From photographing The Who on their first US tour to the war in El Salvador, National Geographic photographer and Olympus Visionary Jay Dickman has some stories to tell

As someone who’s constantly travelling and shooting, can you tell us what you’ll be up to this year? What are you most looking forward to?

This is another intense year. Working with National Geographic Expeditions, I’ll be photographing in 24 or so countries. This side of National Geographic (NG) has grown exponentially since I started working with them in 2007, and Expeditions is keeping me very busy. I love working in Asian countries, so this is a good year. But, I also love working pretty much anywhere. Where’s the best place? The next place.

You’ve won the Pulitzer Prize and the World Press Golden Eye; what does winning awards mean to you?

Contests are great if you win, and seemingly unfair when you don’t. I think with contests, you have to remember that it’s other humans judging the work, with their own set of likes and dislikes. They apply their own criteria, and you can’t hang your emotions on the idea of winning or losing. That said, winning both the Pulitzer and World Press Golden Eye were highlights. It was wonderful to receive that confirmation from your peers that your work is amongst the best of that year.

Image by Jay Dickman

Of all of the things and places you’ve seen and photographed, if you had to pick one highlight of your photographic career what would it be?

This is kind of like asking who your favourite child is. I’d start to say “this is the coolest,” then I’d remember another situation/experience, and state that as my favourite, only to recall another and another. Several highlights do stand out: photographing the war in El Salvador “A powerful photo can become the critical foundation for our recall of a moment or time in our lives” was a very intense situation. Working in often dangerous conditions, the photographer is responsible for not only making powerful images that convey what is happening, but he or she has to be aware of everything going on around them. Other highlights have to include riding in a nuclear attack sub for a week under the Arctic ice, hanging out of a helicopter, on the strut, over Angel Falls, and, in general, being the “eyes” for your viewers, whether in the pages of National Geographic, your own website, or the book you self-published.

Is there anything still on your bucket list of things to photograph that you’d love to do?

I’ve been so fortunate in my career to see so many incredible events, moments, places and scenes. I think if there were one thing, I’d love to photograph earth from the Space Shuttle.

Image by Jay Dickman

Do you have one favourite picture?

That is so impossible to answer, as I said before, it’s like saying which your favourite child is.
I have photos that still resonate with me, that I think are powerful. I’m my own harshest critic, so if it’s a bad photo, no amount of trying to talk myself into believing it’s good works. When we go through our take of a situation or place, I think you have to discard all the sensory information, as that stuff is not important. It comes down to “does the photo work; does it engage, convey information, pull someone into your world?” I think the photographer has to “fall out of love” with their images when deciding what will be that selection of photos for their narrative. Having said that, several images included in this article are among my favourites.

Is there anything or anyone in particular that inspires you or your style of work?

As a teenager, I had no idea I wanted to go into this world of photography. We had two coffee table books in our home, books given to my dad when he was younger. These were collections of great black & white photos from the second world war; the books were called US Camera at War. I remember looking at those countless times, and I know those powerful “frozen moments” influenced me greatly. Later, when I realised that photography was my calling, I started following the work of Danny Lyons, Robert Frank, Max Yavno, Cartier Bresson and other legendary photojournalists. I still stand in awe of powerful images, especially in the world of photojournalism, documentary photography and reportage. A powerful photo can become the critical foundation for our recall of a moment or time in our lives.

Image by Jay Dickman

What is it about the Olympus system that is of benefit to the work that you do?

I work exclusively with Olympus OM-D cameras. I strongly believe that Olympus is going in the correct direction with the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) format. The oft-repeated saying of “what’s the best camera to have? The one that’s in your hands when you need it,” is so appropriate and correct. I love the compact size of the system, the fact that I can carry on to the plane all my gear, with lenses ranging from 14mm out to 840mm, at very realistic apertures. As noted before, my professional world of photography is all about location and travel, and the Olympus system was custom designed (I like to think!) for my work. Plus, the Olympus M.ZUIKO lenses are among the sharpest I’ve ever used.

Your work sees you shooting everything from landscapes, to wildlife and people; do you have a favourite at all?

I consider myself as a “generalist”. When photographing the war in El Salvador, I wasn’t a “war photographer” covering the event, I was a photographer covering a war. When shooting sports, I’m a photographer covering sports. On and on. I’ve always tried to apply the thinking that every situation has its “best” photo/moment, and by approaching my assignment with this thinking, it forces me to try to get the best photo, for that particular situation. A photographer friend of mine has said that what she loves about photography is it is always problem solving. And I have to agree with her. Nothing is ever the same in front of the camera, and it is the responsibility of the photographer to capture the best moment.

Image by Jay Dickman

You’ve photographed some difficult subjects; how does it feel when you document such events? Do you switch off all emotions?

I don’t think a good photographer ever switches off their emotions. How can you capture the intensity of what is going on in front of the camera if you’re emotionless? There have been situations in which it is extremely difficult to “invade” a very private moment in someone’s life. The photojournalist often has to make a decision, at that moment, as to whether he/she has the right to press the shutter.

Has there ever been a time where you’ve decided not to photograph something?

Yes, there have been situations in which I just couldn’t press the shutter. Photographers are human, with sensitivities and feelings. But, looking at Eddie Adams’ photo of the Viet Cong suspect being shot, or Nick Ut’s photo of the little Vietnamese girl, running and screaming after being napalmed, those photos had to have been very difficult to make. But those two photos have been attributed with bringing the Vietnam war to an early close. Photography can be uncomfortable along with hugely powerful.

Image by Jay Dickman

In the past you photographed a number of rock ’n’ roll bands, was this where it all started? Do you miss shooting live music at all?

Photographing music was one of the first passions of my life. I remember taking a camera, my first 35mm, to photograph Lightning Hopkins back in 1965 at a Dallas Coffee House. Not particularly good photos, but I learned to love the idea of capturing a moment of a wellknown person. I then photographed The Who on their first US tour, and subsequent tours. The first serious music assignment I had was in 1969, photographing the Texas Pop Music Festival, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Santana, and other highprofile acts were there.
The paradigm has shifted entirely in this world of photographing major artists, with often minimal time to get to shoot and very restricted rights to your own work, so it just isn’t worth it to me.
What’s amazing is these photos of those classic groups are now sold as fine art photography. Morrison Hotel Gallery represents my work, and you should visit their website, morrisonhotelgallery.com to see some amazing work by the photographers they represent.

When you first started out as a photographer did you ever see yourself as a storyteller?

Once I realised I wanted to pursue this craft, I quickly realised that whenever a photographer makes two or more photos of a place or situation, they enter the world of visual narrative. When telling your story, photographically, combining the five components of visual narrative will create a more engaging body of work. Those components are:
• Create a sense of place
• Introduce your characters
• Bring detail into your story
• Moments
• Close your story
What a good photographer does with narrative is realistically the same thing a writer does, we just write with light instead of ink.

You’ve also been part of the National Geographic Photo Camp, working with young photographers; can you tell us more about this?

I’ve worked with NG Photo Camp, I also started a photo programme for a group that works with underserved schools called Horizons. Horizons realised that kids from lower income schools have a greater loss of information over a summer break than do their more well-off peers. Horizons created a six-week programme in 57 cities in the US that offers the kids that have been accepted classes in those disciplines in which they may fall behind. I built a photo program for Horizons in Denver, as I felt that introducing art into a child’s life makes a kinder, gentler person, and provides that critical introduction to art.
Working with these kids, either through NG Photo Camp or Horizons Photo Program helps in allowing them to discover their artistic side, so important in a well-rounded person.

Image by Jay Dickman

Many photographers will see what you do as having the dream job, but are there any harsh realities? What work does someone need to put in, in order to be able to achieve such status as being a photographer for National Geographic?

This is a brutal business today. Almost every publication that still prints a physical product of a magazine is losing circulation numbers. For many publications, the first thing to cut back on is assignment photography. An expensive luxury for many magazines, the images used can be provided by either stock photography, or by searches by art-buyers from the thousands of personal photographic websites out there. If those sites are created so the content is “searchable”, this may be the place that art buyer goes to get that image for reuse.
Many of those publications still assigning work have cut back significantly on the length of those assignments and are extremely efficient in assigning only what they’ll publish.
Okay, those are some of the negatives. The good side: there are still publications out there needing high quality work.
My suggestions to someone just getting into the business today include a few ideas (when I mention publication, I mean both printed and online):
• Know your technology and be able to multitask:The individual who applies for a job or assignment will stand a far greater chance of landing that job if they are capable in several areas of technology. Understanding and knowing how to create compelling video is important for the photojournalist/documentary photographer today. And knowing how to switch from the discipline of still photography to video is critical. Sound is another area that it’s important to be proficient in.
• Be pro-active: Publications today have to provide content, and the ideas for those stories often come from the photographers/writers. Know what story content is relevant to the publication, don’t suggest a story that they have recently run.
• Create a proposal: In that proposal, make a succinct approach as to why the story is important to their readers. This does not have to be a completed story, nor a multi-page document. Your proposal can be a single page, spelling out why your story proposal is relevant.
• Accompany the proposal with a body of work: Don’t flood your potential client with dozens of photos. A few strong images that address your proposal will suffice. And, this is a tough one: you must be brutal in your assessment of your images. If you have to provide a major backstory for a photo, don’t include it at this point. Less is more, but you want to make sure your collection of photos addresses the story proposal idea.
• Create a “business plan”: Okay, this is a way cool business. So many aspiring photojournalists want to be the globetrotter, making images and answering to no one. But be real – you are trying to get into a very competitive business. What we market are photos, this is a business. Knowing the basics of running a business will benefit you hugely. I’ve seen great image makers that had no business sense fail. Conversely, I’ve seen photographers who were “okay” in their style succeed as they understood the world of running a business. Did I mention this is a business? Having said all this, I love what I get to do. This is an amazing business. There are a ton of publications out there that have to create or use content, and still photography is a hugely important competent of that content.

Article featured in Olympus Magazine Issue 62 – to see the latest copy of this free digital magazine click here.