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Career Path Part 1

Lesson 4 from: Create Powerful Photo Essays & Personal Projects

David H Wells

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4. Career Path Part 1

Next Lesson: Career Path Part 2

Lesson Info

Career Path Part 1

Defining the personal project for photo essay all right and the first thing I want to say about this is that what I'm really trying to do is talk about my missteps and my success is success steps if you will steps in this steps alright said this before I made thousands of mistakes over the years hopefully you learn from some of my mistakes I'm going to talk a lot over the next three days about what I call the photographers problem alright and the most obvious photographers problem which we're all struggling with and I'm still struggling with and they tell me I know what I'm doing is how do you get you're shaking your head there? But how do you get the person, place or thing that's in front of a camera on the film of the chip paper just the way you want and this class isn't directly about that but it's part of our problem okay, another photographer's problem and this is exactly what's at the core of our class is what you want to say with your photographs and how do you actually get your...

photographs to do that that's the next level after once you become accomplished it getting that thing onto the chip of the phone with paper, what does he want to say? Okay, and then in my particular case and this becomes part of our process, right? You're smiling how do you get paid to do what you want to do with your photography and on the thing it's the last day I'm gonna walk you through my revenue streams I'm going to actually say this is how I make my money not you necessarily want to emulate that but you want to ask every photographer that how do you actually make you money you make this much doing stock which is what I make most of my income on then assignments and workshops and I'll walk you through it go into detail but that's a really important question for any photographer all right I am a professional photographer everybody here aspires when is everybody else aspires I mean you got your ladies and gentlemen I'm going to school to become professional photographers right a professional photographer somebody who takes photography which is very personal how many people consider photography personal important as a professional you're going to do that on command you're going to do that for money and you're gonna do that for strangers right what else that begins with p in the upper left hand corner of our little diagram here is very personal done on command done for money done for strangers I give you a hint right right you should bring no you should bring passion to it but fundamentally I take this thing that I love I do it on command I do it for money to do it for strangers and at this point the seminar typically one or two people actually walks out the room and says you know what? I don't actually want to do it on command do it for money do it for strangers if you're comfortable with that you're halfway to being a professional photographer but it is that balancing act between what you want to do and what right passion is important but all right everyone is a photographer we talked about this last time I know I'm gonna almost be repeating myself but like I said the first couple times yeah every time you see yeah that's my experience in the last time hopefully the third day just a and this is how I'm going to do distinguish myself different that's how we're gonna end this thing I hope okay our job is to show it's the photographer not the camera that creates the work people still ask me I mean I will talk about what I used to talk about why but we know it's nothing camera let's do this right now cannons icons olympus it's nothing camp all right one of my jobs is to push uncle joey with the camera out of the clients to bees thinking right you have clients who actually the same well my son's gotta camera he must be a photographer right? I can see you shaking your hand right there we have to educate the client to be that their unpaid or paid intern can do the job they need to hire somebody for real and you need to create work that shows who you are to answer those questions that's why we're here I need to show create work that shows what you can do you need to create work that shows what you care about we need to create work that shows you are the best person for the job we need to create work that you can keep putting in front of your clients to be without looking like the sales pitch it said that before but this is one of those four five you want to put in there because if you keep sending to them saying hired me hire me hire me you know what happens we get how much spam did get your email that's that's what they're doing right on the other hand if you put stuff in front of them where they say wow that's interesting I want to know more about that you're doing the same thing but it's not a pitch okay, you need to create work that you continue to share with your clients to be to remind him who you are and what you could do all of this without saying hire me hiring behind me though they understand perfectly that's what you're really saying all right, you need to create work that your clients to be look forward to hearing about and that their so impressed with that they share with other people we all know about this third party validation, but imagine we jimmy colin, the guy from newsweek in sports illustrated who remembered me from way back when has shared that information with other people since and that kind of third party validation is so valuable um, I need to create work that six in their minds, they look forward to meeting you so again we're all talking about create work, rework create what that's, what we're here to do and the personal project, as I said before and now I think every understands what I mean by a photo essay and why I don't mean personal project, though it is a personal project and also jim was asking the online at question was about the photo story, the point of view thing that's so important, so another one of the photographers problems, which I'll talk about later, not today. What technology software camera year keeps me focused on what I do as I solve those problems, and I also talk about why so when somebody stands up here or in any presentation says buy this, buy that your first question should be why? And I will talk about why and we did some were so some videos would be working later in the class to explain why I use what I use all right, I promise to get to the pictures in the good stuff but I'm trying to get you somebody once described one of my classes is boot camp I know it's not literally but the idea is that I'm putting you through a lot of stuff some which is good but some of which is hard work and so here's an example of kind of that hard work ghouls paradox and you're thinking you're so how do we get on to paleontology paleontologist named steven gould found out that is more the population approaches the limits of the human body's capabilities the distance between the normal and the stellar physical specimens diminish we know that when people win in the olympics they get they get a gold medal silver medal but we're not talking twenty yards in two minutes we're talking to a tenth of a second hundred of a second I would feel bad for the person who comes and forthright gold silver bronze huh don't you feel bad for that man or woman because they were all really almost is good so in professional baseball which is how I read about cools paradox there read a piece about professional baseball michael lewis actually the writer was talking about how while batting average have gone up they tend to clump together in the middle with fewer extremes the standardization equipment closes the gap between the average baseball player the superstar and you know that but in our business, who's who it means that in professional photography, why would that not mean exactly the same thing? Well, skills have gone up, then clump together in the middle with fewer extremes, the standardization of equipment, especially in the case of digital, because now you anybody can buy anything sanitization equipment closes the gap between the average photographer, the superstar, and when you look at somebody's working, you say to yourself, and we've all done this, I could have done that, you know, the funny thing is you're right, but they did something else, it's not just about the work, it's a lot of these other things that were going to be talking about that's, what I'm going through this because it's, not just about the gear you buy, the skills that you have, it's almost this other thing more, and were mostly talking about the other thing, another photographer's problem? What was your career path exactly? What was the process you went through from aspiring to establish photographer? You're all looking up here like, I know what I'm doing it's kind of you to believe that, but I was there once. It's really important question to try to understand with any photographer, whether portrait, photography, whatever kind of like, if you don't how did that person get from there to here? What did they do? What was their career path? So I'm going to take you through mind partly so you'll know me a little better. Partly so I'm more credible, but mostly so you can see stops along the way. The decisions I made, the skill set that I gathered that brings me to hear along the way. I'm going to talk a lot about the history of photography because mentioned before, it is so important to be looking at other people's work, why do we look at other people's work, inspiration taken, inspiration, inspiration to influence what you maybe want to go into? Okay, the trick is I'm gonna put you all form the spot. So when I started one and you got to know, I just like to look at other people's will hurt the inspiration. Okay? Even just from a curating standpoint, I'd like to look at just all the different styles that people shoot. I just enjoy it, and I get ideas from it. I look at other people's work for all of those reasons about it looked for one more reason, and I hope you put this into your thinking path a good photographer, a good painter, a good filmmaker understands how the people experienced. The photograph, the movie the painting how your eye moves through it and the more photographs you look at, the more you understand how to treat photographs that will give the viewer given expiry it's so we had this kind of mental hard drive of images those of us who are photographers we literally have this it's up there so every time I look at a photograph it goes in there and eventually twenty years later may come out is a different photograph by looking at work I understand how somebody solved the photographer's problem remember the first one how do you get the person, place or thing in front? I actually look at photographs to see how did they solve that problem? So that's why I'm so interested in and we'll talk a lot about other photographers and I'm going to actually encourage you to do the same so first I'm gonna take you on my career path it goes back to the beginning I'm the guy with a nice haircut my younger brother is a butter ball okay start watching hope he's not watching online because my whole family knows that I'm doing this but he's probably ready that anyway uh I grew up in southern california I had a very good photography teacher named michael cop inger in high school who taught me everything he knew about photography he was an old commercial slash studio photographer um and then he sort of let me lose to go and take pictures and actually was in the high school photography club if you look carefully I'm the one in the overall nice beard right? But the great thing about michael carpenter was he really understood that what I needed to do is just go out there and take pictures and this is the photo one assignment lightened shadow if you know the train station pictures that I showed you earlier I'm still basically stuck on the light and shadow assignment went to college in southern california exactly right everybody look used to have hair used to have a chance right? I studied the history of photography in college I wasn't going to be a photographer because we all know the reputation of photographer someone to do something more serious but what I did along the way was a lot of self portrait ce and as I was studying the history of photography I would every week look at the work of a different photographer and emulate the work. So this week, for example, I was imitating working duane michals who did a lot of self portrait and sequences this week I think I wass oh maybe I was trying to be uh robert frank probably trying to be robert frank again stephanie trying to be bill brandt british photographer I'm actually in the u k so it almost qualified and I'm being sarcastic but that idea the photograph goes in there, you understand how it works, and when you're young and easily influenced, you literally start making other people's photos this week. I was gary winogrand this week, I was irving penn, and one of things I'm doing is trying on all the people style, and I'm also trying to figure out what matters to me is a photographer what's the kind of work that I'm going to do that's unique to mice, my skill set my passion, all the things you were talking about before and so another one sort of irving penn knockoffs and my photographs were always is balancing act between something like this, which is very formal, those two pieces of color and something like that, which is more informational, and we're not actually going to talk about the person who drove their jaguar under a school bus and rockefeller center in nineteen seventy eight, but from the formal to them or informational, and that balancing act between form and content is a huge part of all photography and mine as well. So I came out of college, I realized that I needed to make a living, so I became a newspaper photographer anyway, that's me, I'm chasing presidential candidate john anderson in nineteen eighty um, this is a guy who won that election in nineteen, eighty ended up photographing him is based in southern california and so it actually turned out it before to others so they could photograph him a lot. A very famous photo apparently in the history of photography this ran a full page in the new york times fashion section. This is the first photograph of a president states supposedly wearing blue jeans, right? And I actually have violated composition rule number one I actually have a helicopter rotor you can say that glenn's going it's actually growing out of the head of the newly elected this is the president elect in nineteen eighty. Yeah, well, I'm trying to make fun, but I'm also trying to get you to understand that I have to go from doing that to where I am now. So I got a job in a suburban newspaper in southern california photographing things like kids getting first haircuts, traffic accident whether features this is flooding in a construction site, a lot of small town news motorcycle accidents usedto listen to police radio a lot this came across the police radio is auto versus swimming pool this the language they use auto versus pad, auto versus motorcycle and I'd never heard auto versus swimming pool so you got to go see and this is actually what somebody did I learned a lot of what I use in my day today photography by working in newspapers and I'm not saying to going out to work in newspapers, but what it's hot me was it was the ability to go out take pictures the next day somebody's going to critique them, they run some, they give you immediate feedback and then you do the same thing the next day and it's not something I necessarily would want to do my whole life but it was a great training ground to get the working fast working with people getting the images you know, strong on content good composition from a few five years of newspaper work did a brief stint at the los angeles times um I liked this photo it's a hot weather feature for the times I actually think most of the art workers whoever designed that nice backboard landslide a maid a riot in los angeles again more news photos for the times I did a brief stint in the san francisco examiner and what I'm doing here is trying to find a place for myself in the world of photojournalism. And in san francisco I started doing a series of projects on homeless. This was actually guy named charles who ran around san francisco with a shopping cart in a rabbit on it and during the time I was in los angeles I met a woman who was actually going to graduate school in new york city and so now my next project besides finding a place for myself in the world of journalism is to get from california to new york city I made it to texas you can see how happy I am to be in texas but did things like getting in trouble with the state police covering brush fires but texas was actually really pivotal for me because I did my first in depth photo story this destroying the homeless family living in a school bus outside of fort worth texas family's name roger and sylvia um these people were incredibly organized they're only in the school bus at night and weekend because the kids were in school and they actually both work and I just read a great piece in the new york times this morning that apparently this still happens in texas who was an oil boom going on right now but there's still a certain strata because of the economy there were people literally still can't afford decent housing now twenty almost twenty years later and so all of the questions I asked you before what's my point of view what am I trying to get you to take away from? I'm hoping you're getting all of these things one of people questions people ask me about it was how did you get access to them? It's a great question I literally met a minister who ran a soup kitchen in texas and he basically said to me I'm being a little sarcastic he said I can give you anything you want so they can give you a single guy living in a car give you couple living in a car. I can give you lots of families where there's like ten people living in overcrowded housing. Or I can give you a family of six living in a school bus. Okay, if you're a photographer what's your choice so that's, literally what he said. And he introduced me to them in a public place in the church in the food kitchen where we met and then I would slowly go back, meet them another time, eventually would take a picture of them post. And then next time I go back and give them a print of that, and then suddenly I moved from some crazy guy wants to take their picture to somebody who seems to be dependable and showing up and that's a huge part of working with people in any situation. Same thing with the pesticide poisoning project of the families in the central valley of california. The fact that I kept going back that they saw me more than one time that I took post pictures of them and then I gave them actual prince, and then I started listening to the story people want their stories told it's cathartic for people like this to, for example, to tell their story to let people see the challenges they're facing and so it's partly thing of comfort it's a thing of letting these people know that you're dependable that you're not going to exploit them. One of the big things I found is that people want you say you're from the media they think you're like a news crew with a guy with a camera and a microphone and you come out they just covered up your one photographer nice guy you're not very threatening so that's one of the ways that I work with people so this is actually the kid's hiding out in the wheel well of the school bus so that was the first in depth photo essay that I ever did and it led to where I am now so I'm showing you that part because I hope it feeds into what we're doing but also to get you understand that's how I'm building the skill set that I need to have to do what I want to do now still in pursuit of the woman that I had met who was the new york city I now made it to upstate new york if you know your geography I'm working this is my actual going to end up being my last newspaper job I've spent about five years up to this point working for different newspapers and discover that I want to do stories and there's not a place in the world of newspapers for me so this is actually the last newspaper story did for the syracuse newspapers, the story on four young man who went into the military together guys named matt where the left saying goodbye to is then girlfriend uh matt and greg are flying to paris island to become marines together and I'm in the row in front of them on an airplane with electronics talk flash turned around can you say air marshal, I just I know if you could do this kind of thing anymore so they go they get their head shaved off very small selection obviously from a very long body of work you probably already doing this in your head, I hope it's his portfolio or linear no, no it's actually linear because wrapping character development I'm actually watching four young men as they evolve through the military right? And if it's not clear, this is the point of the class you actually say to me, can you explain that to me again? Linear has character development okay? And you'll see character develop we could go back tio memory saying goodbye to his girlfriend he's a long hair now he's got no hair greg fischer go to drilling posed for the photo of the end and he comes back and he's got no hair buddies now now marine they're actually married he's a policeman in upstate new york so that's a linear story, it's one is not better than the other. But the question always is what's the story of trying to tell what's the message you're trying to get across in this case I wanted to develop show that character evolution. I did this story in a mix of color and black and white. And I mentioned this because this is the first story that I started this process of re selling two publications overseas. It was also initials used by the syrian, his newspapers. Then it ended up in a french magazine where they used a bunch of photos and that's become a big part of my business model is making photo stories and then using them over and over and different publications. Please. Now you say that you had used one particular photo that it was that was published and multiple magazines was it went that one particular photo, this this whole this whole set I mean, the story just shows you its avarice all set small sent from this evolution. I shot both color and black and white newspaper mostly used black and white, but because I shot color and I own the work at the time, which is the old newspaper model, right that's not just about the ads, because I'm like, okay, because I guess you shot that on your own in the beginning so you were able to sell it to multiple right? Ok, so a few commissioned by somebody else you can't go back and say, you know, if I were the shot days aiken you know well that comes to the business stuff that we'll do later in this class but that's a question of what do you negotiate like I have some clients I have one client who I worked with a lot which were in this process of negotiation I think the end result is going to be that he's going to guarantee me he's going to use the certain amount but he's not going to technically a sign it because if you sign it, he has to own it that's your question right? Where if I do it on my own and then he guarantees me a certain amount of payment and I get the same thing but I own in the end that's what we're discussing right now that's a great question. So but this point time I actually literally owned this work was able to re use it in this other magazines and this becomes the first of many stories that I'm going to show you that I've subsequently like the pesticide story and the train station story all of them have been published multiple times because I always own my work these days I won't do jobs on this I own it not saying you should have shooting, but that's my particular standard that's one of those questions you have to make decisions early on your career, you might wanna negotiate it at some point in time. You just have to say, no, this is more valuable, no it's a very good question, so just some examples of how it was used in this french magazine. So when I was living in new york city, I was living in syracuse, which is upstate new york. I would fly to new york city every weekend, visit the woman I was chasing, and then I'd fly back to syracuse, new york, and so for five days they did my assignment, and then two days a week, I was in new york, and I initially started going to new york city and in flying in york city so I could take the trips off my taxes to say that I'm promoting myself and building what's, going to become a freelance career ironically, after quitting the newspaper and moving to new york city because I'd been to the cycle of going to new york every weekend for almost two years and showing my portfolio every photo editor I could meet when I moved to new york city, which this is a card announcing I'm in new york city, right? I mean, I had work on the third day so this is coming back to a roundabout question if you're going to become a freelance photographer one of the things that you shall be doing in your school work now is a business plan when are you going to actually go out full time? What are you going to do between now and then again I didn't do this on purpose I'm mostly trying to make my trips tax deductible but the end of two years I've seen all the photo editors that are in new york I sent this card up call him up and on the third day I had paying work and what kills a freelancer is the first two years when you're getting no so you three have an advantage that you want to be thinking all right? Well, I had this life now but my long term goals have you thinking all right when I'm going to go out, what will I have to do between now and then? The newsletter the social media all the stuff we've been talking about so when you go out first two weeks you get calls for work, you'll be fine. Those first two years were getting known or what kill you and again I didn't do this because I was smart it was dumb luck got to go on a lot of different places here I'm in china on somebody else's dime uh think I'm in bethlehem upstate new york on a store in a winery for the day in the life of spain books you may have seen the day in the life books this is one of the only ones that damned life of spain you all know who this is he had a job before he was on sex and the city his old job was he was a ballet dancer I got to photograph him when he was doing the white knights movie did a lot of work for different magazines like the sunday new york times so now what's going on is I'm living in new york city I did that commuting I moved to new york city people know me because I had done that advance planning and I'm getting sent a lot of different places down to philadelphia do a story on rowing we end up moving to philadelphia um and I started doing photo stories for the philadelphia inquirer sunday magazine is one of the first stories I did for them this is on squatters teenagers living in abandoned buildings in philadelphia and this is how it was used by the philadelphia inquirer sunday magazine and this is one of those stories that again answered your question I owned at the time because the magazine philip inquire at a very straight contract they wanted to use it once they don't really care so this is the battle days of print where I would literally send a stack of fifty magazines too woman who sadly passed in jocelyn bends again in new york. Jocelyn would send them out and people would look at them. You can do much the same to the web now, but basically the ideas people would see them see them all over the world and say, yeah, we want to put that in a magazine now they'd say we want to post it, use it, etcetera, and they did a very nice job. This is another one of those where the writer actually came in after the fact and wrote to my photographs and I showed you the pesticide poisoning story, but this is sort of were moving through the evolution of my career path, so I spent five years in newspapers to get the skill set. It's been a couple years at the end of the newspaper time accidentally but successfully marketing myself, preparing myself, moved to new york city now and then moving on to philadelphia to do the stories using those stories both to get paid to get reused in terms of additional money and also to get paid to do other kinds of things. I started doing a lot of corporate work. This was an annual port for a gas company called cng, and at this point in time the designers would literally say, okay, well this year let's do this the annual port national geographic style we're gonna hire that guy. Who does that kind of work next year? Let's do the annual port portrait style. They're not gonna hire me. They're going to find somebody else, and that still goes on, and that's still feeds into this idea of differentiating yourself in terms of what you could do in the other, people can't.

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Ratings and Reviews


First off, I was a photo assistant for a few years to a photographer who did numerous multi-day workshops. This was my first time as a student sitting in on a webinar that actually kept me interested. Sometimes I'm turned off by the pace of the teacher, his or her voice, or the manner in which they disseminate the information. But this was truly fantastic. David showed lots of his work in a way that was NOT egotistical in any sense (something that does happen quite often). I was utterly impressed by the quality of his work, the wealth of knowledge he has on the world, culture and politics, and how he shoots "on the go". All of those qualities are essential parts to creating a great photo essay/story. I came into this seminar needing inspiration and in the end I have more ideas than I know what to do with. David's work is truly magnificent; his photo stories pertain to people and their struggles, which really could be something any one of us could go through at any point, but he shows it in a way that is beautiful - either beautifully desperate or beautifully destructive - instead of in an exploitative way. On a side note, he also offered up a lot of great information having to do with funding, exposure, workflow, time efficiency, income streams, releases... you won't find this a lot with other photographers. You will find the "go find the info yourself" attitude. This has been my problem as of late with photography - we don't work together as artists, we work against each other competing for what, I'm not sure. David's seminar seemed to embrace photography as the art form it is, and shared with us the tools that we as artists need to really understand and utilize in order to get our story out there. A story it seems he really wants to see/hear. Just an amazing "Thank You"!!!!

a Creativelive Student

I have purchased a number of classes on Creative Live. This class taught by David Wells is one of the best. David is a thorough teacher, personal and connects with his students. Along with his superb and inspiring imagery David talked about his experiences in getting funding, his workflow, developing his stories and distributing his work. David is talented, generous and an excellent teacher. Highly recommended class.

Anjani Millet

Just completed the course. Fantastic, practical information on everything from grant writing, finding foundations, proposal development, even how to shake hands overseas. I am not sure where else I would have found this information for photographers. So appreciate it. One friend asked if this would be worth watching for anyone outside the US and the answer is a definitive yes. Very happy I purchased, and already starting to implement.

Student Work