The Basics of Photojournalism

A photojournalist can witness the best and the worst of humanity. Acclaimed photographer, Alison Wright, shares what it takes to become a photojournalist and how to get started.

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A woman overcome with devastation on the beach after the 2005 tsunami in Sri Lanka. Photo © Alison Wright (post-tsunami, Batticola, Sri Lanka. A woman after losing her children to the sea).

I was working on my high school newspaper and yearbook when my English teacher pulled me aside and told me that I could actually make a living at doing this. Travel the world and take photos? I was 15 years old when I first heard the word photojournalist, and from that moment on I knew that’s what I wanted to do and I’ve never wavered. 

What is Photojournalism?

Photojournalism is the process of storytelling through the use of images.

Photojournalism vs Travel Photography

While photojournalism covers a variety of storytelling, it is often associated with hard news, quite often in conflict areas or difficult situations. Photojournalists are encouraged to not show an opinionated side in the editing of a story and stick to the strict guidelines around not manipulating photographs. 

I am often called a photojournalist because I do those kinds of stories but I also consider myself a documentary photographer as I often return to the same place, where I’ll spend weeks, months, or even years immersing myself into a story, culture or situation rather than jumping in and out of it as news photographers tend to do. I turn these meatier long-term projects into books, articles, gallery shows, and public photo presentations.

Both photojournalism and documentary photography differ from travel photography. Travel photography tends to show the splendor of a place, it encourages the viewer to want to go to that destination. Sometimes, I’ve had to portray both the attractiveness of a travel destination as well as its shadow side; for example, showing the exquisiteness of Angkor Wat, and then doing a story on children affected by landmines. 

A Burmese woman holds her child in a refugee camp
Burmese refugees. This Burmese woman hired someone to bring her and her children over the Thai/Burmese border but he took her money and deserted her. She is now raising eight children in the Burmese camp with no opportunity for them to have healthcare or education. She realizes that she has no way that she will ever make it back to her native country. Photo credit: Alison Wright


Travel photography used to flourish as a wonderful way to make a living. I have photographed all over the world, in about 150 countries now, for major magazines and websites, and thought I'd retire on stock photography sales. But the advent and ubiquitousness of the smartphone and widespread use of DSLR cameras have encouraged most travelers to feel like they are now photographers. Anyone can give their photos away, but the key to being a consummate professional is to be paid for your work.

What Does It Take to Be a Photojournalist?

As glamorous as being a photojournalist may sound, it’s a lot of hard work and it's not for everybody. It’s a lifestyle choice. I’ve stayed in $10,000 a night resorts and I’ve slept on the ground in refugee camps. I have spent a career where I have lived overseas for years and when traveling I am on the road for at least three quarters of the year. I am often hired not just for my photography skills but because I’m good at navigating my way around the planet; I’m up on my immunizations, visas, passports. My bag and equipment are always packed and ready to go. I’ve been asked to be at a specific place in the Congo on a certain date and I don’t tell my client I don’t know how; I need to figure it out. I take good notes and provide full captions to my photos – clients love that.

I love what I do. I witness the absolute worst and the absolute best of humanity. My job is to find compassion in a world of chaos, to give people a voice. How do you make people care when you hear that 300,000 people have been killed in an earthquake in Haiti, or there are over a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, all with similar tragic stories? I try to focus on individuals, to tell their stories, to give them a chance to be heard.

Heart Lake, Canada
Child with landmine injury at Red Cross Rehabilitation Center, Kabul, Afghanistan 2007. Afghanistan has 10 million landmines with more victims than anywhere else in the world. Photo credit: Alison Wright

Staying Safe on the Road

You have to be on your toes and learn to anticipate strangers and situations. Over the years, I have developed a necessary strong inner intuition. I rely on a good translator or fixer to help me navigate what could potentially be a tricky situation, especially when I don’t speak the language in a foreign country.

I am the poster child for travel, medevac and camera insurance and I have been nicknamed the master of disaster. I’ve been in a near-death bus accident in Laos, run over by a horse in Mongolia, gotten a worm in my head and Thailand, suffered from Dengue fever, malaria, hepatitis, Giardia and dysentery too many times to count. Being a photojournalist can a risky job so you've got to be well prepared, trust your instincts and take all necessary precautions to ensure you're safe and healthy on the road. 

Advice for Aspiring Photojournalists

Too many inexperienced young people start out thinking they need to make a name for themselves as photojournalists by flinging themselves into a war zone. Please don’t do this. Great stories can also be told closer to home. Work your way up and learn the art of how to tell a good story before endangering your life. Photojournalism can be an incredibly rewarding career, but not one you die for.

Are you an aspiring travel photographer? Keep an eye out for our next Travel Photography Scholarship!

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