5 Reasons to Set Aside Your Ego: The Benefits of Working Together
Text by Luc Forsyth
I recently made a short presentation at the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap about the benefits of working together. Together with Thomas Cristofoletti, one of the founders of the Ruom Collective (the journalism association I collaborated with on a piece about protesting monks for Al Jazeera), and writer Marta Kasztelan, we explained to an international audience how setting aside egos can achieve more in-depth and complete reporting. Aside from Ruom, I also collaborate with Wandering Cameras, a multimedia organization specializing in non-profit filmmaking. While photojournalism and writing are often thought of as “loner” professions, the advantages of teaming up with like-minded specialists are too numerous to neglect. The following five lessons are just a few of the reasons that collectives may redefine the way we tell stories in the 21st century.
Not everyone is a jack-of-all-trades. Most people are lucky to become exceptionally good at even one thing in their lives, and the same is true of photographers and journalists. I’ve focused so much on creative output – the production of photography and writing – that I have avoided developing the business and marketing skills necessary to quickly grow my business (yes, journalism is a business). Don’t misunderstand; my brand is expanding steadily, but along the way I have missed out on opportunities that I should have seized had I been more administratively aware.
In contrast,Ruom co-founder Nicolas Axelrod is an adept businessman as well as being an outstanding photographer, but for Nick writing is laborious. Though he consumes written articles on a daily basis, pairing words with his images is a lengthy process for him. In an age where media outlets want completed stories that are delivered ready for publication, this could have been a significant disadvantage. The solution? Work together.
While the members of Ruom have skill sets that sometimes overlap, each person brings unique talents to the table. Thomas is highly proficient at online marketing and has a large social media presence. Marta comes from a human rights background, and is a resourceful researcher as well as being a specialist in gender issues. Rather than ignoring our weaknesses to the overall detriment of our strengths, by coming together we have been able to create multi-faceted stories that would not have been possible had we worked separately.
Ruom is a Khmer word meaning “together”, and the collective appropriately brings together multiple cultures as well as professional disciplines. A common pitfall of journalists working in foreign countries is the tendency to approach issues through the lens of their native culture. With members from Australia, Canada, Austria, England, Italy, France, Poland, and Cambodia, many sets of eyes scrutinize each article, photo essay, or feature.
Years ago when I first started producing documentary work, I would send out pleas for advice to big-name photojournalists whose work I respected. Typically I’d hear nothing back. Now, though I’m far from famous, I’m on the receiving end of these sorts of letters from passionate photography enthusiasts looking to turn their hobby into a career. After trying to respond thoughtfully to several of these messages, I realize why my emails had so often gone unanswered; there is no easy shortcut to success. Only after a determined and sustained effort of 60-hour weeks for almost two years did I see my first dime of profit.
Though there is no magic bullet solution, having your work critiqued by people whose professional opinion you respect can make a huge difference. Being told objectively the ways in which a project has fallen short is arguably the best way to make the next one better. But a professional portfolio review can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars – money that cannot then be invested in producing stories. By working with others (ideally people more skilled or experienced than yourself), you can get this valuable feedback as you go – and hopefully for free.
Shared Risks and Pooled Resources
Whether visual or written, making independent journalism can be expensive. In 2012 I spent over $1000 chasing a story on rural life in a rapidly changing Myanmar, only to come down with dengue fever. Bedridden for 10 days, the groundbreaking reportage I had envisioned myself creating slipped away with each sweating hour, until my visa expired and I was forced to leave the country. After weeks of accommodation expenses, transportation costs, translator fees, and food expenditures I ended up with a handful of unfocused frames that didn’t come close to telling the story I had imagined.
These things happen. Sometimes the best-laid plans fall apart, or an arbitrary event can derail months of preparation. This is the nature of being a freelancer, and anyone who is independently funding journalism needs to be prepared for these inevitable failures. But by joining forces with people interested in the same issues as yourself, you can significantly offset the financial risks.
When Nick and Thomas first had the idea of documenting the Burmese anti-Muslim group “969”, there was little response to their requests for monetary backing from major media outlets. They were faced with the difficult choice of either paying for the whole thing themselves, or abandoning the project altogether. Since they felt that this story was important to tell, they decided to go for it. By also bringing French journalist and Ruom contributor Alexandre Marchand into the project, they were able to distribute the costs and finish a story that would have been financially unviable for one person. The end product, Inside the 969 Movement, is a fantastic example of investigative documentary journalism, and has become one of Ruom’s flagship features. And it wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t worked together.
A Lighter Workload
There is a limit to what one person can handle. The massive changes wrought on the media industry with the coming of social media services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have essentially turned the whole world into citizen journalists. And while this is a largely positive global phenomenon, ensuring that proper exposure is given to the issues and events that matter, it also means tough economic times for working professionals. Layoffs and cutbacks at even the largest news organizations make it harder than ever to get paid for your efforts. Gone are the days when one major publication could fund a series of personal projects. Photographers and writers are constantly walking a financial tightrope from one paying job to the next, yet pursuing stories that you feel are important to tell is vital in the development of a personal voice and style.
When I was starting out and didn’t yet count on photography and writing to pay my rent, I could afford to build stories at my own pace. If I needed an extra day or two of shooting to get the right image, or if I wanted to spend a week sitting in coffee shops getting a written article just right, I could do it. But now my time is more precious; I need hours every day to edit and create new content, to maintain an increasing number of social network profiles, and to respond to an ever-increasing number of emails from clients and colleagues – not to mention trying to maintain a semblance of a personal life.
Solitary journalists can easily burn themselves out trying to do everything alone. By teaming up with others, it becomes possible to accomplish much more in the same amount of time. For example: in advance of the international human rights day, hundreds of Buddhist monks are converging on Phnom Penh, simultaneously marching down each of the country’s national highways in a display of protest against the Cambodian government’s abysmal human rights record. Such a story involves a lot of travel and time in order to convey the size and scope of the demonstration. One person could get completely exhausted trying to move between so many different locations. A collective, however, can spread the work around and each member can contribute to the greater whole, when and where his or her schedule allows.
Many hands do indeed make light work.
A Sense of Community
One of the hardest things for me to deal with when I was traveling full time was the lack of a supportive community. I spent most of 2012 permanently on the road, moving from city to city, country to country, and every time I arrived in a new location I had to start all over again. In the beginning it was fun; hunting down fresh stories in exotic locations was the essence of why I decided to pursue a future in photojournalism. As time passed, however, and the list of cities visited lengthened, the wanderlust faded.
Planning and executing a photo story or long form written article on a specific subject is tiring work. From research to gaining access to shooting, and finally editing, the creative process is mentally (and quite often physically) demanding. A strong reportage takes me an average of three weeks to produce, and at the end of it I mainly just want to sit on the couch for a few days. But when you are effectively homeless, as I was for the better part of several years, there is no real rejuvenation period. I just moved on to the next city or country or story. I had very few people to show my work to, and fewer still who could give me structured feedback. Any sort of business organization was impossible for any number of reasons – power outages, absurdly slow Wi-Fi signals, broken equipment, or just plain exhaustion.
Since moving to Phnom Penh permanently, the job has not gotten any less tiring, but at least I have a bed of my own to come back to at the end of a long day (or week, or month). More importantly, I belong to a community of motivated professionals who are supportive when they need to be and critical when they need to be. They will tell me when I’ve done a good job, and perhaps more importantly when I’ve done a bad job. I can borrow a memory card or a spare battery in the middle of a street riot, and if there is an important event happening, someone will send me a text message so I don’t miss it.
In many ways, this has been far more important than any lens or camera body, and it is this sense of being part of something larger than myself that has kept me hungry to produce. Photographers and writers tend to be control freaks who want the final say in whatever they are making, but for those who can set aside their egos and accept external input, you might be surprised what you can accomplish if you work collectively.