Spring 2010 | Online Exclusives

Taking Time to Rethink, Adjust and Move Forward

‘Today, how we divide our time and do our work and get paid for it has virtually no connection to how things worked for those who started out a decade or two before us.’

By Justin Mott
When I left San Francisco State University’s journalism department to move to Vietnam to begin working as a photojournalist, I carried with me a RELATED ARTICLE
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romantic notion of what my life would be. I envisioned myself as a full-time, scarf-wearing documentary photographer chasing down news stories wherever they happened—and making a living doing so.

From almost the moment I hit the ground, my vision was transformed by reality. Soon I had the good fortune of attending a weeklong workshop in Cambodia led by Gary Knight, a cofounder of the VII Photo Agency. That experience dramatically changed how I think about the work I want to do. Young and untested, I was by far the least experienced—and yes, I’d say the worst—photographer at this workshop. In the short time we had together, I neither developed my style nor figured out how to show emotion in my images. What I did learn is that I needed to do both.

As a student at San Francisco State, I had explored the work of great photographers—but all of them worked in a different era in journalism. They were paid handsomely for weeks or months of work and flown all over the world by publications in whose pages their pictures would appear. Even though some of our professors cautioned us that we’d be dealing with a changed and more competitive market, the true dimensions of what this meant were never made clear.

In 2007 when I leaped into photojournalism, I did so as a freelancer, just as most of my peers were doing. I decided to base myself in Vietnam, figuring that Southeast Asia would be a good place to launch my career. After settling in I experienced a harsh first year as the assignments arrived from time to time. Suffice it to say that my entry into the profession was not at all as I imagined it would be.

After making a few trips back to New York City in 2008 and doing some workshops and self-promotion, work started to trickle in. I had quite a few assignments for The New York Times, and on some stories they sent me out of Vietnam. That year I traveled to Australia, China, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The writers I worked with were on staff, many of them with decades of reporting experience, and they expressed surprise when I told them I was based in Vietnam. It was rare these days, they told me, for a photographer to be flown in on a story; typically they found someone based locally.

For a number of assignments, I shot stills and video on the same story which in some ways helped to justify the expense of bringing me there. And even though my workload increased, I had the sense that I was living at the tail end of the time we had studied about in graduate school—when photojournalists hopped from country to country, their journeys paid for by the publication that wanted their work. To call my feelings melancholy doesn’t quite do them justice, but I did feel sad that I had worked hard to get these opportunities and to reach this goal, only to realize that it was about to vanish.

Sure enough, by the next year news organizations’ budgets dried up; no longer was I traveling for the Times or for anyone else. I was still getting the occasional assignment but always closer to home, which for me is Hanoi, and the days were always capped to just a few. To complicate my situation, more and more photographers were entering the market. All of this led to my shrinking workload. I was barely working even though I was getting more assignments than a majority of my friends.

Versatility Is Key

To survive meant changing how I was approaching my career. It was time to readjust my plans as a photographer and to market myself as a business. If I wanted to shoot a six-month project, for example, then I would need to do it on my own time. And I would need to bankroll it myself. The odds of a long-term story project being paid for—or even being commissioned for publication—were slim. So I created a commercial photography and video company, Mott Visuals, specializing in hotels and resorts. This means that I do commercial shoots for hotels and resorts that use my images to attract customers. As I end the first year after the launch of my business, I couldn’t be happier and my work is more fruitful than ever.

At the same time, I’m experiencing a comeback in journalism with the last four months being the busiest stretch I’ve ever had. I’m writing this piece from Cambodia where I am on a weeklong assignment for The New York Times. This on-again, off-again relationship is so different from what we heard about in school. Back then I had the sense that once you are in with a publication, you’re in and you would get a steady influx of assignments. But that hasn’t been my experience; with the Times, a lot of work in 2008 didn’t do anything to ensure me steady work in 2009.

A lot of young photographers ask me about being represented by an agency. I sense that the impression many of them have is that a photo agency will act as an employer—and provide something resembling a steady income. While years ago that might have been the case, it’s rare now. Many agencies have folded, others are struggling to adjust to new market demands, and while I enjoy being with my agency, Redux, I find that for the most part I’ve acted as my own agent.

These days the work comes from all kinds of different clients—journalistic and otherwise. This requires that I constantly remind people about me and where I’m based so this means hours are added to my workday as I update my commercial and editorial blogs. Then there are the trips to New York City to meet with editors, conference calls for commercial shoots, and e-mails to my agency along with Facebook and Twitter updates. I carve out time to apply for grants and to enter my work in contests. I attend events hosted by nongovernmental organizations; often they are looking to pay photographers to produce images that they can use to get their messages out. And I plan exhibitions to showcase my photographs. Oh, yes, I can’t forget the time I carve out to pursue personal photography projects—the stories that hold great meaning to me. In fact, as I remind myself, these projects were why I wanted to be a photojournalist way back when.

Versatility is the key. In the past two months I’ve shot for the German Red Cross, the United Nations, Forbes, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, three 5-star resorts, Microsoft, the World Health Organization, and the Smithsonian. I shot a wedding and I have been involved with a commissioned book project about Chabad communities in Beijing and Shanghai. I’m also working on my own book along with shooting a few personal projects. Two of those assignments came from my agency; the rest came from connections I’ve made though the years. Oh yes, I’ve also shot a few video assignments and I’m heading back to Vietnam tomorrow to shoot another one. Along the way I founded a collective group with four documentary photographers called Razon. Similar collectives are popping up everywhere as a great way for those of us working on our own to motivate one another and market each other’s photographs.

Today, how we divide our time and do our work and get paid for it has virtually no connection to how things worked for those who started out a decade or two before us. Only our mission remains the same and perhaps our contentment with the opportunity our cameras give us to transmit visual journalism about what’s happening in our world. While I’m still searching to find the right balance of assignments and meaningful personal projects, it’s been an awesome ride so far.

Justin Mott is a freelance photojournalist based in Hanoi, Vietnam.

6 Comments on Taking Time to Rethink, Adjust and Move Forward
Justin Mott says:
April 5, 2010 at 12:41am
Hello Margaret,
I'm happy to hear that you are teaching your students marketing and versatility. I get a lot of emails from talented photographers just leaving school with sort of the "now what syndrome"?

When I was at school we were trained for a world of staff jobs which rarely exist anymore. I'm not dialed into the collegiate educational system in the US for photojournalism but I would hope they put more focus on preparing students to be freelancers and everything that goes into freelancing such as marketing and versatility. It has to be challenging from a teachers perspective because the business is changing so rapidly.
Thanks for your comment.
Justin Mott says:
April 5, 2010 at 12:29am
Hello Brian,
Congratulations on your collective, they are a great way to inspire each other and keep each other motivated during the down times of freelancing. Send me a link to your collectives site. My collective is called Razon, also check out MJR and Luceo they are both doing amazing things.
Justin Mott says:
April 5, 2010 at 12:25am
Thanks for your comments Molly. I've work with Jessie quite a bit, definitely sound advice. I feel it's really important to meet editors at the right point in your career. For me it was helpful that I did the Eddie Adams workshop and Missouri Photo Workshop not just for the contacts I made but also for the overall experience. I used my time in NYC to visit as many editors as possible. For me it was also extremely advantageous that I had work from SE Asia already and I knew I was coming back here to start my career. I could tell editors that was living in Vietnam and then i reminded them once I got back here.
As for coming after my job, bring it on :). Competition fuels creativity so I welcome competition with open arms. In fact the last 2 years a lot of talented photographers have moved to Vietnam and it's really pushing me to stay on top of my game.
Best of luck to you Molly.
Molly Cichy says:
March 31, 2010 at 9:17pm
This is a great article. I am one of those "young photographers," and it just seems like there is some big, elusive secret to getting started in international photojournalism/humanitarian photography. I recently met with Jessie De Witt (international photo editor at the NY Times) and her advice to me was to continue to forge relationships with people in the industry. For me that's where all my work thus far has come from. I make an effort to invite nonprofits to visit my website and offer my services to them, and I try to find connections to photo editors at publications I admire. It's really good to hear how you schedule time for everything, though. I'm actually still in school, but I graduate in May and I'll need to start scheduling in time to update blogs, make new contacts, and maintain old ones. This is a helpful article, and it's cool to see you being so generous with your advice even though we "young photographers" are coming after your job, haha!
Brian Scott Peterson says:
March 31, 2010 at 8:53pm
Great read. I am in a somewhat similar boat although I am one of the "photographers were entering the market" that is complicating 'your' industry.

Although photography has been a passion I have had since a teenager, it hasn't been until recently, with the ever pervasive nature of the internet and the exposure it offers, that I have been able to recognize the potentiality of profiting from my work and making my life's passion a career, particularly by approaching it from every possible angle, such as many of those you have mentioned above. I am just now starting to be able to supplement my photography income with other odd jobs, rather than the other way around.

I helped to found a collective a like-minded photographers several years ago and in the last few months I have witnessed it starting to blossom into a very real worthwhile endeavor. While I have huge aspirations for it, it is just one of the many fronts I am fighting to keep my modest freelance business going but I think you hit the nail on the head when saying a collective like this is a great way to help "motivate one another and market each other’s photographs."

Looking forward to hearing more from you.

margaret waller says:
March 21, 2010 at 6:45pm
Thank you for telling your story from graduate to freelance photojournalist. As a trainer, I do highlight experiences like yours to prepare students for 'outside'. The two points I reiterate are versatility and marketing.
Long may your ride remain 'awesome'.

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