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Miki Johnson: How long were you a staff photographer and where? Did you think when you started that you’d be a staffer for life?
David Leeson: My career in newspapers began on Nov 20, 1977 at the Abilene Reporter-News in Abilene, TX. When the newspaper hired me, I was 19, a full-time college student working a part-time job sweeping floors at a local jewelry store.
I had no portfolio or degree and was unfamiliar with the term “photojournalist.” I was an avid amateur photographer, however, and built my own darkroom in my parents’ home when I was 17. The newspaper photo staff knew me as someone who would occasionally show up with a contact sheet of images from an event. I was never discouraged that they didn’t use my photos — I was happy just to be shooting.
I fell in love with photojournalism when I realized the power a camera could possess in the hands of a compassionate photographer. My life became consumed with perfecting my skills, including my heart, mind, and soul, for the purpose of affecting my community with images that would hopefully make a difference.
That essentially describes my 30 years in news photography. The last few years were dedicated to helping my profession navigate difficult changes, a new era fraught with demands for rich online content, declining readership, shrinking resources, and more work. I didn’t enjoy the work but believed it was important to give back as much as possible to a profession that had given so much to me. Besides, I saw my industry facing extinction and I was ready to do whatever I could to change the tide.
Unfortunately, I feel that I failed. My grief was more than the loss of something I loved — newspaper photojournalism — it was the feeling of having failed to be everything I could possibly be. I have wondered many times what extra part of myself I could have given that might have made the difference. My solace today is in realizing that I can still impact the industry from outside its walls. Perhaps, in fact, it is the ideal place for me to do it.
But the further I get from my life in newspapers, the more I realize that the best I can be is to be who I have always been, a small voice hopefully providing something of value to my world. In many ways, little has changed in my life. The day I knew that my career as a newspaper photojournalist had reached the end, I told my boss (and friend), the director of photography at The Dallas Morning News, that I had never been dedicated to a newspaper. Rather, I had always been dedicated to the ideals of photojournalism: through credible and ethical image making, we can bring needed change to the world.
I did believe I would likely retire as a newspaper photojournalist at The Dallas Morning News. But understanding that I am still in active service to my profession, even though I am no longer on the DMN staff, has softened the blow. The loss of a title did not change who I am.
MJ: What are you working on now? What is the biggest difference between what you’re doing now and what you were doing as a staffer?
DL: There is little difference today from the life I was living the last few years of my career. My position at The Dallas Morning News could best be described as “research and development.” I spent inordinate amounts of time on finding new workflows and methodologies to help speed the process of rich media integration. Oddly, I found that I enjoyed that kind of work, although I knew it failed to “scratch my itch.”
I began shooting video for the newspaper on a full-time basis in 2000 after integrating video online at my personal website as early as 1998. I have never viewed myself as a photographer. I was always a journalist, so the idea of using a different form of communication was never a concern.
Nonetheless, the device that filled more than a quarter-century of my life with indescribable awe and wonder was a still camera. I have never lost touch with it. In many ways I am a far better still photographer today than I have ever been because I shoot images almost daily — just for pleasure. No one calls me to shoot stills anymore. Everyone calls for my video skills. I enjoy my work, but my heart is never further than a beat from my still camera.
I have been “reinventing myself” since the day I first held a camera. Today I am seeking new journeys that could ultimately lead to a reincarnation of my life as a still photographer. Few people realize that I have dedicated nearly as many years to my photographic art as I did to newspaper photojournalism. The time is right for me to pour more of my energy into that area of my life passion than I have ever done before. Time will tell whether I was right or wrong, but I said the same thing when I chose photojournalism as a career (or did it choose me?). I also said the same thing in 2000 when I began shooting video.
MJ: What was the hardest or scariest thing for you when you left your staff position? How did you get past it?
DL: The most difficult part of leaving my position at the newspaper was how similar it felt to my divorce in 1997. My children from that marriage were still young and I knew that I would no longer walk through the door to the sound of them gleefully yelling, “Daddy’s home!” I was deeply burdened by the realization that I would no longer be there for them in the stability of a loving home. Our lives would be changed forever. It was an understanding that left me stricken with guilt. But, I also knew that the life I was living had already reduced my effectiveness as a husband and father. I knew things were not going to change and I was faced with a difficult decision I never believed I would have to make. I became a divorced man.
I felt similarly when I left the paper. I knew that I would no longer be identified as an insider, a proud member of an outstanding photo department. When the news spread that I was leaving, some of the staff tearfully told me that the newspaper would never be the same. They described it as the end of an era. I wanted to be there for them, but knew that my effectiveness in newspapers had long since ended.
So, just like I had to learn to be a father apart from marriage, I also had to learn how to be a true friend apart from staff affiliation.
MJ: What did you do to build awareness of your new business and availability?
DL: I have been very fortunate because I have not reached a position yet where I have needed to look for clients. I was so busy during the first six months after leaving the newspaper that I jokingly told people, “I’ve been working so hard for my business that I have not had time to work on the business.”
Many years ago I realized that the world had changed as a result of the Internet. I was no longer “just” a staff photographer. I was in business for myself and my largest client was The Dallas Morning News. I hated it but knew that the day would soon come when I (and many of my peers) would be forced to consider a life apart from the newspaper. Sadly, I was right.
Nonetheless, I have been actively pursuing better ways to function in business. For instance, I just created a spreadsheet for creating video bids. It is based on a series of questions that I call “complexity points.” Each answer is attached to a point total and the sum of all points is added to a multiplier based on average time spent producing a video versus the final minutes of the delivered product. This helps produce more equitable bids and helps clarify the client’s needs for each project.
Otherwise, I am living as I always have. The key ingredient for me is passion. If I am not passionate about what I am doing then it’s likely I won’t do it at all. Ultimately I love the journey — the process of creative endeavor. Indeed, I enjoy it so much that I often have to remind myself that the process may be beautiful, but the product has a deadline.
MJ: What is your favorite thing about what you are doing now? Is there one thing that has been hard to adjust to?
DL: One thing that surprised me in my new position as owner of a small business is how much I enjoy meeting clients and selling my services. I remember my first “sales meeting.” I was exuberant as I left and called my wife to say what a blast I had in the meeting.
But once I had time to reflect on the experience, I recognized the truth about that first meeting. For years I described news photographers as some of the best used car salesmen you’d ever meet. Success in photojournalism is far more than talent or a sensitive heart. If they want access, photojournalists have to win hearts and minds, sell themselves and their story. We have to win trust rapidly. Something that might ordinarily take weeks or months to accomplish often has to occur in the first moments of meeting someone.
So, the truth is, I was exuberant because I felt at home. It had been a long time since I was on the streets being forced to sell myself to a stranger. It was like a reunion. I realized how much I missed being a daily newspaper photographer, where events like that occur so rapidly and often that we cease to recognize them as a skill.
Oddly, even I have always been fascinated by entrepreneurs and studied the subject for more than seven years. Despite the fact that I accumulated a fantastic library of business books (review copies sent to the newspaper that no one wanted), I have never once considered myself a good businessman. I suck at business.
It takes extraordinary creativity to be successful in business. Everything from the original idea, to marketing, to closing the sale depends on a highly creative mind. Perhaps that’s why I feared it so much. Failing at business was the ultimate test of my creativity. I hated to believe that my creative abilities were restricted to life behind a viewfinder.
Ultimately I am learning that none of this matters. I see now that my father’s advice to pursue my passion is the only chance I have for success in my personal and professional life. Unfortunately business success is measured by the bottom line and, more unfortunately, I’ve never had a passion for money.
Nonetheless, my dad’s advice still works. I have no trouble attracting work because passion leads to taking risks and, ultimately, great work. Clients are attracted to people who care about what they do and are good at it. So, perhaps I’m not as bad in business as I thought. Perhaps business is just like photography — a style we create from the innermost parts of who we are.
I cherish the memory of my days as a newspaper staff photographer. I miss them at times, and then I remind myself that I am the same as I was.