

One of the biggest perks for me is that I now have enough spare time to work on my writing a lot more, and I also get a lot of feedback from my [university] tutors regarding my writing. I finished a novel earlier this year which I hope to have published as my debut. I’m posting the first few chapters of it on my blog, to gauge reader reactions and get constructive criticism. Have a read and leave her feedback.

For other people ‘chucked in the deep end’ of photography, what would you say?

Read as much as you can about photography techniques, in particular lighting techniques. Lighting can make or break a photograph. Ask questions of more experienced photographers. Above all, experiment with all kinds of different photos as much as you can. This is why digital is so great – you can take a thousand photos and you don’t have to pay to develop them to see how you’re progressing.

Technical stuff:

At the newspaper I used a Nikon D100 Digital SLR and various different lenses. For my own freelance stuff I use a Nikon D50 with Nikkor and Tamron lenses, plus a Lensbaby lens, and I also use a Holga 120CFN film camera on the odd occasion for more arty stuff.

Photo by Gemma

Where do you want to be in one, five, ten years time?

Well, I’ll be graduating from university in a year and a half. After graduating I hope to find a job at a magazine, preferably an alternative/youth/fashion/music mag. Or maybe I’ll start up my own, who knows. In five years I hope to have at least two books published. Ten years, ideally, I’ll be making a living from my novels and fiction writing.

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