SS: You're from Warwick but you came to RIC by way of Arizona. Briefly, how did you find your way into the Media Studies program?
JR: I came to RIC by way of Arizona, then Connecticut, then, to come full circle, back home to Rhode Island again. In Arizona, I was first introduced to digital media as a form of communication and expression when I had my first experience with Photoshop. I don't remember what version it was, but it was probably Photoshop 4 or 5. I was using an Apple G3 in the photo department of the independently run student paper at my school, Northern Arizona University, where I earned my bachelors in Photography. The paper was The Lumberjack, and we shot 35mm color and black and white film in those days, scanning the negatives into the computer as we prepared our images for publication. I was hooked by my first contact with Photoshop, I remember being in awe as I slid the color adjustment from red to cyan. That was my first photo adjustment ever.
Anyhow, that's where it started. Eventually, I went on to become a staff photographer at the Middletown Press in Connecticut, followed by some studio work and some wedding work in RI. Sure, I had been shooting digitally as a photojournalist, but after leaving photojournalism for a little while, I was provided an external view of the rapid changes that were shaking the industry. There was some relief that I no longer felt the pressure of working in an unstable, changing field- but I always stayed very interested in what was happening. Eventually, I realized that I still loved photojournalism, I was still very interested in digital media, and I was ready to make a move.
I opted to apply in the Media Studies program to augment my photojournalism background with advanced knowledge of new media. I've blended my RIC education with my photojournalism education and experience. Instead of stepping out of the journalism industry, I'm hoping to stay onboard to contribute to the ongoing changes. For now it feels right, and if I decide to take a detour from that path, it'd be great to use my Media Studies degree from RIC to open other doors.
SS: It's a little unusual, during a recession and what some consider the death rattle of print media, to have landed a job at a newspaper. How did you find the job? What hoops did you have to jump through to get it and what do you think of the current state of the newspaper business in America?
As a National Press Photographer Association member, I found the position in the NPPA job bank. Unfortunately, however, in support of your recession and “death rattle” mentions, I’ll add that the number of jobs posted there has been noticeably receding in recent years. In speaking with several editors and contacts throughout my search, many of them have made the same observation.
The job I now have was actually applied for via email, which is atypical. In their job posting, they provided an email address. Since I was already spending a lot of cash on sending packages, I opted to take them up on the email option. I sent my cover letter, résumé, list of references, and a .pdf slideshow version of my photojournalism portfolio. In the email, I also directed the employer to my website to view the After-Effects version of my portfolio as well as my other work.
Ok, now for the hoops... I had to drive out to Utica, NY, where the Observer-Dispatch, my current employer, is located and have a 2-day interview. They put me up in a hotel for a night for the process. I had to meet with several folks at the paper, including editors, reporters, the other staff photographer, and human resources. In addition, I had to shoot 2 test assignments for the paper. On the second day, they actually had me shoot a third assignment as well. After that, I waited for a few weeks until they called and offered the job.
The current state of the newspaper business in America? I’m not too sure about when everything might settle down, but I can say that many folks are nervous about their jobs. I’ve spoken with two different multi-media/photo editors at large, well-known papers in the recent past who were legitimately concerned about whether or not their jobs would disappear due to the current state of the business. One of them was, in fact, laid off shortly after I talked to him. Their photo department was also downsized. Many great veteran shooters have been losing their jobs, and they continue to do so. It’s sad and sobering.
Currently, I see the business end of print journalism trimming the fat and, like so many businesses these days, the workforce and product quality are suffering. I don’t think all is dismal, however. I actually apply a Darwinian view to the situation. I believe that those who have the creativity and wit to adapt will survive to become the new species of the digital landscape. I just hope it doesn’t become a homogenized, corporate formula that might compromise and water down the quality of the information that needs to keep flowing. I’m hoping and leaning on my Media Studies M.A. as a tool to help keep me in good standing through the changes.
SS: As a photojournalist now, you had many of the skills required for your job before you entered RIC. What did the Media Studies coursework add to your resume/skill set that informs your current work?
JR: Well, I’m hoping my Media Studies degree will provide an edge and advanced vision so I can contribute to the digital evolution the industry is undergoing, instead of being left behind in the wake of change.
I think the video components to the degree were absolutely essential. The theory/culture-based courses provided a great foundation as well. Overall, the entire program actually assists in my ability to contribute to some dialogue and conversations that I otherwise might not have previously weighed in on. As a networking professional, that is a definite plus. It also helped me to think in more analytical, observant ways while broadening my awareness of how we communicate in today’s society.
SS: I've heard more than one professor mention your thesis project. I know there's some documentation on your site but could you explain it for those of us who weren't present for its "premiere?"
JR: The project was a commentary on the ever-expanding amount of photographic content being uploaded to the Internet by amateur enthusiasts every day. It was a projection-based installation involving three projectors and it brought the viewer into the piece.
The project analyzed and organized the found photographic content by age group. I started with slow-motion video of a pregnant couple, shot in a style similar to a still portrait, and they were buried underneath an accumulating quilt-like stockpile of images I found online that were reflective of that particular age group. This correlating scenario was consistent throughout 8 different segments of a typical American’s life: pregnancy through senior citizen.
The viewer became part of the piece as their “digital reflection” was cast on the surface of a “digital reflecting pool” that stood on the floor before the imagery mentioned above. The reflecting pool was a large rectangle with a raging river projected on a white surface within. Viewers stood at its edge, under the glow from a photo umbrella, as their reflection was secretly cast from a camera embedded in the wall of the pool. I reversed the image of the viewer in the projector’s settings to make it appear as a true reflection. The reflection was projected on top of the other projection for the effect of it being cast onto the surface of the water.
As the river rushed from the viewers’ stand point toward the wall projection, I was trying to provoke self-reflection as almost everyone in one way or another is involved in the growing collection of photographic content online. Whether you were a direct contributor, an intentional or unintentional photo subject, or have viewed photos online, you’re involved. I was also interested in the nature of the content posted by each age group. I hoped that viewers would, in response, also contemplate their own experience of being born, living, and ultimately dying, in our culture. Hopefully it was successful in these goals!
SS: Every day, you probably have to compete with people who can capture compelling images with very little money, time or effort. I'm not trying to force you to brag about your photography, but I think people would like to know what separates your work from the amateur photographer who is simply in the right place at the right time.
JR: It’s true, I suppose photojournalists do have to compete with these folks now. It’s a muddy area. At my own paper and other news organizations all over the world, we’re all taking advantage of social networking to allow readers to contribute to news reporting. Sure, it might affect the job market to some degree, but it’s not all a bad thing. This whole industry is in a massive transitional period, and this is only one part of the evolution. I believe it empowers the ordinary citizen and increases our ability, as human beings, to witness so many important events that may have been otherwise missed.
Of course, a huge negative side effect that comes to mind is the desensitization of ordinary folks to serious situations. Instead of helping a fellow human being, many folks are now feeling compelled to take a photo or shoot video of the victims instead. This is a very dangerous trend. We really need to help one another, now more than ever. As photojournalists, it’s our job to cover these events so the world can hopefully learn from them. But if I’m ever the first on a scene and there’s no one else to help someone in dire need- I’d be a compassionate person first, photojournalist second. It’s our duty as people to help one another. I like to think that that’s what I’m doing in this profession. Helping.
I feel as if many news organizations value and understand the importance of having a staff of professional, seasoned “photojournalists” who can take on the constant challenges that inevitably come up. Fires, shootings, funerals, sports, war, and on and on…so many issues require consistently tactful thought, behavior, ethics, and accurate, responsible, unbiased information gathering. You also need to be able to adapt to an endlessly unpredictable variety of environments, lighting scenarios, stresses, and you even need to adapt the mundane. Some assignments are so stale or repetitive, that you need to tap into a constant reserve of creativity to try to find the freshest, most effective way to tell the story. The benefit of having a true photojournalist performing these tasks is that they’re consistent, passionate, reactive, and dedicated to the social responsibility that comes with being a journalist.
You can’t safely, consistently depend on folks with iPhones or hobby backpack digital SLRs to accurately and ethically tell the stories. So, there will probably always be a need for photojournalists. Much of it comes down to not only quality, but also to credibility. However, I’m curious to see how everything pans out over the next 10 years or so…