May 14, 2009 / Photography

Photographic Role Model: Jenna Isaacson

Written by Bill Hankins

Most professional photojournalists are willing to share information, especially with young people interested in the profession. It is an exciting career, allowing you to view many situations and meet many people.

Photography is a career suited to both men and women. While both male and female photographers are seen around high schools, the number of female photographers drops after graduation. There is no reason young women should not consider the field of professional photojournalism. Young women may find inspiration in the following interview with Jenna Isaacson, staff photographer, the Columbia Daily Tribune, in Columbia, Missouri. However, young men may find some useable information here, too.

Q. When did you first become interested in photography?

A. My first interest was just seeing newspaper pictures. I took one of those aptitude tests in junior high and it showed my interest in photography and as an ambulance worker. I was 13 1/2 years old and decided I didn’t like blood. When I was 15, my dad bought me a Pentax K1000 and enrolled me in a Saturday class at the Kansas City Art Institute. We always had National Geographic laying around the house, and then when I was about 15 I read Gordon Park’s autobiography. That really got me interested.

Q. Which of your early pictures do you remember?

A. I still like the picture of my dad at the river. I put a light bulb in a tree and thought I was terribly artistic. (laughs) I also remember a picture of my dog.

Q. What made you continue with your photography and develop your skills?

A. It was my way of being interactive, my excuse to meet people because I was pretty shy. My junior year of high school I signed up for yearbook and got to take the basic photography and yearbook class at the same time. My senior year I was photo editor. Even more it pushed me to be social with people.

Q. What did these high school experiences teach you that was important for your development?

A. We did what was called The Heartland Photojournalism Project (a day in the life of a small Midwest town). I shot (with my class) the towns of Hiawatha, Kan., and Falls City, Neb. I learned how to make people forget you are there. It is so much of what I have to do now. It is a fine line between interacting and just blending in (at a photo shoot). When I saw the exhibits (of the photos) and seeing what everyone had done, you could step back and see that you can document life.

Q. What was your toughest shoot in high school?

A. It was my first real spot news. We had a drive-by shooting at our school. Everybody was freaked out. My shot was a bullet hole in a car (in the school parking lot). I could have done more, but it was a tough shot early in my shooting career.

Q. You said you were photo editor your senior year. What did you learn from that experience?

A. It was a challenge to keep everyone on task. I would make a lot of lists, and I learned to read people a little better. You have to have management skills. I would edit (negatives) with them. We would have a conversation about the event. I tried not to say, “why didn’t you get this?” I tried not to put expectations on them. I’ve since learned that the best editors don’t push their vision on their photographers.

Q. Today, what are typical shooting days like?

A. I shoot a lot of basketball, but on the typical day I come in at 9 a.m. They have had the budget meeting so we know what things have to be shot before 10:30 a.m. for the afternoon paper. In the afternoon we have time to work on other sections – business, family life, sports, and any advance work we are doing. When I am working on a big story, I will call my source several times during the week and write out time-cards so that I won’t be assigned (something else) during times I need to shoot. I also communicate with the writer. Sometimes we will go together. It is good for understanding.

Q. What about writing and cutlines? How important is that to a photographer?

A. At the University of Missouri, photographers have to take the journalism writing class… Cutlines are important. If you have a compelling picture, you need an equally compelling cutline. (Young photographers) should try to get some quotes into their cutlines.

Q. How do you prepare for a shoot?

A. If it is a regular assignment, I think about where it is and lighting, whether I will have backlighting. I run through my head what I have done before. If it is a new situation, I like that. I like new situations to stay fresh.

Q. And when the shooting actually starts?

A. I look for framing first. Who’s important to be in the picture. Then, I look for a little moment. You get an instinct that something is going to happen. For example, when I was doing the surgery story, I was checking on the husband and wife as they waited for him to go in. He reached up and touched his wife’s nose, and I got the moment. He was just saying to her that everything would be all right. They laughed when they realized I had captured that moment.

Q. You mentioned instinct. How do you know when some moment is going to happen?

A. I listen to myself more while I shoot.

Q. Can you explain that more? What kinds of things are you telling yourself? And how has that skill developed or changed over the years?

A. You learn to get a feel for the situation and what may or may not happen pretty quickly so I’ve learned to tune into that and focus my energy on the people or situations that will provide the most telling photo for the story.

Q. Do you have a certain style in shooting?

A. I am seeing my style evolve. I have started to shoot a picture for myself everyday – to stay fresh. I try to work that style into what I do. There are websites called aphotoaday.org and photobetty.com that have photos that have not been published.

Q. So what kinds of things have you shot just for yourself?

A. Anyone who says, “Take my picture,” I take one and file it away – there are some funny ones of that series. I also have a thing for photographing quotes – on walls at schools, T-shirts or whatever. I also have a running folder of photos I call “Urban Alphabet,” which are shapes and items in daily life or outside that look like letters. It just forces me to keep my eyes and ears open.

Q. When you edit your own work for the newspaper, what do you look for?

A. Framing, light and moment. The picture needs to be framed well. The light needs to help the moment. And the moment needs to tell the story.

Q. Any advice to young photographers?

A. Build relationships. They weren’t going to let me have access to a fire scene until I used my cell phone to call the fire chief in charge. Work on social skills. Get good at being able to talk to anybody. Make people comfortable. Even if you are not going into this (photojournalism) professionally, you can apply what you learn in a lot of other ways.

Q. How are things for women in your profession?

A. It has gotten better. It is not an easy job to do. It is physically demanding. I’ve never been turned down for an assignment because I’m a woman. Maybe people don’t see me as a threat. Once I got behind the scenes at the circus in St. Joseph that the male photographer had been turned away from.

Q. Do you see more women photographers when you are out shooting or when you were at the university?

A. I was in school with a lot of other women and I see female students shooting for the competing paper quite a bit, but the only other female photographer I’ve ever worked with was Leah Hogsten at the Salt Lake Tribune. I’d like to see more women doing this, but I think many of the women who get P-J degrees use it in fields other than newspapers.

Q. How about your role models – men or women? Who do you look to for inspiration?

A. I look at the people around me – their style, their attitude and the way they approach photography in general and try to apply pieces of that into my own vision. Some of my favorites are Trent Nelson, Brian Davies, Scott Strazzante, and even the people I work with. I don’t think Dickey Chapelle gets enough attention for what she’s done for women in photojournalism. (Look at her bio at www.photobetty.com)

Q. Finally, how has your equipment changed?

A. I use a Nikon D2H (digital) with a 17-55mm f/2.8 lens, an 80-200 f/2.8, and a 400mm f/2.8. We have a staff laptop, and I have two 512-mb memory cards and one 1-gig card.

Q. So technically quite a change in the last 10 years?

A. You have to graduate to better equipment.

Bill Hankins

Bill Hankins taught scholastic photojournalism for 26 years, advised student publications for 29 years, and instructed more than 1,600 photojournalists, mostly at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. Before retiring, Hankins received the Missouri Journalism Teacher of the Year Award, the Pioneer Award from the NSPA, the Certificate of Merit from the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 from the JEA.