Photographer’s Q&A – Ryan Jackson
This week’s Q&A is with Edmonton Journal staff multimedia producer, Ryan Jackson. His web site is punkoryan.com.
Kevin Taks takes down a calf at the Rainmaker Rodeo in St. Albert. Photo by Ryan Jackson
What were your first steps in the industry?
I guess you could say my first steps were with the University of Saskatchewan student newspaper, The Sheaf. I had been running my own band photography web site, with over 400 live bands, punkoryan.com since 2002.
I started volunteering with the student paper just to get access to more shows and get myself published.
The photo editor at the time, Liam Richards told me, “you can’t just shoot bands” and gave me some student news and sports assignments as well.
I was hooked! Nothing beat the feeling of getting front page!
I was in fourth year Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. But when I heard about Loyalist College’s fast track program for photojournalism, I made the biggest (and, thankfully, best) decision of my life to leave engineering and move across the country to pursue photojournalism.
It was a huge risk but I’ve learned that nothing good in life comes without taking a risk.
What was a pivotal point in your career?
In between the summer fast track course and second year, I got an 8-week internship with The Star Phoenix in Saskatoon, my home town. That internship was so crucial because it helped me develop a portfolio and experience to land other internships after school.
I was very fortunate to do The Canadian Press internship in Toronto in 2006, followed by an internship at the Ottawa Citizen and then an internship at the Edmonton Sun. I freelanced for the Sun for about six months and then got an internship at The Edmonton Journal which turned into a staff job.
I can’t emphasize enough to students the importance of marketing yourself to as many newspapers as you can. If your hometown paper doesn’t know you then make sure they do. More importantly, make sure they don’t forget you!
When you were a student, what did you want to do after graduation and are you where you thought you would be now?
I wanted to be a staff photographer at a major daily. I didn’t know where I’d end up but I knew I wanted to shoot every day.
When I finished my internship at the Edmonton Sun, a staff job opened up at a smaller paper in a small city. But I decided to stay in Edmonton and freelance rather than taking the staff job in the small city.
It was another risk because I didn’t have very much freelance to pay the bills. I had student loans to pay off and this small-town job was guaranteed work. But I figured it was better to freelance for a big paper sometimes than to work at a small paper all the time.
I got some work with the Edmonton Sun and also freelanced for the Edmonton Oilers team photographer Andy Devlin.
If it wasn’t for my wonderful girlfriend (now wife) Ashley paying the rent, I couldn’t have done it.
The following spring, I went to the Photojournalism 2007 conference in Vancouver. I remember I was very poor and the trip was probably going to cost me $1000. Two days before I left, a freelance job came up that was going to pay $1000.
I really needed the money and I couldn’t really afford to go to the conference. But at the same time, I knew I couldn’t afford NOT to go to the conference because there would be portfolio reviews and possibly photo editors scouting.
I ended up meeting Ian Scott at the conference, the photo editor from the Edmonton Journal who was, in-fact, looking for a summer intern. I got the internship which turned into a contract which then, finally, turned into a staff job.
After five internships, I was starting to feel like I would always be an intern, never a staffer. But it all paid off. I feel very fortunate to be where I am and do what I love every day.
Patrick Roach a.k.a. Randy the Assistant Trailer Park Supervisor in the TV series Trailer Park Boys. Photo by Ryan Jackson
What or who are your biggest inspirations?
I always love (and try to take) photos that make you wonder “how did he do that?”. I especially love environmental portraits.
Starting out, I spent a lot of time on Neil Turner’s web site to learn lighting. That was before Strobist was around. I spent many hours in my basement playing with flashes and learning as much as I could about lighting.
Robert Seale’s web site also inspired me to learn lighting.
The first time I watched War Photographer, a documentary on James Nachtwey, my world changed.
Donald Miralle has always inspired me because he doesn’t just try to get a different photo, he builds up a whole new way of mounting a camera to capture an angle no one has even thought of before.
Damon Winter, with the New York Times, inspires me because he can be artsy and technical at the same time. He has built/modified several of his own cameras and flashes to make different images. His portraits are very inspiring to me.
I got to watch a seminar put on by Chip Litherland at a Sports Shooter conference in 2005. No one Photoshops images like Chip. He spends at least 45 minutes on every image he edits. His trick is to shoot for highlights and then underexpose one-stop….pretty crazy I know…. but then, using the Lasso tool and Levels, he manually brings back the highlights to preserve their color. The results are amazing.
Zack Wise with the New York Times, is my hero and who I want to be. Photographer, videographer, producer, editor, animator, programmer, designer … ridiculous! If you missed him at the PJ2007 conference, listen to him at last summer’s Knight Digital Media seminar.
Salt-Lake Tribute photojournalist Trent Nelson was VERY inspiring to me when I was just starting out. I was into shooting bands and he’s being doing it since I was two-years-old!
Peter Power was also very inspiring because he had done Electrical Engineering just like me before pursuing photojournalism.
Darryl is just the best damn photographer in the western Canada PERIOD! Jason sees light like no other and Tim is the best feature hunter in Canada, producing more photos at a small paper than an entire photo department at a big paper. I’m serious, he’s a photo machine!
Did you have a mentor? How important are mentors?
Tom Braid, photo editor at the Edmonton Sun was definitely my mentor during school and after. He put me in touch with a lot of people and guided me a lot throughout my development.
He encouraged me when I was down and he discouraged me when I needed it.
Now, I try to pay-it-forward as much as possible. I have spoken at our local MacEwan College a few times. This semester, I’m teaching half a photography course with another Edmonton Journal photographer, Greg Southam.
Having a mentor is very important. Though I will say that there is now more information on the web than anyone could ever absorb and it’s getting larger every day. There are tons of podcasts, YouTube channels and blogs that teach anything and everything you could ever want to learn…for free! With all that being said though, nothing beats a real human being explaining something to you. More than a source of information, a mentor is someone to look up to and get feedback from.
You will never learn anything from a compliment.
A woman is reflected in the window of an office building in down town Toronto while walking in the rain. Photo by Ryan Jackson
How important is multimedia to you?
If it wasn’t for multimedia, I wouldn’t have a staff job right now. Period!
I remember the first online multimedia piece I ever saw was called ‘Los Dominoes’. I thought to myself, “Wow! That is what I want to do! Have people tell their own stories”. But it was over a year before I actually took the time to figure out how to do it. I regret not starting much sooner.
One thing Tom Braid pushed very hard was the importance of multimedia. He basically told all the freelancers that if we wanted shifts we would have to learn multimedia or starve. That was back in 2006!
The first Soundslide I ever did was King of the Cage fighting championship.
Tom was so happy with me and I started getting more shifts. It wasn’t long before the majority of my (few) shifts at the Sun were because I could do multimedia. Having multimedia in my portfolio helped me get the internship at the Edmonton Journal, too.
I knew that strong multimedia was the key to getting a staff job some day, so that summer I went crazy. I produced 20 ‘Soundslides’ projects and 30 videos in 20 weeks. At the end of the summer, I was offered a contract. At the end of the contract, I got a staff position.
I think too many photographers jump right to video without first developing their skills in simple audio slideshows.
Why run before you can walk (or even crawl)?
I believe that the most important thing is the story and the subject. It is up to you, as a visual journalist, to pick the best way to tell the story (stills, video, Flash). Or, as I like to say, help the subject tell their own story.
How do you ensure that you are progressing as a visual journalist?
The most important thing, and sometimes one of the hardest things to do, is to actually read your own newspaper!
It’s very easy to be so busy creating that you don’t have time to consume and you can lose inspiration.
It’s important to have a list of photographers who inspire you. One thing that I kind of miss about school was the friendly competition. My current paper, just like the Ottawa Citizen and other papers, have lost their photo editors in the last few years. I think that causes the photo department to lose direction and enthusiasm. There isn’t anyone to really “pound the table and demand results”.
Clip contests, annual photo contents and memberships, with great organizations like NPAC and Sports Shooter, help ensure that you are part of a community.
If you are a student, it is vert important to be “known” in the business. No one hires a stranger. Get yourself out there!
I use an RSS Reader to follow several blogs and web sites to stay on top of news and changes in journalism. Again, there is SO MUCH information out there. The hard part isn’t finding the knowledge, it’s handling all of it.
Conferences by NPAC, the Online News Association (ONA), the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) and the Canadian University Press (CUP) are really good for recharging your batteries and inspiring you. They usually give students and photographers a good annual kick in the ass to challenge themselves.
Finally, as I’ve mentioned again and again, free online training. Seriously, when is the last time you couldn’t find out something you wanted to know on the Internet?
What are some of the must-see web sites you visit?
I have hundreds. But I know if I give too many, you won’t go to any of them. Why more is less.
multimedia.journalism.berkeley.edu – Training resources for everything: video editing, Twitter, web programming, Flash, interactive maps, blogging, podcasting, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, and anything else you would ever want and need to be on top of the digital age … for free!
www.journerdism.com – A blog that keeps track of journalism news. Every journalist should follow this site. It’s the best way to stay on top of the biz.
www.advancingthestory.com – News and inspiration on multimedia. Examples, storytelling techniques.
newsvideographer.com – Great place to learn multimedia. People send in videos for critique and she breaks them down and explains how they can be improved. Learn from other’s mistakes :)
blogs.nppa.org/editfoundry – A blog run by a TV video editor. He breaks news videos down step-by-step and explains why and how he edits the way he does. Very good way to learn.
www.lynda.com – Best $25/month you or your paper (or your mom) will ever spend. If you want to learn Final Cut Pro, Photoshop, Flash or whatever, go here. It’s all step-by-step video tutorials showing you how to use the software. Amazing way to learn. There are a lot of somewhat similar video tutorials on YouTube, but Lynda.com is definitely higher quality and worth paying for.
What is your favorite way to unwind?
I’ll be honest. Back in school, we called it “nerding out”. A few friends come over with laptops and we just share cool web sites and videos. A good friend saying “dude you have to check this out” is more valuable than any link on a web site. Just add beer and I’m in heaven. :)
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
I can’t really narrow it down to one thing but here are some of the most important ones that stuck with me.
When Reuters photographer Andy Clark was asked, at the PJ2005 conference, for the top five pieces of advice he would give a student, he said, “shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot and shoot”. That’s the best advice ever. It doesn’t matter how much learning and schooling you do. You actually have to get out there and apply it regularly to make it stick.
Never work for free! This rule is very hard when you’re starting out and you need to gain experience. Once you get established and have regular clients though, you’ll be very proud of that rule. Anyone can take a picture. What sets you apart is that you can take a picture worth paying for.
Take the time and train yourself because no one else is going to do it.
Finally, from Dave Chidley: You make your own luck.