Learning to photograph New York City

Students at Columbia Journalism School spend part of their first month learning photojournalism in an intensive, 8-day workshop. This was, according to some, terrifying. Not to say it wasn’t instructive, too, but there was a lot of fear swirling in the halls of the Pulitzer building in August.

What was so scary about being handed a DSLR? Some had previous experience, but most students had only used iPhones to take photos, so manual aperture and shutter speed were foreign concepts. A huge urban landscape filled with strangers probably didn’t calm any fears, either.

The students were pushed into the streets of New York City with cameras in their hands and the expectation that they report and get to know people. Though it seemed impossible, the students not only made it out alive, they produced work that is thoughtful and engaging.

This selection of photos from 37 students, viewed as a collection, presents a view of New York City that’s very much like the city itself: familiar, yet somehow still fresh and new. We talked to some of the students whose work is featured here, and asked them about their experiences photographing New York City without smartphones.

Columbia Visuals: What was the most challenging part about photojournalism for you?

Gautham Thomas: I found approaching people to take portraits generally nerve-wracking. It also took me a concerted effort to break out of “snapshot mode.” I realized all my photos looked bland and flat, because I was standing stiffly and wasn’t repositioning my body and camera to get the best angle and framing for my subjects.

Jack Crosbie: I still struggle every day with missing shots. Maybe I don’t have the courage to stop someone in the street, so I miss a photo. Maybe I see a great image and miss the focus, or the exposure, or the angle. Whatever it is, I’m always kicking myself after shooting, which I guess helps motivate me to get better.

Barbara Lorber shares her ice cream cone with a friend in NYC's the West Village on Sunday, August 24, 2014.

Barbara Lorber shares her ice cream cone with a friend in New York City’s West Village on Sunday, August 24, 2014.
Photo by Jack Crosbie.

Justine Calma: As a writer, it was difficult for me to think about how to tell a story without words.

David Ok: Those briefs moments that required me to be ready, but I wasn’t. I’m sure that others have felt the frustration of missing what could have been a great shot.

Tess Owen: The character profile was really challenging. I remember thinking “Okay, so you want me to find a complete stranger, who isn’t secretly an axe murderer, and in the space of only a couple of days, persuade them to let me photograph them in their home and follow them around for a day?!” But I appreciated the challenge – it felt really good to be forced out of my comfort zone and undergo countless rejection from potential subjects.

CV: What was the best experience you had during the photo workshop?

Mohamad Yaghi: The best part of this experience was meeting new people and asking them to sacrifice a few moments of their day so I could take a picture. Experiencing simple generosity from strangers was moving.

Mariana Palau: Seeing how my work progressed was incredible. I’d always had an interest in photography, but I always doubted on my ability to take good photos. Now I know that if I put in the effort, I can take good pictures.

Olivia Lace-Evans:  A few days before deciding who I was going to shoot for my essay, I was approached by kids in the street. They told me about their local baseball team, and how they needed to raise enough money for a bus to take them to a baseball competition. I took their card, got in contact with the coach, and asked if I could follow him and the kids for a few days for the photo essay.

When I first turned up at a practice, the boy who had originally approached me on the street went up to whisper something to the coach. The coach explained to me that the boy was excited that I had come along to take photos. It showed him that by approaching people and talking to them on the streets about the program, he had the power to make a difference. By taking pictures and offering to tell their story through visual means, you are creating a powerful platform for people who might otherwise feel ignored in a city like New York. It reaffirmed the importance of visual journalism in my mind.

CV: What do you think is different about photographing in New York City?

George Steptoe: My previous experience with photography was quite focused in the sense that I had to get a specific snap to go with a written piece. Heading out into New York City after less than a fortnight of living here with loose guidelines of what to come back with was pretty surreal – an expansive task in a huge playground.

Asthaa Chaturvedi: I think New York is so well-known, so it is challenging to find the different and unique perspective. There are so many images that have already been taken. It’s interesting to figure out what I can bring to the table with my photographs.

A woman passes in front of a store in Washington Heights on Broadway and 161st Street on the morning of Saturday, August 23, 2014.

A woman passes in front of a store in Washington Heights on Broadway and 161st Street on the morning of Saturday, August 23, 2014.
Photo by Asthaa Chaturvedi.

Leif Reigstad: There are interesting images and stories everywhere in this city. And most people here seemed to be really okay with me taking their picture. It’s really easy to approach people on the street here. I think New Yorkers maybe have a lower expectation of privacy, since they share such a small place with so many strangers. Also, while the person with the camera would stick out like a sore thumb in most places, in New York it’s a lot easier for a photographer to blend in, which I think helped me out a lot when I was taking photos.

CV: What was the most helpful advice your instructor gave you? And did you follow it?

Asthaa Chaturvedi: Leeor [Kaufman] kept on saying, “Don’t be afraid to get up close,” which was the most important piece of advice he could have given us. It’s true; you just can’t capture the story if you’re afraid to get right there and shoot. Sometimes it means not just getting close in terms of distance. Getting up close means having a conversation and making a connection with another person.

Jack Crosbie: I think Leeor Kaufman’s best advice to me was about how to approach photography and photojournalism. Basically, it’s all on you. You need to remember that in most situations, you don’t need permission or a different lens or more light or less light, you just need to go for it and make the image. If your pictures suck, get closer, find a different angle, move your feet, interact with someone. I try to think about this every time I shoot now.

David Ok: “Be a reporter.” The result is the caption for this photograph, actually. I made the mistake of generalizing a photo caption in a previous assignment, so I practically begged the mother to give me the names of her kids (she declined to provide a last name).

Carlos Konig, 48, plays "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" for 20-month-old twins Michiho, left, and Michiya, right, along with their mother, Rieko, in Central Park in New York, NY, on Saturday, August 23, 2014.

Carlos Konig, 48, plays “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” for 20-month-old twins Michiho, left, and Michiya, right,
along with their mother, Rieko, in Central Park in New York, NY, on Saturday, August 23, 2014.
Photo by David Ok.

Justine Calma: The most helpful advice I got from my instructor was to make sure that I include photography in my daily news digest. I needed to learn how to analyze a photograph the same way I analyze news in other mediums.

Gautham Thomas: Kirsten [Luce] asked us to think spatially – to constantly be thinking about our bodies, our viewpoints and perspectives, about the spatial relation of objects that would be in our frame, and to keep moving to find the best perspective. I learned that you have to think three-dimensionally when framing your photos, in addition to considering the composition of the two-dimensional image.

Leif Reigstad: Look for the reaction as well as the action—turn away, look at other faces, and try to find the “off moments.” Other contenders for the top spot: get close; fill the frame; step back and photograph all elements of a scene; always look for objects, like windows, to frame people and faces; find a beautiful scene or situation, and wait for a great moment to happen within it.

 Marqui, a.k.a. "Andy LaSalle," walks on a bench near a playground at the General Ulysses S. Grant Houses in Harlem, Thursday, August 7, 2014. He says it’s a concentration exercise he does often.

Marqui, a.k.a. “Andy LaSalle,” walks on a bench near a playground at the General Ulysses S. Grant Houses in Harlem, Thursday, August 7, 2014. He says it’s a concentration exercise he does often.
Photo by Leif Reigstad.

CV: Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you had to go out and shoot again?

Olivia Lace-Evans: I would have been braver with the shots that I was taking, particularly when it came to getting physically closer to people. I would often worry that people would get angry with me taking their photograph. However, more often than not, when you approach someone, talk to them and establish a relationship before just taking their picture, you’ll get better access and pictures as a result.

Mikayla Vielot: I would pay more attention to lighting. The exposure and time of day have a great impact on the photographs.

An African vendor showcases his accessories on 125th street outside of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY, on Thursday, August 7, 2014 .

An African vendor showcases his accessories on 125th street outside of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, on Thursday, August 7, 2014.
Photo by Mikayla Vielot.

Liz Lucking: In New York City, everything is exciting to me. Every single thing. But that doesn’t mean it all needs a photo. I’d relax and focus.

CV: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone who is just starting to learn photography?

Olivia Lace-Evans: Be patient with yourself. I found that I would get increasingly frustrated when I didn’t quite get the shot right or adjust the settings correctly. I would miss shots, get a blurred image or find the exposure had completely destroyed the picture I wanted to take. It takes time to get used to how the camera works and where to find the best angles or lighting. Just practice and be brave with what you choose to shoot – eventually, in amongst the multiple failed pictures, you eventually find something that works!

Just outside a basketball court on West 112th Street in Harlem, a young couple share a romantic moment on Wednesday, August 6, 2014.

Just outside a basketball court on West 112th Street in Harlem, a young couple share a romantic moment on Wednesday, August 6, 2014.
Photo by Olivia Lace-Evans.

Asthaa Chaturvedi: Get up close and keep on shooting. You never know what will end up being the image that affects your audience most.

George Steptoe: I don’t think I’m really in a position to give anyone advice about photography just yet, but experiment. Loads. And bring a packed lunch.

CV: What did you learn about yourself while photographing New York City?

Jenny Luna: I learned that once I let go of fearing what people may say, the opportunities for great photos increased ten-fold.

Jack Crosbie: I learned that I have a lot to learn. Also, carrying a camera in the city doesn’t make you look cool, and the tourist getting extorted by Elmo in Times-Square probably has a better one than you anyway.

Brooklyn, 9, Remy, 7 and Alfie, 3 play in the back garden of their new home in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York on Saturday, August 9, 2014. Photo by Chloe Mamelok.

Brooklyn, 9, Remy, 7 and Alfie, 3 play in the back garden of their new home in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York on Saturday, August 9, 2014. Photo by Chloe Mamelok. Photo by Chloe Mamelok.

Tess Owen: Trust your instincts, be adventurous, be curious. Take your camera exploring with you and don’t overthink it too much. Get up for sunrise (or stay up for sunrise.)

Mohamad Yaghi: I learned that I didn’t care where I ended up. I found myself in a house with strangers I didn’t know and was a fly on the wall. Though I didn’t end up getting every shot as I had intended to, the experience was worth it.

A woman sits with her younger neighbors on footstep of her apartment on West 136th St. in Hamilton Heights, New York City on Sunday, August 24, 2014.

A woman sits with her younger neighbors on footstep of her apartment on West 136th St.
in Hamilton Heights, New York City on Sunday, August 24, 2014.
Photo by Mohamad Yaghi.

A special thank you to the Columbia Journalism School photojournalism adjuncts: Anna Hiatt, Katja Heinemann, Angela Jimenez, Mike Kamber, Leeor Kaufman, Kathy Kmonicek, Kirsten Luce, Preston Merchant, Adam Perez, Derek Poore, Bob Sacha, and Ramin Talaie for sharing your wisdom.

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