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Interview: Photojournalist Spencer Platt

Spencer Platt is a photographer based in Brooklyn who covers domestic and international news. He has been with the wire service at Getty Images for about 17 years. Outside of photography he finds that he is moving towards escape from a life in the city. He enjoys riding motorcycles and exploring other parts of the country. He is also a husband and proud father of a daughter.

What made you want to be a photographer?

I had a close friend growing up in Connecticut who got into news photography, I was at first inclined to be a writer. I knew I wanted a career in the news business as it seemed a wonderful way to live a life of adventure on someones else’s money. I also knew I could never be in an office environment of any kind; my temperament doesn’t work in that way and to this day I rarely step into an office with becoming short of breath. Photojournalism also promised a career engaged with history and the issues that shape our world; you are either excited by such things or you’re not. A person has to be honest with themselves about where their heart is. Most people, especially today, are geared to move towards security in life. Security in employment, security with their family, security while riding their bicycle. If that is what drives you photojournalism is the wrong profession for you.

What inspires you?

I have much that inspires me, from the simple everyday portraits of our world that I read about in the newspapers to the characters in history that lived very hard and died very young for their beliefs. I am always interested, and find inspiring, the lives of people like the French poet Rimbaud who gave up literary fame to live out a brief life of struggle in Africa. Currently I am reading a book by Ted Simom about his second solo trip around the world on his motorcycle, except this time he is 70 years old. I will drink a bottle of wine and read his travelogue at night; his descriptions of the highs and lows in exotic locations are wonderful; it’s inspiring to hear from a man who refuses to go silently into the night.

You tend to stay away from the rest of the media crowd and do your own thing on bigger news events. Entailing a lot of foot work to find a picture that tells the story, but in a slightly different way. Can you tell me more about that approach.

I don’t really have an approach to how I cover events other than that I want an image that will stop a reader, will force them to look. So much of what you see today in news images is repetitive and a little stale. Our world and the news business has gone through great upheavals in the last decade but it worries me that photojournalism hasn’t kept up. I often look at the work of older photographers like Warner Bischof and Ernst Haas, their work feels so fresh and alive; it seems more contemporary than much of what passes for news photography today. The difference is partly in just having the ability and time “to look”. When you are at a news event today most of the photographers are looking at the back of their cameras or their phones.

You travel all over the world covering stories. What do you find being most important to do when preparing for those trips.

I wish I travelled more often, it seems we in the American news business have pulled back from the global story and are more focused on domestic issues. This is really too bad as much of what happens in our country is a result of events outside of our borders. When preparing to go into the field in a foreign country I think it is essential to try to understand the politics and culture as best you can. At the same time it is vital to keep an openness to your schedule, to leave time for wandering and simply looking. Too many photographers go way heavy on research and on setting up a strict schedule when on assignment. Often their work ends up looking mechanical and more like stock imagery than real reportage. Editors love for you to send them a diary bulletin with every moment of every day taken up with something; this is a guarantee for work that looks tired and forced.

What’s your advice to your younger self?

My advice would be to get lost some place, to leave the mobile phone at home and to always come back with content. Content is the new currency of the 21st century. As long as you have it you will have an edge over the competition. This means getting out daily…and I mean daily!….and shooting pictures. News rooms have changed dramatically, the layers of editors are slowly being pulled away and it is now more vital than ever for the photographer to be the source of ideas and a plan of action. This means being more of a true journalist than in previous times. I try to stay current on news stories, often engaging with multiple sources daily, including radio and television. When I do speak with my editors I always try to have suggestions and ideas for what to cover. Mostly It is vital to go your own way, to find your sources of inspiration and to run far and fast with it.

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