Everything You Wanted to Know About Photo Internships

Where can I find internships?

Word of mouth, your school’s career center, and online are all good places to start. Online, there are many sites that can aid your search: internships.com, journalismjobs.com, internmatch.com and indeed.com all have listings. If you’re in school, ask your journalism or photography professors if they can recommend any good publications.

Hannah Potes, a staff photojournalist at the Rocky Mount Telegram in Rocky Mount, NC, held three internships during her college career. “I found these positions on online job forums, the NPPA job bank and through professors and advisors at Kent State University,” she says. Diversify your search to find as many opportunities as you can!

What am I getting out of this?

It’s common for an aspiring photojournalist’s first internship to be unpaid; you might just not have the skills, or the images, to secure a paid position yet. Potes realized this while looking for her first internship. “I didn’t have the portfolio to land a paid and prestigious internship,” she says. She ended up getting an unpaid position at the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, KY. “I was lucky enough to have help from my parents and family to survive for ten weeks without any salary of any kind,” she says.

Not everyone has the financial means to take an unpaid internship during or after college, obviously. It’s good to have a talk with your family beforehand to figure out what your situation is and what your options are. If you feel unpaid internships are the only ones within your reach, look for publications close to home that have internship programs. By living at home with your family, and taking a part-time job if you are able to, you might be able to make the situation work.

For the more experienced, paid internships are a better option, and not only because of the money: they allow you to contribute more. For an internship to be unpaid under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the employer must “derive no immediate advantage” from the intern’s activities; it should be similar to training received in an educational environment. Paid internships allow the intern to be much more involved in the actual operations of a publication.

If you are looking to get credit for your internship, be sure to get the details from your school. In some cases, you may be allowed to either get credit or get paid, and not both. Check with your academic advisor and iron out the arrangement before you begin your internship.

What will my responsibilities be?

It depends on the publications and on your bosses, but expect to be challenged. Come in to work prepared to shoot anything from breaking news to sports and features. Other responsibilities might include captioning and transmitting photos, archiving, fact-checking, writing stories to accompany photo galleries, and, if your newspaper has a digital component, creating online slideshows.

In many cases, expectations will be high and you’ll hit the ground running. Andy Colwell, a staff photographer at the Erie Times-News in Erie, Pennsylvania, had an internship with the Harrisburg Patriot-News in the summer of 2011. “They treated interns like staff,” he says. “I was part of the team.” For him, the action began on day one.

“I was the only person left in the building and there ended up being a tornado going through Harrisburg,” he says.  “Nobody else was around to photograph the damage. So they just kind of looked at me and said, ‘Do you want to stay a bit longer and go shoot the carnage?’ Of course I said yes.”

He went around Harrisburg, a town he’d been in for only two days, shooting pictures. In the end, Colwell says, “I ended up being the only person who was able to transmit photos back to the newspaper by deadline, so the only photos in the paper, including the three on the front page, were all mine. That was my first day at my internship.”

Hannah Potes had similar experiences. “I was treated as a full-time staff photographer at all three of my internships,” she says. “I wasn’t grabbing coffee or making copies… I was out in the field shooting assignments, talking to my subjects for caption information, and editing and transmitting my own photos, just like any regular staffer.”

What will I learn?

“What I learned was that I loved being a news photographer,” says Colwell. Prior to his internship, he had wanted nothing to do with newspapers. “I thought they were outdated; I had a very closed-minded attitude.” One of his professors, who had been a newspaper photographer his whole career, urged Colwell to give an internship a try before making up his mind. “I said okay because I trusted him, and I’m 4,000 percent glad that I did,” Colwell says.

Colwell had already worked as a photographer in the PR office of his college, Penn State. The internship, however,  “really solidified all those skills on a daily, high-pressure, deadline-based, print-the-newspaper-at-a-certain-time kind of environment,” he says. “It was a lot of the life skills that I had been trained as a journalist in college, put to solid use in a real-world environment.”

Hannah Potes says, “I learned more about photojournalism than any classroom or professor could have taught me. I learned how a newsroom works and how a paper is created each day.” Most importantly, she says, “I learned how to connect with strangers. My internships gave me the guts and the compassion to approach a burn victim in public and convince him to let me into his life to tell his story. No classroom can teach you how to do that.”

Will there be any downsides?

“It’s difficult to move hundreds of miles from everyone you know to a city you’ve never been to for a job you’re scared to death you’ll screw up when you’re barely 19 years old,” says Potes. “It’s terrifying at first.”

She adds, “There’s a lot of loneliness that comes with the internship experience that no one warns you about. Maybe you’ll end up in a place where you have a tough time making friends… so you spend the majority of your Friday and Saturday nights snuggled in bed with your dog watching episodes of ‘Lost’ on Netflix and trying not to think about what a loser you are. But that loneliness is just a necessary sacrifice. What I gained in experience and knowledge was worth sacrificing my social life for 10 or 15 weeks.”

For Colwell, another downside was that the experience ended after 12 weeks; no exceptions. Most internships are for a set period of time and there are very slim chances of being hired immediately afterwards. Still, keep in touch with the people you meet there. You never know when those connections can help you land your next job.

“I had some good mentors over there that helped me. I’m still friends with everybody there to this day; I go back and I visit whenever I’m in town,” he says.

Would you recommend doing an internship?

Absolutely, say both Potes and Colwell.

“If a student has the opportunity to take an internship, they should jump at it, as often as they possibly can,” says Colwell. “You can’t really recreate that experience, and nowadays it’s so hard to find a job in the news business if you don’t have prior experience.”

Not only will an internship look good on your resume, it will help you figure out if this is really the business for you. Only by being dropped into that environment and experiencing the day-to-day life will you understand if the job is a good fit. And don’t forget the connections you make while on the job; a network of reporters, photographers and editors that will serve you well in your career and when you’re navigating your next job search.

Will an internship help me land a job?

“Employers are much more likely to consider an applicant if they have 1 or 2 internships under their belt,” says Potes. “By my senior year, my portfolio didn’t contain one image from a classroom assignment—it was completely composed of images and stories from my internships. Employers and editors know that classroom assignments can only teach so much. In today’s market, it’s vital to have as much real-world experience as possible when applying for jobs after college.”

“I know without a doubt that I wouldn’t have a job today if not for my internship experience,” she says.

I’m starting an internship soon. What advice do you have?

Start looking early, says Potes. “Don’t wait until the summer after junior year to look for your first internship.” Don’t be afraid to work for free for a summer, either. “That experience and line on your resume will give you the clout you need to land a better position the next time around,” she says.

Show up early and stay late, says Colwell. “Go the extra mile, do the extra work to really make your time as valuable as possible from your first day to your last day there.” Even if it sounds cliché, he says, make every moment count and spend your time learning as much as you can. “Even if you think you know everything about a certain thing, someone there knows more than you do.”

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re ‘too good’ for a certain position, adds Potes.  “It’s not about where you are, it’s about what you make of your time there.  I never dreamed of living in Lexington or Jackson. If I’d had my way, I would have been shooting my summers away in New York, Chicago, Dallas, or Portland… somewhere fun and cool and exciting.” But she made the time count where she was. “Don’t be afraid to end up somewhere unexpected or less than glamorous… You never know what images are there, just waiting for you to find them!”

Ask as many questions as you can, says Colwell. “Talk to people who have been there a long time.” And, he adds, “if you have a bad experience with something, don’t give up. Stay positive. There are opportunities all over the place to do good work, if you are passionate about being a journalist.”

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Hannah Potes is a staff photojournalist at the Rocky Mount Telegram in NC. She graduated from Kent State University in 2013. You can view her work on her website, hannahpotes.com.

Andy Colwell is a staff photographer at the Erie Times-News in PA. He graduated from Penn State University in 2011. You can view his work at andycolwell.com.

Photo above by Anthony Barham.

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