NEW YORK (Reuters) – A photograph can capture the mood of a nation or seminal moments in history in a single frame.
Think of the image of an unarmed African-American woman in a flowing dress standing in front of two officers in riot gear at a 2016 Black Lives Matter rally in Louisiana, or the lone protester in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square in China in 1989.
The people behind the lens have invariably worked hard to get there. For the latest in Reuters’ First Jobs series, we talked to well-known photographers about what they learned from their humble beginnings.
Photographer for National Geographic, LIFE, Sports Illustrated (portfolio.joemcnally.com/index)
First job: Busboy
I worked at a place called B. Altman & Co, an elegant store which had a reputation for catering to a high-class crowd. At the White Plains, New York branch they had a coffee shop and restaurant known as the Charleston Gardens, and I worked as a busboy and dishwasher there on Thursday nights and weekends.
It was hard work, and a true education. Back in the day it was always an interesting crew working in the back of restaurants – real characters and roustabouts, many with substance-abuse problems. Hauling tubs of filthy dishes around and scrubbing them was never fun and never easy, but that’s the restaurant business.
I made minimum wage, around $3 an hour, and tried to put away money for college – or for possible dates, even though I never managed to get any. It was extremely hard work, but I had no qualms about it, and I liked getting a paycheck. One important lesson I took away: Never mix a vat of coleslaw when you have band-aids on your fingers. They tend to come off somewhere in the coleslaw.
Former Chief Official White House photographer, author “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents” (www.petesouza.com/)
First job: Delivery boy
I delivered newspapers for the New Bedford Standard-Times in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. My older cousin gave up his paper route, and asked if I could do it. My mom thought it was too much work for a 10-year-old, because we lived way outside of town and I rode my bike, so it was basically a two-hour job every day. Plus I had asthma.
I got a percentage of each paper, which was not very much, and spent it on sports magazines and penny candy. The cool thing was that every summer, the newspaper ran competitions to see who could increase the number of subscriptions the most. Since my area had a bunch of summer houses, I would win the competition every year. Once I won tickets to see the football team, then called the Boston Patriots, who actually played that season in Fenway Park.
What I took away from that job was the work ethic, responsibility, consistency. You couldn’t take days off, no matter how you were feeling. I also remember the customers who never paid me. I would just eat that money, because I was too shy to go and knock on their doors.
Fashion photographer (www.bruceweber.com/)
First job: Menswear photographer
Back in the early ‘70s I decided I wanted to go into photography, and started photographing people at a loft I had down in Manhattan’s Little Italy. I showed my work to Menswear magazine, which was published by Fairchild, and they gave me a job shooting their spring and summer fashions.
I didn’t have anything or anybody: No hairdresser, no makeup artist, no stylist, no assistant. All I had were two Nikon bodies, three lenses and my favorite light meter. The model agency sent a gentleman called Mike Edwards, who looked a lot like James Dean. I didn’t even have a car to look for locations, but thankfully Mike had a ‘57 Chevy Bel Air convertible with turquoise trim.
I didn’t have money to book places, either, but it turned out Mike’s dad owned the pink palace that was the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was almost kicking myself at how lucky I was. Eventually Mike moved in with Priscilla Presley, and we used to have great evenings together talking about Elvis. He later wrote in a book that one of the best times of his life was being photographed in that Chevy Bel Air.
The lesson I learned from all that is, even if your heart is beating really fast, if you are doing what you love, you just have to jump in that pool and swim.
(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Editing by Beth Pinsker and Susan Thomas