It’s important to have interests. Passions. Things that delight and move you. It’s also important to consider the importance of imagery and style, elements that may inspire you in ways that you don’t quite understand.
When I see a good photo, a photo that manages to convey a feeling, an ineffable sense of grandeur – it somehow manages to inspire feelings of creative momentum.
Recently, I was put onto the work of Chinese photographer Wang Fuchun.
It’s a beautiful image. And shows the deftness with which Fucun manages to evoke the transient power of a moment, beautifully captured.
Here’s some more.
Wang Fuchun, a railway worker turned photographer, spent decades recording unique moments on trains. His pictures, and his story, reminds me of the work of Mike Brodie, an American who spent some of his formative years hopping freight trains with other vagabonds. He produced a beautiful photobook called “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity”, which is one of the more lovelier things I own. The remarkable thing is that, after achieving acclaim and being heralded by the art world, he became a mechanic.
Here is a photo of Brodie’s.
Brodie’s photos work best in accumulation, each passing one contributing to a sense of companionship and freedom; the spirit of shared satisfaction that these young freight-hoppers must have felt on occasion.
That the photos are able to so sublimely convey such emotion speaks to the power of imagination and the power of an image. But it is also my deeply held belief that journalism, really good journalism, is also capable of the same magic.
Today, I read an article that surprised me. It was about a local election fought in the West Midlands of England in 1964. Not a very promising premise to be honest, and I initially had misgivings. But the piece started well. Any piece that starts with the line – “Malcolm X wouldn’t recognise Smethwick these days” – shows promise.
As it continued, it managed to persuade me of the real, actual, inherent drama of local election campaigns. But where the piece turned; where it resolved into a soulful, quietly majestic showstopper is at the end of the piece, when the writer starts talking about a series of old photographs. The photos depict a man who did much to change a community, despite animosity, and made a place improve.
Here is that article: Britain’s most racist election: the story of Smethwick, 50 years on – by Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian.
Another article that I remember vividly is the story of Jessica Lum. A phenomenally talented young person who chose to spend her last days afflicted with incurable cancer, at the age of 25, practicing journalism. She was a remarkable person and her story is very well told.
But more than that, it was the decision to tell her story that means she is not forgotten; just like the story of Smethwick is not forgotten. Journalism is not only about good reporting and good writing, it’s about the well-chosen subject and the sometimes bold decision to work on something you find moving.
In the same way a photo, well chosen and well remembered, can fasten the transient to the transformative; a moment defining itself as more than just a memory.
It is a Sunday afternoon in Beijing, in the middle of Golden Week, a national holiday here in China. The weather is cooling down, days are mild but the nights are drawing in. Autumn is the most beautiful season in Beijing, but the briefest, casting its warm glow before the harsh, bare winter.
Lately, I have found writing and pitching somewhat difficult. Freelance has been slow, very slow. I had been pitching but I found no reply from editors who have previously commissioned me. This is the worst; worse than rejection, it is the anxiety of not knowing that enervates the soul of a freelancer.
More than that, motivation is weak right now. And I am not sure exactly why. Maybe it is homesickness, maybe it’s a slight boredom with the whole affair of freelance journalism. Writing requires energy and I’ve found that energy to be depleted. The ambition is still there, but the actions required to reach it seem harder to take.
Life seems to get in the way too. Unlike before, I realize how important it is to just enjoy the moments that accompany a day and to look forward to those times where you can wallow in the luxury of doing things that you want to do. Hanging out with friends in Beijing, eating and drinking, playing poker, getting wasted in clubs is fun, sure. But it means the important work gets left behind. But that’s okay. But equally, it is absolutely no excuse whatsoever.
Of course, there needs to be balance. I find solace in the fact that this blog is going from strength to strength. But the desire to read all the articles I should be reading, to pitch editors, new and old, to send out emails, to sit down and plot out the essays and articles I know I’m capable of writing, is diminished. It worries me because the feeling is deeper and longer lasting that what I’ve felt before. But it doesn’t unnerve me. Writing is what I love to do the most.
I am also trying to get started on a book proposal This gives me something to be excited about, even if book publishing can be a long and arduous process. Book writing is what I’d really like to do. And although I love journalism, I know that literature will always win out. Journalism can be literature of course — it’s literary nonfiction that really compels me to be a better writer. Perhaps this is time out towards that end.
On my multimedia journalism degree, I was required to do a minimum of 4 weeks of work experience. My first ever bout of journalism work experience though came earlier, when I was 17 and still at college doing my A-levels.
At the time I was unsure of what I should do at university – I was good at English and good at writing. Although creative writing interested, I knew deep down that I was incapable of fiction and journalism took on more appeal.
So I asked a staff member at college to help me arrange work experience with my local newspaper, The Hastings Observer. I spent a week at the newspaper and managed to gain three bylines. Two lessons stick out from that week: 1. That you could source a story from the Yellow Pages (remember those?) – a lesson not that useful now but opened up my awareness of how stories and sources can be located & 2. How powerful use of language can be and how even a slight variation in word choice can influence readers.
After that week ended I grew more attached to journalism and its raggedy, amateur art.
When it came time to select courses and universities, my stepfather and I went on a tour of the different journalism degrees. Some presentations were much better than others. Some were downright off-putting. It came down to two choices: City University in London and Bournemouth University. At the time City Uni did not do only a journalism BA. It was History with Journalism. Bournemouth Uni appealed as it taught multimedia journalism which was NCTJ approved and because it was by the sea.
Anyway, I deferred for a year, taking a gap year which eventually turned into two. I started my course at age 20.
A list of media work experience/internships that I did from 2009-2012:
- The Brighton Argus
- Splash News
- The Press Association
- The Guardian
- The Beijinger
The Press Association (video department) was a great experience as I got the opportunity to interview Boris Johnson (mayor of London) and MPs, participate in a press scrum and attend a beer festival. The UK’s national news agency has a great scheme that if I had pushed more, perhaps I could have got on to, but it would have required a three year commitment or thereabouts.
The Guardian work experience was offered to me by the editor as I had written a couple of articles for her previously (unpaid) and so they gave me a week. It was a dream to enter The Guardian’s gleaming offices near King’s Cross, London and I saw a couple of journalists I’ve long admired.
It is very much worth doing work experience, but in my opinion it is not worth doing it overmuch. You can also get lucky. A few coursemates of mine got jobs from them, and one of them is now editor at a major publication. It can also be helpful to gain contacts as it can make it easier to pitch later on. An acquaintance here in Beijing occasionally writes for Esquire (UK) as he once interned for them.
It will really help your time on your internship if you can pitch story ideas. Do not be afraid to suggest ideas to your editor. It shows initiative, charm and power. Anyone who has a store of good ideas is a source of power for a creative outlet. You will be seen in a much better light if you have the confidence to pitch and the boldness to articulate them. You lose nothing. Even if your ideas are not accepted, do not lose hope, it only takes one to strike for you to be given an opportunity.
It helps if the staff like you too. I have found in my experience that if the staff take a shine to you, they will overlook any deficiencies or weaknesses you may have simply because they like having you around in the office. Do not underestimate how important this is. Having good social skills is a skill and intelligence in itself. And those who possess it have an equally legitimate skill as those good with numbers or a facility for study.
On September 22nd, 2013, I published this site’s first blog post. It set out the themes and aims; an introduction to a chronicle of my time spent trying to be a freelance correspondent. Since then the site has pulled in a steadily growing audience – last month hitting a milestone of over a thousand views.
Here is the first ever post: Welcome: mission statement
And here are the following two: What happened last time I tried to be a freelance foreign correspondent and 6 things I learnt about the freelance journalism market while I was in China.
Thanks to those who read and follow the blog. And big thanks to those who have taken the time to personally email me, and in a couple of cases, to even seek me out when they were in Beijing. It means an immeasurable amount.
If you were a young person with an imaginative mind and you lived in London or New York in the year of 1872 and you wanted to know what it was like to be in a far-away place on the other side of the world, you might have picked up a newspaper.
It might have been the New-York Evening Post or The Times and you would flick through to the foreign pages. There you would find reports from Indochina or South Africa or Japan, and it would be written with style and insight: a blend of personal description, of different manners and exotic practices, and a narrative of events.
It was reportage; the correspondent’s job not only to transmit news but to bring alive the details of a foreign country, offering tantalizing glimpses of another world for curious readers at home.
These reports would be sent via post to their editors, sometimes taking weeks to reach their destination, a letter correspondence from roving reporters that would bring the foreign to the domestic. This is where the term Foreign Correspondent comes from, and still in reports when the rare occasion a journalist needs to use the first person s/he’ll write your correspondent.
So far this year I have traveled to Thailand twice, but entirely not for journalism reasons. But I have also traveled to North Korea and this was for journalism. I filed two stories and a photo gallery. But they were features. I did not seek out war zones or conflict areas, natural disasters or political turmoil. I did not attend any riots or charter a plane to any typhoon-hit areas. When news happens, foreign correspondents will scramble and make a dash to the area affected.
Later this year I am planning to go to Myanmar. It seems a fascinating country (the second largest in southeast Asia) on the cusp of so many developments. I want to go and explore, seek out stories and get to know the place better. I had been developing a Myanmar story for months now, checking up on it, cultivating a source, and a major newspaper was interested in the story. But then someone beat me to the punch with a similar but not-quite-the-same story and the newspaper declined, so now I will attempt to sell it elsewhere.
There’re a lot of unknowns so I feel like I have to go there to get a better nose for the angles that might sell, that might interest editors who don’t really care. They worry not about how interesting something is, but how relevant and resonant a story might be.
I should do a lot of background reading (and video watching) to get a better sense of the country, arrange to go there, talk to as many people as I can find while there, and travel around inside. It might take a month or so. I cannot simply parachute in and expect to write things.
Should a freelance foreign correspondent be expected to dig into time and funds in pursuit of stories while living awhile somewhere new?
I don’t know. I only know what I want to do. And that’s to go to Myanmar. To see what it’s like, find stories and write them. But I will have to try to ensure the best chance possible of being published and being paid. Travel without publication and payment for a traveling journalist is not sustainable and an untenable luxury.
The above photo collects all the gadgetry that I use for my journalism work:
- Olympus digital voice recorder
- LG G2 smartphone
- Lenovo Ideapad S120 touchscreen laptop
- Canon S120 digital camera
The Olympus dictaphone was bought in England after I lost my previous Olympus. It cost £65. It picks up voices very well – defined from background noise. It has a little built-in stand that raises it from a surface, and the ability to slow down audio which comes in handy when transcribing interviews. There are fancier voice recorders out there (Sony do nice expensive ones) but unless you’re looking to record broadcast quality interviews, the Olympus is a lovely piece of kit.
The LG G2 smartphone is a new addition. My previous mobile phone (pictured in the top left of the photo) was a £60 “Softbank” smartphone bought in Hong Kong two years ago. A budget smartphone from 2012 is pretty ancient technology now and was starting to seriously slow, so I bought the LG secondhand in Bangkok for the equivalent of £165. The processor inside it is the generation ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S4 but a step behind the latest S5. So it’s still blazingly quick, and the G2’s camera is a massive upgrade from the Softbank’s and the screen is also about 1,600 times better. I use smartphones to jot down memos and article ideas while on the move; as a kind of scanner (with the camera) and as a phone obvs.
The laptop I picked up in Hong Kong & I wrote about it previously.
The Canon S120 camera was bought in Beijing earlier this year for the equivalent of £256. It works very well. It powers on quickly, focuses quickly and the best thing about it is that it’s incredibly small and unobtrusive. It also takes exceedingly good video. Photos I’ve taken using it have been published by The Telegraph and Aljazeera who paid me $450 for a photo gallery of shots I took in North Korea. I do also own a Canon 450D DSLR (which I used to take the above image) but I hardly use it these days. I didn’t take it to North Korea for instance because I knew it would be more conspicuous than a small compact camera and this would have a greater effect on the behavior of North Korean civilians, and because I knew that fiddling around with the DSLR would cause me to miss shots when the Canon S120 would make me a much more agile photographer.
I’m pretty happy with the equipment I have. The total cost is much less than a grand. Sure it’d be nice to have a Surface Pro 3 which has much better battery life than my current laptop (I like to work in cafes). And perhaps an iPad – for magazine subscriptions – and as a backup browser screen for reference purposes. But they are not essential. Upgrades would be a Samsung Galaxy Note 3: I love the stylus that comes with it; its features are very useful for a freelance journalist. And a Canon EOS M which is a camera slightly larger than the Canon S120 but with picture quality equal to DSLRs.
But I do not like to upgrade quickly. It’s a waste of money that could be spent on travel or experiences or stories. And in the next couple years everything will be that much better again. So don’t obsess about your kit, think instead about how to make the most of it.
Go to North Korea? Sure, why not. Write about entrepreneurs in China just because it interests you and you might learn something and get paid for it? Of course, yes! So take a 20 day trip to Thailand. Take a break. Think about things you want to do, the “bucket list” kinda stuff. Do them. Write about them. Get published; get paid.
Here are the five most recent articles I’ve had published:
- An ode to Chinese greasy spoons
- Is North Korea on your tourism bucket list?
- Bringing the world closer to North Korea
- Money helps in Burma but it’s time and love that matter
- Does getting a 2:2 degree hinder your career
The ability to live vicariously
From doing journalism, I’ve learnt that it’s possible to move abroad to a foreign country and in two years start and sell off a business. I know it’s possible to live on a farm in Wales and just make videogames for a living. I know what it’s like being a tour guide in North Korea. How tough and incredible it is being a British charity worker in Burma. What it’s like to travel southeast Asia first as a freelancer, then as a correspondent. The methods and tactics of how to catapult yourself into becoming a media brand and a TV chef in China. I know all of that simply because I have a good enough reason to search someone out and talk to them.
The ability to give it all up should you want
‘Cause maybe one day you’ll want the opportunity to work in a normal environment. Those jobs don’t come for free though, so you’ll have to be eagle-eyed and work hard at making sure you’re so good they can’t ignore you.
A piece there, a feature here, a report there. Freelancing can be piecemeal work and can sometimes leave you frustrated. Where’s my opus? you wonder. Where’s the work that I’ll be known for or at least acclaimed for in the short term? Staff writers have a greater chance of becoming known, to be appreciated and perhaps find fulfillment. But to be honest, the antidote is to start writing books. That’s the ambition, always.
The small-time salaries
It is possible to make a decent salary from freelancing alone, although you’re just as likely to see a shooting star in the morning. I’ve copped out a little bit by having another job which makes me about 40% more than what I earn from freelancing. This gives me leverage in what I want to write about: the freedom. But unless you have a very diversified freelance portfolio, are very productive or a star writer then it’s quite hard to be a wealthy freelance journalist.
The seeming lack of progression
If you work at a newspaper, progression is more obvious. The editor starts you off writing short pieces, nibs, round-ups, before giving you meatier reporting gigs, and then you become better known and start writing weighty features. When you’re freelance, progression is less clear. How do you move up as a freelancer? It’s a question I’m trying to answer. I’ll let you know when I’ve found it.
The overabundance of freedom
If you’re going to be a successful freelance journalist you’d better make damn sure that you’re organized, diligent and disciplined, independent and in possession of a giant’s store of initiative. For every well-chosen break or indulgent stroll in the park you should be working on the weekend pushing out that article or making plans in your “free time” to meet up with sources and always, always trying to make new contacts and rooting out possible stories.