‘Eyes of History’ winner shares views on developing skills as photojournalist
By Bradley Wilson, Ph.D.
Midwestern State University
The journalism major from Durham, N.C., was selected following a public judging, hosted at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. The contest’s judges were Matt McClain, a staff photographer with The Washington Post; Allison Shelley, an independent documentary photographer and multimedia journalist; and Brendan Smialowski, a photojournalist based in Washington, D.C.
The chief photographer for “Elon Local News” and former photo editor for The Pendulum, Drago has gained several accolades in recent years. The National Press Photographers Association, Society of Professional Journalists, and North Carolina Press Photographer Association have all recognized his work.
Drago has interned at several newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun, the (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer, The (Durham, N.C.) Herald-Sun and the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News. This summer, Drago is doing an internship with Roll Call, a capitol hill newspaper, but took some time to answer some questions and to provide advice for college photographers wanting to enter the competition.
You had a pretty good foundation in photojournalism in high school. How did that prepare you for college? Can you remember one moment when you said, “I want to be a photojournalist.” or was it a development over time?
I consider myself really lucky because I knew I wanted to get into PJ really early. In 2004 (age 11) I was on a family trip to Boston and just fell in love with taking photos of flowers. I just kept shooting more and more, mostly my friends and road trip adventures with the Boy Scouts, as I grew up.
By the time I finished middle school I really had an interest in being a photographer. I’ll always remember sitting in the back corner of my Introduction to Journalism class sophomore year when I heard my teacher say the term “photojournalism” for the first time. I sat straight up in my chair and was hooked. Seven years later and I still haven’t looked back.
Since I already had a little experience in photography I took to PJ quickly and it worked well with my outgoing personality.
You took some time in college to do internships? Where? Why? Would you recommend that to others? Why/not?
Internships are a must. They’re the bread and butter for developing photographers that want real-world experience before they leave school. I worked as a freelancer for the Independent Weekly, an alternative weekly paper in Raleigh, in high school shooting sports. I met a lot of local photographers and editors and it was my way into the professional world. Since I went to school only 45 minutes from home, I was able to still freelance during my freshman year (and actually start getting paid). But my love was in PJ, not just sports.
I interned right away after my freshman year at the Durham Herald-Sun, a small paper covering a medium metro area. It was unpaid so I worked nights as a warehouse manager of a regional newspaper distribution center. I worked midnight to 5 a.m., overseeing 15,000+ daily copies of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the Raleigh News & Observer. I counted papers and oversaw 40 drivers, making sure they had the right papers and inserts. I then slept from 5 a.m. to noon and started the internship from 1 p.m. – 10 p.m. I wasn’t very social that summer.
I continued shooting when I got back for my sophomore year, interning all school year at the local Burlington Times-News. Small town, small staff, lots of love there. I always wanted to work for The News & Observer in Raleigh. It’s the biggest paper in the state and I’ve been reading it all my life. My editor, Scott Sharpe, took a chance on a kid from Elon and I’m so thankful for it. I interned at the N&O after sophomore year and really started hitting my stride. I was beginning to anticipate moments and not be intimidated to go feature hunting. I’ve been freelancing for them part-time for the past two years now and they are one of the friendliest staffs out there.
After junior year I interned at The Baltimore Sun and loved getting out of North Carolina and working in a major metro city. The staff had a different vibe and there was another photo intern. I ended up benefiting having an equal that we could both learn together.
Out of nowhere I decided to study abroad in Morocco for the fall of my junior year. I had been interning and working professionally for almost four years straight of daily grind quick assignments. Morocco was fantastic for getting out of my comfort zone and slowing me down. I focused on making relationships and earning trust with subjects. I documented a Cameroonian immigrant facing sexual assault and discrimination from the Moroccan armed forces. The story is currently being edited by Al Jazeera for a TBD publish date.
I highly recommend interning at different types of papers, both in terms of size and practice. The N&O is very innovative whereas The Sun is historic in its roots and things went a certain way. It’s all about networking, making contacts, and putting yourself out there. Also in PJ its not uncommon to have several internships after you graduate. I’m already planning my next one!
What things have shaped your development as a college photojournalist?
College is the best time for meeting new people with completely different viewpoints than your own. It’s a place for collaboration and eye-opening experiences, from unruly roommates, classes on topics or theories you’ve never even imagined, to living in on your own in some of the most questionable “housing.”
Get out there.
Take a class on a topic you know nothing about. Even if you gain one piece of knowledge its worth it. As photojournalists we have to know a little bit about everything, or at least be able to hold an intelligent conversation about it.
You worked for a little while on the student media at Elon. What did you learn from that experience?
Student media is the ultimate training ground for every student. It gives you a taste for the real world without all the consequences if you mess up. It’s a great place to take risks, try new designs, and think outside the norm to make gain the most readers. Regardless if you are working for your school paper or the NYT, it’s always cool to see your name on newsprint.
One downside about student media sometimes is the turnaround. At some schools students only work on student media for their first two years before working professionally or trying something else. This constant turnaround means each year can have a completely different vibe to it.
My sophomore year I did not get along with the new leaders of the organization and we later went our separate ways for the best. I started working with Elon Local News, the TV news station and absolutely loved it. They welcomed my photographic eye and I welcomed all their knowledge of broadcast journalism. My last two years of school I focused on broadcast and now have an additional skill in my journalism tool belt.
Try new things and tough it out, but if you really don’t click there are always other options. Not everyone is made to be a daily news reporter or photographer.
But you also made time for other things in college beyond photojournalism. What advice do you have for others related to that?
The busy life of a photojournalist is not made for everyone. It’s a life commitment that goes above every other aspect of your life.
The challenge is finding a balance between work and everything else. In college I tried having a big social life, tried to do well in school, joined a fraternity, lead the photo clubs and organizations, engaged in social media, and had relationships. Most of those things failed because I would always drop everything when breaking news occurred.
The night of the Chapel Hill murders I was getting ready for a student media meeting and then planning on catching up on homework. Instead I got the call around 6 p.m. about breaking news and did not really sleep for the next two days.
In April I remember writing a good chunk of my senior thesis (about breaking news photography) in the back of my car as my friend Eric drove us to Baltimore to cover the riots. Life is all about balance. Also life is fun. You should be having fun while also doing well in school and being social. It’s hard but it can be done.
You’ve recently won some awards. Tell me about those. Why should college photojournalists enter contests? Or should they? What contests?
I like to consider myself a pretty humble guy. I hate bragging and showing off but awards are just that. They are the opinions of a few judges about a few photos during a certain time.
However as a student, awards put get your name out there and help you network.
I recommend that student photojournalists enter state press photo association monthly contests, NPPA student quarterly contests, SPJ Mark of Excellence Awards, and if you are serious than the Hearst Journalism Awards Program, College Photographer of the Year awards and White House News Photographers Association Student Contest.
My current internship in DC I landed at the White House gala when my (now current) boss and photo staff were there. It was an informal meet/interview and I was on the hill a few weeks later.
If you had one piece of advice for other college photojournalists, what would it be?
Never accept complacency. The second you begin to get lazy and ignore shots that you think would be interesting is the second others will take capitalize on it. There are so many photographers out there now that it is hard to slow down and miss opportunities that can advance your career.
Also, don’t forget the basics. Framing, wide-shots, not cutting off people’s arms or legs. It’s important to sometimes take a step back and give the viewer context to where the event is happening.
Lastly, you can never network enough. If you want to break into a new market or area, study the photographers and pictures coming out of the area, then do not be afraid to send a friendly email introducing yourself. Photographers are actually extremely welcoming people that don’t bite!
If you had it all to do over again, what would you do the same? Different?
I experienced college through my viewfinder and loved every second of it. Plus, I have a bunch of fun photos to look back on. Besides all the editorial pictures I made over the years, I also wasn’t afraid to bring my camera to fun events with friends-late night fast food runs, afternoon kiddie pool parties, or a spontaneous road trip to an undetermined neighboring town or state.
Photography is fun. It’s important to capture the light-hearted moments, as well as be in a few photos yourself!
I have moved to Washington D.C. and am a photo intern at Roll Call, a capitol hill newspaper.
I cover daily life on the hill, as well as the fun, quirky, and unexpected moments from our elected officials. I’ve seen a 6-foot stuffed moose brought in from New Hampshire, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid accidentally hang up on a call with President Obama, and elected officials don their summer clothes for “Seersucker Thursday.”
I’m absolutely loving working in the Capitol and hope to be in D.C. for the next two years.
After that, we shall see.