Mindset – small word, big concept for news photographers

©Neil Turner/TSL, March 2004

Written in 2002, this opinion piece still holds very true nearly ten years later…

What’s the difference between a photographer who takes pictures for fun, another who struggles as a professional and one who is on top of their game? The answer, well there are many but the top of my list is….mindset

It’s a pretty innocuous word, but it makes a massive difference. As I sit here writing this I’m trying to formulate some thoughts ahead of a talk to a group of postgraduate news photographers. Snappy titles are always a good start – according to the “Lecturing for Dummies” handbook so “Mindset” it is.

Next step – arresting opening sentence. That will have to wait until I have better formulated my ideas, but my handbook tells me that if you get people’s attention at the beginning you have won fifty percent of the battle and if you don’t you will waste a lot of time getting it back. Well, that’s a bit like writing and (spot the cheasy link) an awful lot like being a news photographer.

The narrative that runs through a well shot photo story or a well written essay is remarkably similar. I have been trying to find a way of telling eager “news photographers in the making” that the message is more important than the way it is delivered and I have decided that it’s worth keeping the writing analogy going.   Nobody denies that poetry is literature and everyone has respect for well written short stories. Good authors are comfortable with their medium, they structure their work and use words economically. Good photographers mirror this. The common thread is mindset; shaping what you have into what you want it to be. I’m not saying that you pre-judge an issue, but rather that you should edit before you shoot, as you shoot and after you shoot to tailor your pictures to a particular format.

If you are working towards an exhibition you work one way – adopting the right mindset, and if you are shooting a single image story you work a completely different way.  And then there are the differences between making and taking photographs, between being a welcome guest wherever you are or an unwanted intruder. News photography is a very broad church, with room for many ways of working and a lot of photographers find it very difficult to switch between the various sub-genres. It can be done.  The temptation for photographers new to journalism to assume that only great long complicated narratives qualify as news photography is understandable. It is also one hundred and eighty degrees out. The thought that it takes real skill to tell a story in a single picture is a difficult concept to master but the greatest story-tellers know that less can often be a whole lot more.

It’s all in the mind.  If you have a month to shoot a spread you can afford a few days (let’s say three to make the comparison easy) to acclimatise. If you have an hour to shoot a single image story and you take the same percentage of the job time to settle in, you’ve only got six minutes. You know what the score is, so you adopt the right approach before you start.  News photography, when it’s stripped down, is a really simple idea. You take pictures and you make pictures that tell stories. You can use photographs to spell out what you want to say, you can use them to intrigue the viewer or you can use them to infer things.

Good journalism often uses words, but it uses photographs just as often. If the photographer is thinking straight and can concentrate on the end product, good photography becomes great news photography.

Final step – the clever conclusion. I would advise anyone coming into the profession to read some good poetry and a few good novels, to work out how they were structured and to try adapting the simplicity of poetry to their photography. Why? The answer is all too simple, photography is all about creativity and it’s all about mastering the technical aspects but most of all it’s about a state of mind – a mental process – mindset.

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