A Look Inside the Dangerous Lives of Photojournalists

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Ever had a day at work where someone pointed a gun at you, where you heard bombs exploding right by your ear, or maybe received threats from a gang member?

No, we’re not talking about a typical gig in the armed forces; we’re talking about photojournalism. Armed with nothing more than a camera and a good eye, these photographers voluntarily go into dangerous situations in order to capture moments that no one else will dare to.

Take protests, for example. They’re events that are currently happening almost everyday somewhere in the U.S., with Black Lives Matter or rallies against Donald Trump—they usually start off peaceful, many even aim to be non-violent, however, sadly today protests often turn violent.

Activists have been beaten, tear gassed, and jailed—it’s a scary thing, but people do it in hopes of making a change. Pictures of this widespread abuse surface all the time. Most recently, a photograph that gathered a great deal of attention depicted a young woman in a flowing dress standing peacefully at a Black Lives Matter rally in Baton Rouge, LA while being stormed by a wall of armored riot police.

The photo wasn’t taken by someone on their cellphone who just happened to be there, it was captured by freelance photojournalist Jonathon Bachman who was there to capture the important moments. Despite numerous arrests, luckily there were no causalities.

It can be one risky job. These photographers will chase any sort of heightened situation, but why? Is it an art form, or a business? And are these fearless individuals really part of the social movements that they witness?

Antonio Bolfo is an award-winning photographer who worked for Reportage by Getty Images and is now CEO of Verse, a digital platform for artists, journalists, and reporters to create interactive multimedia stories.

A fine artist all his live, Bolfo dabbled in many forms of visual arts over the years, except photography. When he finally picked up a camera he decided he wanted to use it to inform. “I believe in social justice,” Bolfo tells BTRtoday. “Used properly you can go and capture a wide range of attention with a photograph.”

He believes an image is a very powerful medium to attract public response.

“When I decide to shoot a story, I look at my subject; I research the story, and when I meet my subject I really reflect on what they’re going through and [reflect] on what I’m seeing. Then I have to identify and understand those emotions,” Bolfo clarifies about his method of photography. “Only then do I know how to go about it—I have to try to photograph it so my audience feels the same emotions that I’m feeling.”

Bolfo created the digital platform Verse to help those in the news industry who are trying to get their story out there and don’t want to surrender to the big wolf news outlets and agencies. He tells BTRtoday that there are several models for working as a photojournalist, and none of them are easy—you must be extremely dedicated.

One model is to market yourself—you capture an image or a series of images and approach a publication and inquire if they’re interested in purchasing. Another model is to preemptively approach a publication and pitch them an idea to see if they will pay you a day-rate to photograph the story. Lastly, the model that Bolfo mostly worked in was to get hired by an agency or publication and have them send you out on assignments. However, Bolfo adds that this was not ideal, because the agency or publication would take a huge percentage of your earnings.

“The agency model is very difficult because they’re taking a significant amount of your income, but at the same time it’s very hard to go and try and sell yourself,” Bolfo explains, “and freelance photographers are not the best marketers.”

He adds that it doesn’t matter if you’re an award-winning photographer, if you don’t know how to sell yourself, or you don’t have a good agent, then you’re going to get lost in the midst. It’s why he created Verse.

While he currently dedicates all of his time to running the company, Bolfo still has many wild stories from his photojournalism days. He emphasizes that a good photojournalist does not seek danger; it doesn’t bode well for them professionally or for the publication they’re working for.

That being said, Bolfo maintains that if you’re sent to a conflict area, or any hostile environment, there are always risks.

Bolfo remembers the time he was sent to Syria to cover the war. He was staying in rebel-controlled territory, however, that didn’t stop the Assad Regime from dropping heavy artillery strikes and bombs randomly on the civilian population.

“We were driving and all of a sudden a Syrian government fighter ship swoops down and drops a bomb on a building very close to us,” he describes. “You really didn’t know where bombs or artillery shells would be dropping—you could be walking down the street and right down the block an artillery shell lands and explodes. As a journalist, you’re not anymore protected than they [the civilian population] are.”

Nick Childers, Village Voice photographer/video producer and teaching assistant/promotion video producer for New York Film Academy, is currently a freelance photojournalist based in NYC. He tells BTRtoday that the attraction of photojournalism to him is the combination of gathering information and intelligence through the means of cinema and fine art photography.

“The pay isn’t always the best and the work is very unforgiving, but it’s satisfying to know that you’re the eyes and ears of society,” Childers explains. “To know that a single shot can have the potential to take down corrupt governments and bad people—I think that is the holy grail of what allures most photojournalists.”

“All I want people to get from my photos is inspiration to go out and be more socially and civically involved,” Childers admits about his methods. “People usually see my photos on social media while lying on their beds bored out of their minds—I want someone to look at one of my photos or videos and then immediately go outside and experience and interact with the physical world.”

Childers recently visited Donetsk, the city in the Russian-separatist controlled area of Ukraine that is currently a declared war zone, to document the conflict erupted by the Russian-backed rebel governmental seize that began about two years ago and has since claimed over 10,000 lives. He describes his experience there, saying it was one of the craziest situations he has yet to experience during his photojournalist career.

He shines light on one moment in particular when he was crossing the contact line between the Russian separatist side of Ukraine to the city of Donetsk, which is also known as “the kill zone.”

As a good photojournalist does, he had his camera in hand and was photographing the installations and bunkers they were passing. A Ukrainian soldier spotted him, and that’s when the situation intensified.

“He stopped our car and was really pissed,” Childers recalls. “He went through all my photos, making me delete any pictures I had of them.”

Childers added that on the way back they were again stopped and searched; the soldier only let them go when a carton of cigarettes fell from his bag and he offered it to the officer. “He [the Ukrainian soldier] said, ‘good,’ very declaratively, and then let us go.”

You can view the images he captured during his time in Ukraine here.

Though conflict may fuel this career path, to photojournalists it’s not about the danger. At least to Bolfo and Childers, the point of this profession is to spread knowledge and present people with images of what is really happening around the world and perhaps spark something within the viewers.