Each year, graduating editors are given 30 final column inches – “30” was historically used to signify the end of a story – to reflect on their time at The Hatchet, published in the final issues of the year.
I’m not one to write about my own experiences. I figure if I just show people, they will be able to imagine it for themselves. That’s why I take pictures.
But as I sit down to write what seems like an endless 30 column inches, I realize that photography has its limits. It can’t convey the smell of old food after special issue production nights or the amount of dust under the photo desk. A photograph also cannot do justice to what breathing a cloud of tear gas feels like or the intimacy of being let into somebody’s life and photographing it.
My three years at The Hatchet has taught me more than I ever learned in a classroom – no offense to my professors. Former photo editor Nick Gingold opened my eyes to what photojournalism is, how to do it and why. Since he critiqued my first contact sheet, nothing has been the same. Each time I wish I had changed my tilt or panned a bit to the right, I understand that being a good photographer is a process.
It has also shown me what an immigrant’s last day of work is like after working tirelessly for 50 years to raise a family. The Hatchet has also allowed me to hear the voice of a man shedding his past and embracing the future as a woman. It has let me into the lives of people at their most joyous moments and their most painful. I’ve realized that it is these moments of change that make up memory and build the future. As I go ahead into the world of professional photojournalism, each time I put the viewfinder to my eye, I will recall all the lessons learned on assignment during my tenure at The Hatchet.
Photojournalism teaches you patience. It’s about waiting for the blink-of-an-eye moment that will tell the entire story, and not missing it. But we’ve all missed the winning shot at some point in time. Having a community of people to make mistakes with you or help you through learning from them is what The Hatchet does best. If you are committed to learning a craft, The Hatchet will help you perfect it. Whether it has been showing me camera mechanics, editing my copy or being an excellent businessperson, the entire staff has something to teach.
Covering breaking stories, covering memorials, running out barely awake to cover a fire, speaks to the learned commitment the news teams instills in everybody. The news staff’s countless phone calls, endless questions and relationships on campus are how the paper is really made. Their hard work is what has taught me how to be a journalist.
That said, there are moments in every journalist’s career when you are pushed to the limit of your abilities. Assignments that require you to put everything you’ve learned into practice and even learn a few things along the way. I have learned a lot at The Hatchet, but nothing could have prepared me for being in the thick of a full-blown violent riot.
Last summer, I worked for my hometown newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico. On one of my days off, hundreds of protesters of all ages stormed the capitol building to protest recent government policy. I decided it would be a good event to try out a new audio recorder I had just gotten, but when taunts were exchanged, riot police flooded onto the steps to disperse the crowd. As protesters resisted, the officers began to break formation and beat people to the ground.
Caught in the middle, I discovered I was the only photographer covering the abuse from within the crowd. All of the other photographers were shooting from far away, behind the police lines. At this moment, I realized that if I didn’t document this, nobody would. Despite the danger, it was my responsibility to the people in front of me and to the readers of the newspaper to show what was going on. This was the first time I realized so viscerally what it meant to be a photojournalist. That day was what every headshot, every speaker in the Elliott School and every basketball game I covered had prepared me for.
But as I get ready to graduate, I have realized one important thing that I think all students at GW should understand regardless of their major: Work for yourself, not toward what others want you to. It’s easy to get caught up in beefing up your resume and networking; it’s Washington, it’s what we do. But when I look back at my college career, it’s not my internship at The Washington Post or shooting on Capitol Hill or even photographing the president that will stand out. What I will remember most vividly are the moments I stepped out of my comfort zone, the moments I skipped class to shoot assignments and the moments I took pictures because I wanted to.
Passion is the true mark of success – not a diploma, not awards, not fancy jobs. But passion without constant learning is nothing. So slow down and look around. Every moment in life teaches you a lesson, just like every good photograph reveals something about what it depicts by freezing time. -30-