I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Steinmann, Chief Photographer at The Penny Hoarder. She spent nearly 20 years as a news photographer for newspapers in the U.S. and and as freelance photojournalist in Latin America. She documented many stories of international impact, including the AIDS epidemic in Honduras and the displacement of Hurricane Katrina victims.
I studied cultural anthropology at UC Berkeley, which gave me the chance to learn Spanish and study abroad. While I was in Costa Rica, I took a photojournalism class at the University of Costa Rica taught by a visiting professor from Japan. I was hooked after that and took every photography class I could and even interned at The Daily Republic newspaper in the Fairfield, CA during my senior year. I think photojournalism is the perfect way for me to tell people’s stories and explore the world, and I feel so lucky everyday in my profession.
One of the stories that touched me the most was of a woman named Celestina who was a victim of human trafficking. She was brought illegally into the U.S. from Nigeria as a young girl by distant relatives and forced to work as a servant for the family. She also suffered extreme abuse and was not permitted to attend school. A reporter and I traveled to her ancestral village in Nigeria and met her family. She had not seen them for decades. We retraced her steps and told the story of her impoverished family, who deeply regretted their decision to allow relatives to take their daughter to the U.S. They thought she would receive an education and have a better life. The best part of the story was being able to share photos with Celestina of her family, especially all her siblings, whom she missed so much.
I can’t think of one in particular, but I remember forgetting a tripod on the Fourth of July for a fireworks assignment and borrowing one from a hobbyist photographer minutes before the show (we stayed friends after that), getting my car stuck in mud in a remote rural area, and getting flats in all four tires on an empty interstate while covering Hurricane Katrina. I learned to always be prepared for anything. Have your trunk packed with a survival kit and anything you might need, including Fix-A-Flat.
The Penny Hoarder stands out because as a startup, we have had the opportunity to build an amazing and talented photo department from scratch, unencumbered by decisions made in the past, like at legacy media publications. Also, the company sees the value in photography — they know good storytelling images are essential for engaging our readers. While other media companies are reducing and even eliminating photo staffs, we are investing in ours. For example, we just sent one of our staff photographers to Alaska for two weeks to work on several photo essays, several of which were pitched by the photographer herself. All of her work is being featured heavily on the website and on social media with great results. Here is an example:
Keep a list of story ideas you want to work on and always have a story you care deeply about in the works, even if you only have time to peck at it slowly over time. It’s important to stay connected to why you fell in love with documentary photography in the first place.
Dave Nielsen, the photo editor at my very first staff job at The Appeal-Democrat in California made such a huge impact in my career. He always cleared time for us to dig into great photo stories, often covering the daily stories to make time for us. I remember he always shot Friday night football so we had time to relax at least one night a week. So many accomplished photojournalists had strong starts in their careers at The Appeal-Democrat because of Dave.
Right now I’m transitioning from a management role in the photography department, which I’ve been doing for two years, back to a full-time photographer role. I’m collaborating on a video project with Senior Photographer Chris Zuppa about a drive-in movie theater called the Silver Moon that has been run by the same family for decades in Lakeland, FL.
I hope that I have shined a light on some lesser-known issues and raised some awareness through my work about people who don’t typically appear in the news.
1) Build a relationship with your subject
Often, for feature photography, you don’t want to photograph your subject right away. Instead, meet with your subject. During those initial meetings, put down your camera and get to know them. The comfort you create with someone will pay off later and result in richer, authentic photographs.
2) Lighting is critical
The best time to take photographs is the morning or afternoon. If you don’t have the luxury of choosing the time, you want to look for opportunities to maximize the best light or refine your skills with artificial lighting. If you don’t have good light, it doesn’t matter what’s happening in front of you because you won’t be able to capture photos in an impactful way.
3) Know how to find the right moment
While you’re talking to your subject and doing research, you will learn about the person’s life and find out how to visually tell the story. Not only will you create intimacy so the person is comfortable but also you will know when the right time is for you to be there. For example, if I’m photographing a parent with kids and I know they are an involved parent, I may ask them about
their kids. I may find out the next time they are doing something with their child that may best tell the story.
4) Develop your own personal visual stamp
The world of photography is competitive and it’s important to stand out. You set yourself apart
by creating your own visual style. Once you’ve been a photographer for a while, you will develop a unique way of seeing and you’ll find that people will begin to seek you out for your style.
5) Pay attention to what other photographers are doing
Like any job, you want to stay on top of the latest work that’s out there and be inspired by what other people are doing.
I would love to create a photo collective with some close photojournalist friends that would focus on storytelling photography for charities and non-profits to help them raise awareness and money for their efforts.
I’m hoping, now that I will return to shooting full time in September, that I will continue with my Twitter presence at @SLSteinmann and expand my Instagram presence at @sharonsteinmann. My website is www.sharonsteinmann.com
Originally published at medium.com