What’s it like to be an assignment photographer?
Jason Houston is an assignment photographer with over 20 years’ experience working around the world producing stories that matter for conservation. Jason travels fast, light, and unobtrusively to capture authentic moments that will powerfully and effectively tell a story. Here Jason provides an insight into the highs and lows of his chosen career.
How would you describe your job?
I’m an assignment photographer, mostly for NGOs, and I bring a journalistic background and the conventions of art and documentary to helping my clients tell the stories of their work authentically and effectively.
When I was young, what I’m doing now is exactly what I wanted to be doing when I grew up — and more. Photography was always my biggest passion and I loved the adventure, danger, and romance of international travel. What makes it even more rewarding that I could have imagined is also being able to make a living making work that matters.
What are the best bits of your job?
The context I work in is always changing, with new media, new technology, and always increasingly savvy audiences. I love the creative challenges that presents. I also love the fact that given the types of assignments I’m doing I have to figure a lot of this out on the fly. My work is not about taking photographs, but making photographs. It’s a very dynamic process with my subjects and I love the constant learning and new experiences.
What are the worst bits?
Being a photographer is often not about making photographs. While I pride myself on being collaborative and supportive of my friends and fellow photographers, it’s a competitive environment — especially when looking at travel to do editorially legitimate work in some of the most beautiful places in the world — so I’m always hustling for the next gig…
What have been the pivotal moments in your career to date?
I’ve always pursued the type of work that I want to spend my time doing, but the realizations that have meant the most for keeping it possible have been (1) to focus and become an expert on the conservation issues I photograph and to bring that knowledge to my projects before, during, and after the travel, and (2) to realize that when I do that I’m not just a contractor but a collaborator and that mandates an entirely different way of looking at how I structure my assignments.
Last year I also joined the International League of Conservation Photographers, a fellowship of about 100 of the world’s best conservation-focused photographers, and I’m really looking forward to having that connection as well.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a conservation photographer or filmmaker today?
It’s a hard road, but one that is deeply fulfilling. Find organizations you connect with personally and focus on issues that are meaningful to you. That will get you through the harder times. You’ll also be working in a cross over space that is both advocacy and education so spend time learning about what that means. There are some great conferences around this starting to pop up. One I’m involved in organizing is ‘Collaborations for Cause’ run by Blue Earth. 2014’s conference is in Seattle in September and there will be some additional workshops around it that should be great as well.
Why do you have a passion for conservation?
I actually feel that a lot of conservation work tends to focus too much on straight nature without real consideration for the related social and cultural issues that not only lead to the issues, but that also must be considered if we’re to find truly sustainable, ethical solutions.
For me, it’s not about plants and animals and landscapes, but about how we can empower the people who live in and rely on those resources to take care of them indefinitely. It’s sometimes a controversial position and sometimes the solutions look like compromises, but I’m not interested in simply putting up fences around forests to save tigers. I want tigers (or forests or fish) to thrive BECAUSE we all live in a way where that’s just how it is. And I see movement in this direction in many of the projects I work on.
What’s your favourite song?
I love all music so long as it’s good and my favorite song changes every time I hear something else amazing. I especially like stuff that fuses styles across cultural backgrounds. Taj Mahal’s collaborations with Toumani Diabate from West Africa are a great example. My iPod embarrasses my wife.
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