Tag Archives: journalism

Reading List for Environmental Journalists

As an environmental photojournalist, writer, and videographer, I’m always looking to understand the conflict between culture and the environment as deeply as possible. It is from books that I get inspiration for projects, fill gaps in my knowledge, and expand the way I think about how to tell environmental stories visually. This list serves as an evolving record of the books that I’ve found most interesting, inspiring, or informative, and I hope that you’ll discover something that makes you think about our relationship to the planet more deeply.

By no means an exhaustive list, these aren’t ranked in order of best to worst, but are stacked one on top of the other as I come across them.

Limits to Growth – Donella and Dennis Meadows

When this book was originally published in the early 1970’s, many — including some of the most reputable environmental experts of the time — dismissed it as doomsday fiction. The husband and wife team of Donella and Dennis Meadows were commissioned by think tank Club of Rome to create a computer model that would predict the world’s environmental future based on rates of consumption. Tracking population, food, pollution, industry, and the use of resources, the project made predictions about the state of the global population to the end of the 21st Century. The simulation found that if significant action wasn’t taken to combat environmental degradation and curb humanity’s rapacious appetites, we would be on the verge of collapse by 2070.

But the really chilling part isn’t the prediction itself, or that most people of the time dismissed it entirely. It’s that the predictions it made, when measured against today’s statistics, have proven to be more or less accurate. And while I’m not saying that our world is going to collapse in 50 years, this freely available book is well worth a read if only for the sake of understanding the great imbalance between resource availability and consumption. There is a limit to how much society can grow, yet despite being warned about it nearly 25 years ago, we still have continued with business as usual.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate – Naomi Klein

One of the most definitive modern texts on climate change and what it means, This Changes Everything is also one of the most readable. Written by the author of No Logo and other bestselling non-fiction books, Klein lays out the problem we’re facing with the clarity of a journalist instead of an academic.

Simply put, we have built our society around the principle that we can expect to continuously grow and expand our profits without end. And despite the fact that this is obviously not true (see Limits to Growth), we proceed to act as though it were. From the oil and gas giants who expand operations every year despite the almost irrefutable indications that they are doing irreparable damage to the climate to the governments who continue to ignore the mountains of science they know to be true, Klein argues that a paradigm shift is needed immediately or everything really will be lost. When read in conjunction with Limits to Growth, This Changes Everything puts the climate change problem into perspective in a writing style that is both informative and highly engaging.

Let My People Go Surfing – Yvon Chouinard

This autobiographical business manifesto written by the founder of Patagonia was originally intended as an employee handbook to explain the ethics and values of the company to new workers, but was eventually published internationally for public consumption. Now nearly 80 years old, Chouinard’s Wikipedia page lists his occupation as “rock climber” even though he has been managing one of the biggest outdoor clothing companies in the world for more than 40 years, which should tell you something about his character.

Decreeing that profits should be secondary to creating long-lasting, high quality, environmentally sustainable, and personal ethics, Patagonia’s corporate philosophy is far from greenwashing. They are one of the few companies that actually goes out of their way to better the world they sell to, and their most recent advertising urges people not to buy their products if they don’t need them. They also offer free repairs to all of their items, something that is sorely needed in the age of planned obsolescence that creates the need for us to buy a new iPhone or laptop every few years to ensure that the companies who make them can keep turning a profit.

Part memoire, part business philosophy, Let My People Go Surfing shows us an alternate example to how businesses can operate sustainably, and how we can continue to buy the things we need without destroying the planet. It’s no coincidence that Naomi Klein, an author who has spent much of her career attacking corporate greed, personally wrote the intro for this businessman’s book.

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival – John Vaillant

The second offering from the author of the equally great The Golden Spruce, this true story recounts the rise of a man-eating tiger in the hostile forests of Siberia and the team that was tasked with tracking it down. Vaillant has an incredible ability to present his subjects in such detail that the freezing world of eastern Russia comes to life, and the tiger itself becomes a living character in its own right. While this is ostensibly a story about killing a wild animal, in reality it is an ode to the fragility of the ecosystem and the incredible impact humanity has made on it.

It is rare to find non-fiction books that move forward with such an attention-grabbing narrative, and I absolutely tore through it. The characters, the setting, and the message all combine to make this one of the most gripping environmentally oriented books I have ever read.

Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water – Maude Barlow

Numerous high profile academics and military leaders have been quoted as saying that just as the wars of the last century were fought over oil, the wars of this century will be fought over water. In persuasive detail, Barlow outlines the facts: there is not enough fresh water on the planet to keep pace with current usages, corporations have been given a free license to privatize the world’s most valuable resource, and pollution is spiralling out of control.

There can be no life without water, but despite this absolute truth, we continue to treat water as if it was worthless and hardly think twice about its wastage. But the time is coming where we will have to stare the reality of our water choices in the face and deal with the consequences. Not just a treatise of doom and gloom, Barlow outlines steps that can be taken to bring us back form the brink of water catastrophe — but it remains to be seen if governments and business leaders will put humanity’s survival ahead of profit margins.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed – Jared Diamond

From the author of the popular Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse is focused on how societies — from the pre-historical to the modern — fall apart. With a great deal of attention paid to the role of environmental degradation in the destruction of societies, I found this book reminded me how much there is to lose. We tend to view our current society as indestructible and we can often bury our heads in the sand and assume that regardless of our actions things will continue as normal. But ancient Babylonians or Sumerians must have thought much the same thing, and their societies are nothing more than an ancient memory today.

Diamond is careful to point out that environmental issues alone were not solely responsible for the collapse of the world’s great civilizations. Military and economic factors brought down the Romans and Soviet Union alike, and cannot be ignored. Among the challenges facing our 21st Century society, however, Diamond views the environmental crisis as one of the most likely to bring us down. A long, sweeping historical narrative along the lines of his other books, Collapse warns that if we don’t do something to check the ecological degradation taking place around us than our future is no more assured than that of the Vikings.


Have any suggestions for great environmental books? E-mail me: I’d love to hear them.

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The Necessity of Sacrifice: 5 Steps to Creative Success (Part 3)

Based on a series of presentations at Chattanooga State College, This is part three of a five part series on challenges faced by creative professionals. Click here to read Part 1: Nothing Happens Fast, and here for Part 2: Don’t Do it for the Money.

Manila, Philippines. Angelica, 8, plays with her siblings in a stairwell next to her family shack near the Osmena highway. When her father lost his job, the family of six was forced to move into a squatter's shack measuring just 2 meters squared. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Manila, Philippines. Angelica, 8, plays with her siblings in a stairwell next to her family shack near the Osmena highway. When her father lost his job, the family of six was forced to move into a squatter’s shack measuring just 2 meters squared.      ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Since 2007, when I began living more or less permanently outside of Canada, I have attended exactly one major family event – Thanksgiving, 2013. Though I have been able to get home for sporadic visits, I have been a largely absentee family member, missing birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and child births. At 17 I made most major decisions in my life based on a desire to get as far away form my hometown as possible, but as time passes the distance from my family has become more difficult to stomach. My extreme wanderlust has slowly given way to a gentle, yet nagging guilt that I should be home more often. The problem is that the photojournalism career that I have slowly built for myself is, at the moment, entirely dependent on my living overseas.

Koh Kong, Cambodia. A Buddhist monk begins his 25km trek out of the remote Areng Valley after a multi-day environmental protest. Buddhist monks are entering the political sphere in Cambodia, mostly in opposition of government corruption. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Koh Kong, Cambodia. A Buddhist monk begins his 25km trek out of the remote Areng Valley after a multi-day environmental protest. Buddhist monks are entering the political sphere in Cambodia, mostly in opposition of government corruption. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

When I first decided to pursue independent photojournalism, I didn’t appreciate that I was making a lifestyle decision as much as, if not more than, a job choice. With the proliferation of cheap, high quality cameras, and the ability to self-educate on the Internet, there have never been as many people aspiring to do my job. Very early on, I was warned by a veteran war photographer that if I wanted to stand out, I would have to be willing to give up certain things that constitute a normal life for most people: stability, consistency, and familial relationships, to name a few. Enamoured with the seemingly glamorous lifestyle of a traveling documentary photographer, I was quick to assert my willingness to go without these common staples of life. And while it has turned out to be the best decision I have ever made, the sacrifices take more of a mental toll on me with each passing year.

That is not to say I regret the path I have chosen – on the contrary, I am in the somewhat surprising position of being able to do what I love. But virtually all of my successes along the way have been almost as much a result of the sacrifices I have been willing to make as my skill as a photographer. It goes without saying that your images need to be of a certain calibre if you expect to get paid for your work, but being good is expected these days – how much a person is willing to sacrifice is, in my opinion, as important as photographic prowess. I’ve met many aspiring photojournalist with incredible portfolios to prove they have the requisite artistic and technical skills, yet they are unable to land enough paid assignments to support themselves. Some are (perhaps understandably) unwilling to leave their lives in New York, London, or Paris, which pits them against some of the most well known and established names in the industry. Others don’t want to give up the guaranteed income of their existing jobs to take the plunge into full time freelancing. Whatever the reasons, and however logical they may be, this refusal to sacrifice often prevents these gifted people from achieving their full potential.

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Muslims pray during the holy month of Ramadan. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Muslims pray during the holy month of Ramadan. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

It is not necessary to move to the opposite side of the world in order to find engaging stories, and there are many ways to make a living as a photographer other than freelancing. These steps fit with my goals and financial situation, but are by no means a formula for success. The lack of face-to-face contact with my family and my surrendering of a steady pay cheque are just two examples of sacrifices I’ve made in order to make things work, and each individual has to decide for themselves what they can realistically give up.

Someone with a young baby cannot, in good conscience, pack up and move to India, but maybe a sacrifice for them could be as simple at packing a lunch to take to work everyday instead of eating out. The extra $10 per day saved could finance a month-long trip, or go into a savings account that will help them weather the transition from their old jobs to their new paths. Conversely, a wealthy banker who decides they want to quit the financial world for a life of documenting human rights issues will not have the same monetary concerns as most people, but will have to give up their comfortable condo or luxury car for the challenges of life on the road. In fact, Marcus Bleasdale from the renowned VII Photo Agency did exactly this, and is now one of the most respected photojournalists in the world. Bleasdale told The Telegraph that at one point he was earning £500,000 per year as an investment banker, owning two houses and a Porsche 911. For his most recent projects he spent months at a time traveling through open pit mineral mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and witnessing the horrors of the genocide taking place in the Central African Republic. Trading a life  of weekend skiing in the Alps for the life-threatening conflict zones of central Africa is admittedly an extreme example of sacrifice, but he clearly finds the satisfaction of reporting the underreported to be worth the tradeoff.

Kolkata, India. A batsmen approaches the wickets during an afternoon practice. These players are members of club teams and many aspire to play at the state or national level. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Kolkata, India. A batsmen approaches the wickets during an afternoon cricket practice. These players are members of club teams and many aspire to play at the state or national level. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

From the professional athlete who chose to forgo the temptations of a debaucherous college life in order to master their sport, to the Hollywood superstar who worked overtime at Starbucks so they could afford to keep going to auditions, the path to success is often littered with sacrifices. Society loves to dwell on the meteoric risers, such as Justin Bieber, who shot from high school obscurity to entertainment icon seemingly overnight, yet more often than not the struggle towards greatness is defined by a series of uphill battles in a long war of attrition. This, to me, seems like the way the world should work. Those who are willing to give up the most and work the hardest deserve to be considered the best, and the only honest way to speed up the process is to identify the elements in your life that are not advancing your goals.

So quit smoking, ride a bike to work, or stop buying name brand clothes. Get a part time job, or quit a soul-sucking one. Drink water instead of Perrier. There is endless fat that can be trimmed from most people’s lives, including my own, and while everyone needs to decide for themselves what they can and can’t live without, the ones who sacrifice, whether they be photographers, lawyers, or NASCAR drivers, are probably the ones who we will remember.

Click here to read Part 1: Nothing Happens Fast

Click here to read Part 2: Don’t Do it for the Money



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Don’t Do it for the Money: 5 Steps to Creative Success (Part 2)

Based on a series of presentations at Chattanooga State College, This is part two of a five part series on challenges faced by creative professionals. Click here to read Part 1: Nothing Happens Fast.

A young family in San Andres, Manila. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

A young family in San Andres, Manila. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

A recent survey from Forbes Magazine placed journalist (they used the moniker “newspaper reporter”, but I think it’s safe to count these as being roughly the same thing) at number nine in the top ten list of the most stressful jobs in the world. The official list published is as follows:

1)    Enlisted Military Personnel (Soldier)

2)    Military General

3)    Firefighter

4)    Airline Pilot

5)    Event Coordinator

6)    Public Relations Executive

7)    Senior Corporate Executive

8)    Police Officer

9)    Newspaper Reporter (journalist/photojournalist)

10)  Taxi Driver

This list looks pretty fair to me – all these jobs seem to be relatively stressful and I don’t think any of them are out of place. What jumped out at me were the disparities in income between various jobs. I can see how being the CEO of a major company would be less than relaxing, or how hard-working PR agents could burn themselves out in a high-stakes industry. But for these jobs they are rewarded financially, whereas the same Forbes list estimates the median income of working journalists at $36 000 per year, compared to $146 000 for a commercial pilot. The only jobs on the list that pay less than journalism are taxi driver and soldier. So why do people do them?

I would argue that driving a taxi is a job undertaken out of necessity rather than passion. While there may be some drivers out there who love going to work each morning, and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else, to my understanding it is generally the sort of thing people do to earn money when they can’t find anything better. A friend of mine drove a cab when he moved across the country and needed money quickly to pay the rent on his new apartment, but once he got on his feet he moved on and never looked back. There is nothing wrong with being a professional taxi driver (to the contrary, if you love what you do then you’ve already won in life), but I don’t normally think of it as being a driving passion in someone’s life. I don’t remember any of my classmates in the first grade declaring that when they grew up they wanted be a taxi driver, for example. Driving a cab is something people do because they need to make ends meet – a straightforward exchange of money for services rendered.

Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. Koem Bunloerum, 30, enjoys a moment of reflection in the Areng Valley. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. Koem Bunloerum, 30, enjoys a moment of reflection in the Areng Valley. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

According to Forbes, soldiers make only about $5000 a year more than taxi drivers, but the jobs seem worlds apart in terms of what motivates the people who do them. Sure, there are probably large numbers of enlisted military personnel who sign up because they are in financial or personal trouble and see no other alternative, but these people are likely to accept a discharge as soon as they possibly can. A career soldier, however, must have an entirely different outlook on his or her job. In order to risk your life for less than the price of a mid-range car, there has to be something that makes it all feel worthwhile. Never having been a soldier I can only speculate, but I imagine it has something to do with feeling like they are a part of something larger and more important than themselves. They see themselves as the guardians of their country (all political opinions aside), and in their eyes what they do is important. Others may disagree with them, but for those who thrive in military careers there is probably nothing else in the world they’d rather be doing.

If taxi drivers and soldiers, the first and second lowest paying jobs on the Forbes list, were surveyed, which of them would likely report a higher job satisfaction? I say soldier almost every time. Most taxi drivers would probably quit their jobs the moment something higher-paying came along, but I would wager that it would be much harder to convince a dedicated marine to leave the service. According to the list, a military general makes more than five times as much as an enlisted man. But to become a general, one first needs to be a soldier for many, many years. If all they cared about was a paycheck, there are certainly easier (and safer) ways to make a living. The best soldiers stay in uniform because they think it is something worth doing, and the same mentality has to apply to anyone who wants to succeed as a creative professional.

During my first full year of being a “professional” photojournalist, I was paid in sandwiches. I was working for a small independent magazine in South Korea, and they had literally zero budget for paying contributors – apart from advertiser-donated gift certificates. One publication earned me one meal. But sandwich or no, I would have made these stories anyways. There are innumerable articles floating around the internet that deplore the practice of working for free as destroying the market for paid professionals, and for the most part I agree with them. Giving high quality work away for free so that others can profit from it is a slippery slope, and should be avoided at all costs. At that point in my career, however, I was barely literate in my craft – and truth be told, looking back on those first clumsy attempts, I don’t think they were deserving of paid compensation. In the end, learning to work with a photo editor on a deadline was worth far more in the long run than a few hundred dollars that I wouldn’t have remembered spending.

Darjeeling, India. Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in a centre for Tibetan refugees. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Darjeeling, India. Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in a centre for Tibetan refugees. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

When I eventually decided to leave the magazine and strike out on my own as a full-time freelancer, I spent my life savings (twice) before landing a single paid publication. I shot stories in eight countries, and each one was a little better than the last, but still money eluded me. I would send pitches to only the most prestigious publications in the world, and when I received no reply I took it as a sign that the stories were not good enough. While this was extremely discouraging at times, I still went out everyday for four to five hours and hunted for stories.

Why? Because I loved doing it. Even now, when my entire income is derived from documentary photography and writing, if I found an interesting story that nobody was interested in publishing, I would still shoot it. If I was born into a richer family, or if I had scooped up some rental properties in an up-and-coming neighbourhood – making money a non-issue – I would still do exactly the same thing. In the end it took more than three years to start getting paid for my efforts, and even now it is only possible to survive on what I make because I’ve worked hard to keep my lifestyle as cheap as possible.

Manila, Philippines. Men passing a bottle of rum in San Andres. Excessive drinking is common in Manila’s lower class neighbourhoods, as the price of alcohol is extremely low in the Philippines. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Manila, Philippines. Men pass a bottle of rum around a circle in San Andres. Excessive drinking can be common in Manila’s lower class neighbourhoods, as the price of alcohol is extremely low in the Philippines. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

These days, particularly in photography, people seem desperate to be recognized as professionals rather than receive the dreaded label of amateur. Some will give their work away for a pittance in exchange for a promise of exposure, often to profit making organizations (as opposed to free independent magazines that genuinely cannot pay). But the word amateur derives from the Latin amare: “to love.” I would suggest that in the hyper-competitive and image-saturated modern world, it will be the people who work because they love doing it that will succeed above the ones looking for a big payout. Just like a soldier who puts on a uniform because of what it represents over what it pays, the best in most creative fields tend to be people for whom money is secondary to the gift of being able to do what is important to them.

In order to really prosper in a creative field like photography, writing, or filmmaking, even the most well respected professional needs to be an amateur at heart. Figuring out what sort of work is important enough for you to dedicate your life to is the hardest part. The rest is just logistics.

This is the second part in a multipart series. Click here to read Part One: Nothing Happens Fast.

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5 Reasons to Set Aside Your Ego: The Benefits of Working Together

Ruom members Luc Forsyth, Thomas Cristofoletti, and Nicolas Axelrod (from left) on location in Phnom Penh with Reuters correspondent Damir Sagolj (front right). Photo courtesy of John Vink/Magnum Photos.

Ruom members Luc Forsyth, Thomas Cristofoletti, and Nicolas Axelrod (from left) on location in Phnom Penh, with Reuters correspondent Damir Sagolj (front right). Photo courtesy of John Vink/Magnum Photos.

5 Benefits of Working Together

I recently made a short presentation at the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap about the benefits of working together. Together with Thomas Cristofoletti, one of the founders of the Ruom Collective (the journalism association I collaborated with on a piece about protesting monks for Al Jazeera), and writer Marta Kasztelan, we explained to an international audience how setting aside egos can achieve more in-depth and complete reporting. Aside from Ruom, I also collaborate with Wandering Cameras, a multimedia organization specializing in non-profit filmmaking. While photojournalism and writing are often thought of as “loner” professions, the advantages of teaming up with like-minded specialists are too numerous to neglect. The following five lessons are just a few of the reasons that collectives may redefine the way we tell stories in the 21st century.

Merging Talents

Not everyone is a jack-of-all-trades. Most people are lucky to become exceptionally good at even one thing in their lives, and the same is true of photographers and journalists. I’ve focused so much on creative output – the production of photography and writing – that I have avoided developing the business and marketing skills necessary to quickly grow my business (yes, journalism is a business). Don’t misunderstand; my brand is expanding steadily, but along the way I have missed out on opportunities that I should have seized had I been more administratively aware.

In contrast, Ruom co-founder Nicolas Axelrod is an adept businessman as well as being an outstanding photographer, but for Nick writing is laborious. Though he consumes written articles on a daily basis, pairing words with his images is a lengthy process for him. In an age where media outlets want completed stories that are delivered ready for publication, this could have been a significant disadvantage. The solution? Work together.

While the members of Ruom have skill sets that sometimes overlap, each person brings unique talents to the table. Thomas is highly proficient at online marketing and has a large social media presence. Marta comes from a human rights background, and is a resourceful researcher as well as being a specialist in gender issues. Rather than ignoring our weaknesses to the overall detriment of our strengths, by coming together we have been able to create multi-faceted stories that would not have been possible had we worked separately.

Multiple Perspectives

Ruom is a Khmer word meaning “together”, and the collective appropriately brings together multiple cultures as well as professional disciplines. A common pitfall of journalists working in foreign countries is the tendency to approach issues through the lens of their native culture.  With members from Australia, Canada, Austria, England, Italy, France, Poland, and Cambodia, many sets of eyes scrutinize each article, photo essay, or feature.

Years ago when I first started producing documentary work, I would send out pleas for advice to big-name photojournalists whose work I respected. Typically I’d hear nothing back. Now, though I’m far from famous, I’m on the receiving end of these sorts of letters from passionate photography enthusiasts looking to turn their hobby into a career. After trying to respond thoughtfully to several of these messages, I realize why my emails had so often gone unanswered; there is no easy shortcut to success. Only after a determined and sustained effort of 60-hour weeks for almost two years did I see my first dime of profit.

Though there is no magic bullet solution, having your work critiqued by people whose professional opinion you respect can make a huge difference. Being told objectively the ways in which a project has fallen short is arguably the best way to make the next one better. But a professional portfolio review can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars – money that cannot then be invested in producing stories. By working with others (ideally people more skilled or experienced than yourself), you can get this valuable feedback as you go – and hopefully for free.

Shared Risks and Pooled Resources

Whether visual or written, making independent journalism can be expensive. In 2012 I spent over $1000 chasing a story on rural life in a rapidly changing Myanmar, only to come down with dengue fever. Bedridden for 10 days, the groundbreaking reportage I had envisioned myself creating slipped away with each sweating hour, until my visa expired and I was forced to leave the country. After weeks of accommodation expenses, transportation costs, translator fees, and food expenditures I ended up with a handful of unfocused frames that didn’t come close to telling the story I had imagined.

These things happen. Sometimes the best-laid plans fall apart, or an arbitrary event can derail months of preparation. This is the nature of being a freelancer, and anyone who is independently funding journalism needs to be prepared for these inevitable failures. But by joining forces with people interested in the same issues as yourself, you can significantly offset the financial risks.

When Nick and Thomas first had the idea of documenting the Burmese anti-Muslim group “969”, there was little response to their requests for monetary backing from major media outlets. They were faced with the difficult choice of either paying for the whole thing themselves, or abandoning the project altogether. Since they felt that this story was important to tell, they decided to go for it. By also bringing French journalist and Ruom contributor Alexandre Marchand into the project, they were able to distribute the costs and finish a story that would have been financially unviable for one person. The end product, Inside the 969 Movement, is a fantastic example of investigative documentary journalism, and has become one of Ruom’s flagship features. And it wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t worked together.

A Lighter Workload

There is a limit to what one person can handle. The massive changes wrought on the media industry with the coming of social media services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have essentially turned the whole world into citizen journalists. And while this is a largely positive global phenomenon, ensuring that proper exposure is given to the issues and events that matter, it also means tough economic times for working professionals. Layoffs and cutbacks at even the largest news organizations make it harder than ever to get paid for your efforts. Gone are the days when one major publication could fund a series of personal projects. Photographers and writers are constantly walking a financial tightrope from one paying job to the next, yet pursuing stories that you feel are important to tell is vital in the development of a personal voice and style.

When I was starting out and didn’t yet count on photography and writing to pay my rent, I could afford to build stories at my own pace. If I needed an extra day or two of shooting to get the right image, or if I wanted to spend a week sitting in coffee shops getting a written article just right, I could do it. But now my time is more precious; I need hours every day to edit and create new content, to maintain an increasing number of social network profiles, and to respond to an ever-increasing number of emails from clients and colleagues – not to mention trying to maintain a semblance of a personal life.

Solitary journalists can easily burn themselves out trying to do everything alone. By teaming up with others, it becomes possible to accomplish much more in the same amount of time. For example: in advance of the international human rights day, hundreds of Buddhist monks are converging on Phnom Penh, simultaneously marching down each of the country’s national highways in a display of protest against the Cambodian government’s abysmal human rights record. Such a story involves a lot of travel and time in order to convey the size and scope of the demonstration. One person could get completely exhausted trying to move between so many different locations. A collective, however, can spread the work around and each member can contribute to the greater whole, when and where his or her schedule allows.

Many hands do indeed make light work.

A Sense of Community

One of the hardest things for me to deal with when I was traveling full time was the lack of a supportive community. I spent most of 2012 permanently on the road, moving from city to city, country to country, and every time I arrived in a new location I had to start all over again. In the beginning it was fun; hunting down fresh stories in exotic locations was the essence of why I decided to pursue a future in photojournalism. As time passed, however, and the list of cities visited lengthened, the wanderlust faded.

Planning and executing a photo story or long form written article on a specific subject is tiring work. From research to gaining access to shooting, and finally editing, the creative process is mentally (and quite often physically) demanding. A strong reportage takes me an average of three weeks to produce, and at the end of it I mainly just want to sit on the couch for a few days. But when you are effectively homeless, as I was for the better part of several years, there is no real rejuvenation period. I just moved on to the next city or country or story. I had very few people to show my work to, and fewer still who could give me structured feedback. Any sort of business organization was impossible for any number of reasons – power outages, absurdly slow Wi-Fi signals, broken equipment, or just plain exhaustion.

Since moving to Phnom Penh permanently, the job has not gotten any less tiring, but at least I have a bed of my own to come back to at the end of a long day (or week, or month). More importantly, I belong to a community of motivated professionals who are supportive when they need to be and critical when they need to be. They will tell me when I’ve done a good job, and perhaps more importantly when I’ve done a bad job. I can borrow a memory card or a spare battery in the middle of a street riot, and if there is an important event happening, someone will send me a text message so I don’t miss it.

In many ways, this has been far more important than any lens or camera body, and it is this sense of being part of something larger than myself that has kept me hungry to produce.  Photographers and writers tend to be control freaks who want the final say in whatever they are making, but for those who can set aside their egos and accept external input, you might be surprised what you can accomplish if you work collectively.

Are you in a collective or group of creative professionals? Do you have any experience, good or bad, working with other people in your industry? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Post a comment below, or join me on Facebook or Twitter to continue the conversation.






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