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Capped lenses – African American photojournalists

Throughout most of the history of photojournalism, the images of
African Americans featured in White-owned media were captured by people
who were not Black. Black Issues spoke to some of today’s most
prominent African American photojournalists to get their views on the
education and experience students of color need to excel in this highly
competitive field.

Veteran photojournalist Milbert Orlando Brown knew he had something
special when he was assigned to photograph seventeen-year-old trumpet
player Timothy Wilborn.

Wilborn is a resident of Robert Taylor Homes, one of Chicago’s most
notorious public housing projects. He was the subject of a June 24,
1997, Chicago Tribune feature story because he had inspired wealthy
Chicago philanthropist Gertude Nielsen to finance his college education.

Near the end of the photo session, Brown, who has a knack for
finding dignity in the bleakest of environments, asked the
all-city-band trumpeter to play his instrument. Unexpectedly, a little
boy, a neighbor listening to the music, wandered into view. In an
instant, Brown saw that the youngster’s presence added a depth of
humanity that would transform an above-average portrait into something

“The little boy came out of nowhere. [His presence] made it a special moment that had a certain dramatic impact,” Brown says.

The resulting picture, titled “The Promise,” was later nominated by
the Chicago Tribune in the prestigious Pulitzer Prize feature photo
competition. Last week, the image won the National Association of Black
Journalists’ top prize for a single-image news photo.

Brown is part of a small cadre of Black photojournalists at major
American newspapers who are hitting the heights of their profession.
Their prominence is deemed critical to the efforts of journalism
educators and photographers who are trying to attract and groom the
next generation of African American photojournalists.

Too few African American and other students of color are aware that
photojournalism represents a viable career path, and thus minority
student representation in college photojournalism courses and programs
remains low.

Gary Kirksey, an assistant professor in the school of visual
communications at Ohio University, says it’s imperative to reach
minority students long before college to help prepare them to pursue
photojournalism. The former photojournalist and picture editor says he
began getting practical experience by shooting pictures for
publications as early as junior high school.

“I think the earlier that students get exposure to photojournalism,
the better the chances will be that you’ll have more minorities
pursuing it,” Kirksey says

Songs of My People

Recognition has come slowly to African American photojournalists
such as Brown, partly because White-owned newspapers — especially in
major cities — only began opening their doors to African American
writers, editors, and photographers during the 1960s. Photography jobs
are considered among the most competitive in the news business because
there are far fewer positions available than there are for writers and

Brown cites dogged persistence, sensitivity, solid news judgment,
and a commitment to excellence as the formula for his rise as a
celebrated photojournalist. The 1978 journalism graduate of Ball State
University in Muncie, Indiana, had worked as a high school journalism
teacher, completed several internships, and had earned a master’s
degree in visual communications before landing a full-time news
photography position at Patuxent Publishing Company, a Maryland
newspaper firm, in 1987. He was employed as a photographer for the
Boston Globe before landing his current position at the Chicago Tribune
in 1991.

“It was tough getting a job,” he says of the late 1970s and early
1980s. “They weren’t hiring many Black men as photojournalists.”

Prior to the current generation of Black photographers, most of
whom began careers during the 1970s and 1980s, Black photojournalists
worked exclusively for Black-owned newspapers and magazines, such as
Ebony and Jet. Before 1970, Gordon Parks Sr., considered the dean of
Black photojournalist, stood virtually alone among Black photographers
who negotiated a successful career working for White-owned
publications. Parks worked for Life and Vogue magazines between the
1940s and 1960s.

“Most Blacks were weighted with the denial of opportunity, but I
had been fortunate to be able to shove aside those restrictive
boundaries,” Parks said in his autobiography Voices in the Mirror.

In 1992, a group of Black photojournalists gained national
prominence by producing and publishing the celebrated photo book Songs
of My People, which presented dozens of photographs of African
Americans from locations around the nation. A number of prominent Black
photojournalists — such as Ortega Gaines of The Charlotte Observer,
Mark Gail of The Washington Post, Odell Mitchell of The St. Louis
Post-Dispatch, and Dixie D. Vereen of USA Today — were among those
whose work was featured in the book. The project represented the first
major national collaboration among African American photojournalists
showcasing the diversity and complexity of Black life in the United

Today, while opportunities at White-owned publications have opened
up for Blacks seeking careers in photojournalism, competition for jobs
remains fierce.

Big-city newspapers typically offer the best salaries for
photojournalists. A photographer with more than five years experience
at The Washington Post can expect to earn between $50,000 and $70,000
annually, according to Gail. Annual salaries at smaller newspapers for
less experienced photographers start around $20,000.

“The market for photojournalists is quite saturated, and has been so for some time,” Kirksey says.

Nevertheless, he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the numbers of
Black and other minority photojournalists will see significant gains in
the future.

Early Experience Is Key

Veteran Black photojournalists and instructors agree that a
combination of real-world work experience and classroom education is
essential to preparing young photographers to enter the profession.

Gaines, picture editor and photographer for The Charlotte Observer,
says he began shooting pictures for The Washington Post while still
attending an arts-oriented high school, where he took his first
photography classes. He graduated from American University with a
degree in video and film, but says he acquired much of his journalism
education by working professionally with publications in the
Washington, D.C., area.

“I knew I wanted to get into the newspaper business. I perfected my
skills by learning from other photographers in the field,” he says.

After graduation, in 1982, Gaines got a job working as a technician
in the photo laboratory of the newly started USA Today. He moved to
Florida to work as a staff photographer for the paper in 1983. Six
years later he was hired by The Charlotte Observer as a photographer.

Gaines advises college students to pursue internships as a means of
acquiring the professional work experience needed to augment their

Not having a car limited Mitchell’s chances to gain professional
experience while in college. The lack of transportation narrowed his
internship options to a stint with the university news service office.
The East St. Louis, Illinois, native majored in journalism at Iowa
State University and graduated in 1979. He now works for The St. Louis

“It’s impossible to be an intern at a small- to medium-sized newspaper and not have a [motor] vehicle,” he says.

Mitchell didn’t get his first news photography assignment until
more than a year after graduation. He believes his limited intern
experience is mostly to blame. In 1980, a newspaper in Jacksonville,
Florida, finally hired him as a trainee. Eventually, he became a staff
photographer, and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recruited him back to the
St. Louis area in 1982.

Gail says that since the 1970s, internships have become
increasingly important for young photojournalists seeking to secure
news jobs after college.

“Internships are real important. Most places want you have them
before they’ll consider you for a job,” says Gail, a Baltimore native
who decided to pursue photojournalism while a student at Towson
University during the late 1970s. After graduation, he worked at a
succession of newspaper photography jobs in Texas, Louisiana, and

Gail is so committed to his craft that he once left a staff
photography job at The Fort Worth Star Telegram to avert management
pressure that would have moved him permanently into a picture editor’s
job. Photo editors are the managers in newsrooms charged with making
photo assignments and selecting photos for publication.

Given his previous experience as a high school journalism teacher,
Brown continues to encourage students to pursue photojournalism as a
career. Just as Parks’s stunning photography inspired him and other
African American photojournalists, Brown hopes the work of today’s
Black photojournalists can inspire the next generation.

“It makes a difference when you see a certain role model who inspires you,” he says.


A 1998 survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE)
reported that there were 263 African Americans out of 5,790 total
photographers employed by American newspapers, or nearly 4.5 percent.
Minorities constitute 14.6 percent of newspaper photographers,
according to ASNE. ASNE surveyed 957 of the 1,462 daily newspaper in
the United States.

The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass
Communication (ACEJMC), based in Lawrence, Kansas, accredits 107
programs of journalism and mass communications at American colleges and
universities. Charles Higginson, assistant to the executive director of
ACEJMC estimates there are 400 total programs of journalism and mass
communications, which includes both accredited and nonaccredited

ACEJMC has record of only three schools that offer a bachelor’s
degree in photojournalism: Western Kentucky University, Northeast
Louisiana University, and Texas Tech.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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