A request came into Question & Artist
a short while ago: how does one become a photojournalist?
So, I decided to parse these interviews out into different types of photo careers, starting with music photography. I touched on it a bit in this previous post
about how I got into concert photography, but I haven’t pursued it anywhere close to the level Mathew Tucciarone has. I first met Mat through covering the Rethink Music Conference
in Boston. Mat has worked closely with Karmin, and I’d been working on interviews with the duo. Since then, Mat has gone out to LA and has been working with Rolling Stone and LA Weekly.
Here are some key points that I think are essential to make note of if you want to pursue a similar career. Mat was kind to correspond with me through email to crack down on these questions, and offer some informational insight to all of you blossoming music journalists and photographers!
Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction from the Sunset Strip Music Festival. Copyright Mathew Tucciarone.
What does someone need to study in school in order to cover music as a photojournalist? Is it best to learn on your own?
It’s great to have a foundation in writing to best communicate your ideas and probably more importantly photography, but there are two things that I did (to begin with) that fueled my passion for music photography. First is that I listened to a lot of music… Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pearl Jam…anyone who stood for something and were pioneers of their genre. I became obsessed with, and genuinely curious, about the artists and the music they created. This led me to buy a guitar and teach myself how to play, to feel what they were feeling. After going to my first big concert I instantly knew that I needed to be involved and that this needed to be my life. I would finally get a camera and begin shooting all of the time, whether it was music, people, places, landscapes, or sunsets. Like I did with the guitar, I was teaching myself photography.
I don’t like to preach that going to school is the answer, because it isn’t. It helps provide a high level of commitment to pursue your passion and is extremely valuable especially with all of the relationships you build and how you utilize them. It is informative and provides an environment for learning. Is it required? No. I earned a bachelor’s degree in film and does that directly help me get work? No. Buy a camera and go shoot.
What was your first assignment and how did you get to that point?
Although I’ve been published in magazines, newspapers, and websites, my first official assignment was this year. I was to go out and photograph an artist’s concert which was being reviewed by a fairly prominent publication and deliver the photos that night to an editor in New York, which would be published the following morning.
I’m a firm believer in doing what you do regardless if you are being contracted, sent on assignment, or hired. For me that thing is photographing music. I started my own blog 3 years ago, my own type of publication that I would shoot, edit, write, and market. At the time I had applied to hundreds of jobs and wasn’t even getting rejected, I wasn’t receiving any response at all. I think that fueled something in me to begin creating opportunities that didn’t even exist. I began reaching out to artists, publicists, management companies, publications, and venues to get access to photograph concerts. After you do this for years you learn about the industry, make connections, and build a network that leads you to work.
Digital? Film? Is it best to use both, to become familiar?
I believe it’s best to learn film first. I took a 35mm black and white photography course initially and materials were not cheap, resources were limited, and it was time consuming. You really had to compose, focus, expose, and create photographs. When I say photographs I mean physical images on photo paper, that were made by spending hours in a dark room to produce a visual.
Digital is wonderful because there’s no waste, your images are available instantly, and there are infinite possibilities to use your work. However there’s something aesthetically pleasing about a physical photograph [created] with film that is hard to replicate. Grain, contrast, and flaws all add to the art. In my opinion, it is best to use both. Gain both perspectives and try to incorporate the practices of one into the other.
Phillip Phillips. Copyright Mathew Tucciarone.
What’s the hardest thing you have to deal with as a music photographer?
In an era where everyone has a camera in their pocket at all times, where thousands of pictures get taken at every concert, how do you separate your work and style from the rest? The rest can also be another person who has a “nicer” camera than you who isn’t even a photographer. I’m not competing again cell-phone photos, I am competing against the saturation of the internet and content that gets created at each show or event. Some publications big and small actually settle for bad photos. At the same time there are more and more decent images being created. Everyone wants to photograph music. It’s an evolving industry and I think separating your work is always a challenge. You have to rely on your instincts.
What sort of paperwork do you have to deal with?
Mainly it’s a contract that states that all images you take at the event you are covering for that outlet, whether they are used by the publication or not, can not be licensed elsewhere for a period of time. Sometimes it’s 30 days, sometimes 90 days, etc. Each instance is different.
What do you do to ensure people don’t steal your photos?
There’s nothing you can do to prevent people from stealing your photos. I know people who don’t put their name on the image at all. I sometimes put my name on photos to receive it bit more exposure, at this point I’ll take as much exposure as I can get. There are preventative measures you can take to help minimize this for example, only displaying low quality images of your work online or only allowing password protected viewing. The people who steal photos are people I would never work with anyway.
(side note: I can attest to Mat’s statement about only providing lo res images online. In my field we always need to request hi res images for professional use, and that needs to be delivered by the photographer.)
What’s the biggest problem you’ve run into in this job?
For most photographers, myself included, there’s never enough lighting. As a concert photographer you basically are never allowed to use a flash, so exposing the shot correctly sometimes can be a challenge.
How did you land an assignment for Rolling Stone?
Getting your foot in the door of any publication or company requires persistence, a thick skin, and some luck. First of all, make sure you have a body of work somewhere that is presentable and can be easily linked to. Like a job application, you must effectively display what you’ve done and what you are going to do to help benefit a company. You must also be prepared for things to not go as planned. Over the course of almost two years I reached out a large number of times. Eventually I received an email to shoot and it happened.
I can also say that being friendly, optimistic, and having a positive attitude can go a long way. There are people that are far more talented than me who have not received these types of opportunities, including people that I learned from.
LIGHTS. Copyright Mathew Tucciarone.
What is your work week like?
As a freelancer, there’s not an exact schedule. I have my little routine in the morning, coffee, emails, guitar playing (ha ha), editing photos, updating my website and social media sites, and reaching out to potential new clients. I can say that if you are photographing a concert and don’t get back until midnight, you might need to spend a few hours on photos after even if you’re tired. I’m always attending events, networking, reaching out, and photographing concerts. There can be times where I work 30-40 hours a week with a very small paycheck. But it is all geared towards getting better because I am constantly looking for ways to move forward with my career.
Nathan and Matt from Cold War Kids from SSMF. Copyright Mathew Tucciarone.
What is a common misconception for your job?
That it’s all music, concerts, and rock and roll partying all of the time. Don’t get me wrong, I get to do my fair share of that stuff and you would be amazed what kind of doors open because you have this little machine that records images. For instance, I went to a festival with a band, and naturally I was backstage. During different parts of the day we’d be hanging out and there would be Rita Ora, Weezer, Skrillex, John Mayer, and even Kanye.
However, a majority of my time is spent editing, re-working images, creating opportunities, traveling, and marketing my work, as well as creating video content which is something I also do. These are things that no one sees. They only see the final product which is a photograph and it’s easy to overlook how hard photographers work.
If there is one thing you wish you had done in high school, that would have helped your career, it would be…
I wish I started taking photography courses in high school. I only took (I think) two photography courses ever, not including filmmaking courses, and the first was five years after high school. I wish I started earlier.
If there is one thing you are GLAD you did in high school that has helped your career…
I learned a lot from playing sports in high school. I played basketball all the way up and even a little in college. With sports you learn the value of hard work, dedication, commitment, teamwork, sportsmanship, and organizing your time. I spent hours in the gym shooting…every day I wouldn’t leave until I made 10 consecutive 3-pointers in a row. The foundation that playing sports created for me continues to help me in the professional world. To this day I can still shoot a basketball, but most of my shooting now is music photography.
What has been your biggest setback?
My biggest setback was figuring out what I wanted to do. I know people who are my age (still in my 20s for the moment) who still don’t know what they want to do and they have a good paying job. Some people never figure that out and before they can commit to their passion, obstacles get in their way, and have priorities such as taking care of a family. Eventually, I figured out it was music photography and have in some ways clawed my way to where I am. As a freelancer and an artist, you learn dial in to what you are good at and what might distinguish you from thousands of other people.
What do you see as the future of music photography?
The future will be that everyone will have a 30 megapixel camera in their pocket at all times. Every phone will have this capability. Each concert and event will have thousands of hi-resolution photographs. Staff photographers won’t exist and only freelancers will have their work published. Anyone will be capable of creating news or content. The only way to separate your work from another’s will be through your eye for storytelling.