In this lively and informative interview with Focus on the Story, award-winning Oregon-based photojournalist Jamie Rose discusses her life covering news on five continents over the course of two decades, including her career shift to collaborating with nonprofits on international humanitarian and healthcare projects.
She also talks about her upcoming talk “Blaze Your Own Trail,” at the upcoming Focus on the Story 2019, offering us her insights and experiences in transitioning as a press photographer to co-founding Momenta Group, which operates Momenta Workshops, Momenta Creative, and Wildfire Media—a nonprofit dedicated to documentary storytelling for other nonprofits.
Mike Lee: Tell us a little about your background growing up. What inspired you to become a photographer? Also, what led to your commitment toward social advocacy by often with non-profits and as a photojournalist?
Jamie Rose: My parents owned a wedding photography business when I was in elementary school. I grew up being photographed, surrounded by cameras, and spending hours in our basement darkroom. Visuals were just an everyday part of our lives.
In high school, it felt natural to join the staff of the high school newspaper. Our advisors, Carol Danks and Mike McClure, were infectiously passionate about journalism. Carol encouraged us explore our creativity but never forget the moral and ethical responsibility we have as journalists. That devotion to truth continued through my education at American and, later, working on my Master’s under David Sutherland and Mark Dolan at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School.
My interest in humanitarian issues came from my parents but, most pointedly, my mother, Dr. Jackie Rose. She is a brilliant, strong-willed, feminist hippie who marched for civil, women’s, and environmental rights. She helped my sister and me understand the concept of what a gift it was for us to be born as women in America. She taught us our privilege didn’t make us better than anyone but it made us responsible to speak up for people who didn’t have the liberties we enjoyed. She honed my belief in speaking truth to power and that alone probably led me to photojournalism.
She was not the only one, though. My father and stepmother equally instilled a deeply personal ethical code us. They taught us we were just as good, just as smart, just as capable as anyone else but that didn’t mean we didn’t have to work equally as hard to prove ourselves. I’m really lucky to have such great influences and especially because they didn’t try to curb my desire to be a photojournalist, even though it led me to some pretty dangerous places.
Lee: What are the assignments you were on that influenced your thinking as a photographer and an educator?
Rose: Some of the best assignments that helped me really stretch my abilities and, later, be a better educator were the most boring ones. As a photographer, everything can’t be exciting, front page news every day. Sometimes you have to go cover Pet of the Week or make the 10th portrait of the week of some businessman for a special section. Those are the times you really are forced to be creative. As our mentor Chip Maury told us, “you need a seabag full of knowledge” to access when you’re out on assignment.
When I was stuck on those boring assignments, I would have to reach deep into my bag of creativity to make a photo of which I could be proud. Those boring assignments helped me become more flexible and more capable as a photographer which helps when a student of ours is stuck in a rut and they need a new tool for their seabag of knowledge.
Lee: What is the one photograph you made that sticks with you?
Rose: Probably my favorite photograph I took during a story on pediatric HIV/AIDS in Uganda. In a very impoverished area of Northern Uganda that was just recovering from the worst conflict in the 22-year-long civil war, a woman brought her baby into the clinic for HIV testing.
When the doctor pricked the baby’s finger, the poor child started bawling. Naturally, the woman pulled out her breast for him to nurse which she knew would sooth him. One of the main transmission factors of HIV is through bodily fluids and that includes breast milk. Presumably, she brought her child in for testing because she or her partner tested positive. She may not have realized breast milk might endanger her child and, even if she did, women in this village didn’t have access to formula nor could they afford it if they did. Thus, these mothers are caught in a horrible cycle of potential transmission.
This photograph has always struck me as being one of the most frustrating I ever made. It perfectly illustrated the issue I was trying to document to visually show the need for change.
Lee: To paraphrase, you once mentioned that photojournalists should not treat projects with non-profits and NGOs the same they would an editorial assignment. Could you tell us more, and some advice on to adjust one’s approach?
Rose: I should clarify this. The approach should be different but not the ethics. When working for a nonprofit you are dancing a fine line between PR and journalism. However, you should not outright lie or fake a scene to make the nonprofit look “good”. If you photograph the truth, that’s important and, of course, the goal. However, the devil is in the details… or, more likely, the editing.
If you slant your editing to only show the despair or the darkest moments because you think that has more impact, you are essentially lying. There usually is always hope to be found. I have been in some of the worst places in the world and you can always find laughter or joy or humanism if you look for it.
Conversely, if you only show happy, smiling people, that’s not truth either. There has to be both to make sure the element of truth is there. And nonprofit documentary needs truth, now more than ever.
As we say at Momenta, “You have to balance hope versus need.” Sometimes you need to be the one who tells your client they must show both to keep donors educated and motivated. We will deal with this concept a lot in the Get Funded workshop.
Lee: What motivated you to help start Momenta? What did you see was needed in the field that Momenta could help alleviate?
Rose: I would love to take credit for starting Momenta but I am nowhere near the mastermind. That honor lies with my co-founder John Christopher Anderson.
Early in our careers, we had the luxury of working with incredible editors and other photographers directly in the newsroom. As the global media struggled with cutbacks and diminishing budgets, the ability to network with and learn from editors and photographers was disappearing.
It was his vision to create a company that would evolve into a passionate community of storytellers, an “esprit de corps” as he put it, who would be able to learn from and support each other’s work. We wanted encourage photographers from all genres to gain valuable on real-world experience in documentary as well as learn sustainable business practices. We knew that process has to include daily editing with our teaching faculty as well as in-depth presentations aimed at teaching valuable tools for professional growth. These are fundamental features of Momenta.
Armed with Chris’ passion and vision, we have created a community of photographers from all walks of life who are encouraged to learn, explore, and deploy narrative documentary as a force of change.
Lee: Tell us about what students expect in a Momenta workshop.
Rose: On our Project Series: Photographing Nonprofits, we offer an unparalleled chance to use your photography skills to help narrate the outstanding stories of a nonprofit organization. Each attendees receives their own nonprofit partner, based on your answers to a detailed pre-workshop student questionnaire. Momenta handles all pre-workshop logistics, including setting up each student with their own nonprofit to photograph.
On a Momenta Select workshop, these explore hidden corners of the world with a small, intimate group of passionate travelers. We stay at gorgeous, private villas, work with the best, experienced guides, and host private salons in the evenings on topics of art, culture, and the history of photography. The itineraries on these workshops are designed by our company’s Founders to find exceptional opportunities to make images away from hordes of tourists.
On every workshop, we provide attendees with supportive direction and intensive instruction on photo workflow and file management, nighttime discussions and group critiques throughout the week. Likewise, attendees personally will receive at least one hour per day of 1-on-1, private editing sessions with an instructor to help build style, photomechanical techniques, and documentary skills. Lectures on narrative storytelling, elements of a photo story, the importance of documentary photography, and much more are included on every workshop.
Lee: What have you learned while teaching these workshops, and working with these students?
Rose: Every photographer has the possibility to be great with the right amount of open-mindedness, work ethic, and devotion to the growth. The best photographers who have come from our workshop programs are the ones who approached their workshop experience without ego or agenda. Instead, they embraced every bit of knowledge they could soak up, accepted opportunities and challenges, and were willing to work really, really hard to achieve success.
These photographers are the ones have gone on to be award-winning professionals because they weren’t burdened with excuses or negativity. The great takeaway I learned from watching our students throughout the years: if you accept you don’t know it all, embrace the joy of learning new things, and understand every person surrounding you can be a source of knowledge in some way, you can do great things as you learn and grow without obstacle.
Lee: As layoffs in journalism continue, what role do you believe these workshops have in connecting participants to opportunities as well as strengthening their creativity and storytelling skills?
Rose: This is such a great question! Chris had a great expression he used in a presentation way back in 2003: “Careerism is dead.” Meaning, if you are stagnant in your expertise, you will find yourself left behind by an evolving workforce. Learning new skills, such as nonprofit photography or business marketing or how to fund a personal project, can help you continue to grow what you can offer to employers or clients.
It doesn’t matter how old you are or what awards you’ve won or even if you went to photo school. What matters is continuing to educate yourself so you can be the most valuable professional possible. Those skills can be self-taught absolutely. However, I have seen firsthand how workshops, festivals, and conferences can accelerate that growth in creativity, skills building, and creating a strong network.
Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.