Q&A With Ryan Lucas, Freelance International Photojournalist for the New York Times International Edition and Athens Live, and Military Photographer

Ryan Lucas is a young photojournalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times International Edition, Athens Live, and a number of other publications. Lucas has worked in the Philippines, Ukraine, and Athens as a freelance photographer, as well as a military photographer here in the US. We caught up with him recently while he was in the US preparing to begin his PhD studies and gleaned some wisdom for those just getting started in the world of international photojournalism.

What international photojournalism have you been doing, and where are you going from here?

So I just concluded one year of documenting the refugee crisis in Eastern Europe. I was based in Athens, Greece where the majority of the camps are in the in the Attic Region….I am [currently] pursuing a couple of different stories here in the US. I have a freelance position with iHeart Radio. So it’s far less stressful than my than my last job overseas. I get to work with iTunes Top 10 artists–I worked with Ben Rector yesterday, actually. And he was a treasure to work with, just a really nice guy. Now I’m looking at furthering my education. With that, I always kind of pair my education with my journalistic endeavors. With my PhD program I can take my summers and apply my journalistic skill set to my academic research so I’ll choose wisely which regions I end up reporting on.

What drew you to Photojournalism?

Photojournalism combines art with an incredibly relevant political sphere of knowledge and where those two connect is kind of perfect for me personally.

When you first landed in Europe as a freelance photographer, how did you get started? How did you find contacts and stories to follow?

I knew no one in the European media sphere. No one. And if you don’t know anyone in relevant circles then you haven’t even entered the game yet. There’s no way you can play the game without first getting your foot in the door and then kind of like ramming [your way into] the room…So that initial foot in the door for me was just a chance encounter in Munich with this writer for The London Times. He gave me all of his contacts in Ukraine, and so I traveled there and then once you start meeting media types in one city–because journalists never stop travelling they’re always on the road–you don’t just meet the journalist confined to that one city; you’re meeting people who have experience from all over the world.

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So [then] I had already established a network in Ukraine. I was going to rely on them to put me in touch with the media types and in those [other] cities right away. And then when I got to Athens I ended up bumping into a Fulbright researcher. She was also an American expatriate. I was researching the refugee situation in Eastern Europe, and she ended up writing a bunch of stories for a variety of outlets and she continually used me as her photojournalist.

And then from there I was close to other writers and other media outlets. And–yeah–it just kind of cascaded. That’s the nature of these things.

So it sounds like other journalists and researchers played a big role in your ability to break into the field?

Once you get one story published or once you make one contact in the field it just explodes from there…obviously you can close yourself off and be a hermit but…[if you] acknowledge that these people have something to offer you, that you don’t know at all, people are largely willing to help out and extend your name to a whole web of people.

How did you make that first contact?

I was standing in line–I had forgotten my converter for my MacBook to the European outlet. So it was my first morning in Munich and I was like, oh shoot, I’ve got to go get an outlet converter. And I’m standing in line at this cell phone store. I figured they would have one and it was quite a long queue. And you’re in Germany, so people are speaking German, and then at the very front of the line I hear this guy ask, in a very British accent, he said “do you have a cell phone charger?” And then he walked past me. As he was walking out the door I told them that I had recently been told about this big tech shop, it sounded like a Best Buy, and I told him where it was and that I was on my way there next if they don’t have my converter here.

And he’s like oh we should just together, but I’m going to check the store around the corner first. So if they don’t have what you’re looking for and this shop doesn’t have what I’m looking for we’ll meet out here in, say, 10 minutes. Then he takes off.

I go to the counter. They didn’t have what I was looking for. And then I was waiting for him and I’d say about 10 minutes passed and…right as I was about to leave he turns the corner and starts walking towards me and we make our way to this this tech shop.

And so I casually asked him what he did and he was like, “I’m a writer for The London Times.” Blew my mind.

And we talked for a little while and he actually had a story to do that night so he had to get to take off…and then later he messaged me and asked if I wanted to get some drinks and we went out and he just told me everything. He told me the nitty-gritty details of the field, and I had to come to terms with whether or not I wanted to pursue a life in the journalism world. And I ended up doing that, largely thanks to him and his mentoring and his advice and the people who he put me on touch with in the Ukraine.

What advice did this reporter give you?

Yeah. OK. So that’s a really good question because I had to chew on that for four years after that. He told me that you can’t be some magnum news photographer and shoot weddings. And I was like, I don’t know about that, because at the time I was really loving shooting weddings, and it was really lucrative for me. That was like the childhood me of “I want to be a photojournalist” kind of meets reality.

I had to really consider that for years. I’ve pretty much eliminated my entire wedding photography business at this point, and I only shoot weddings for my close friends and family as something of a wedding gift. So, yes, it’s no longer a business and I’m no longer booking clients.

Why did he say that you can’t do weddings and serious photojournalism simultaneously?

The branding doesn’t work. Unfortunately we live in a world where you have to brand yourself, really, to be successful at almost anything nowadays. Editors wouldn’t take you seriously when they look on your website or they google your name. They want an experienced photojournalist whose job is confined to this very specific set of skills.

He was [also] telling me the reality that in the journalism world every colleague is a competitor. You’re all competing for a finite number of stories and publication outlets. I think he made it sound a lot more grim than I’ve actually found it to be, but I think he was trying to introduce me to the reality of the media world. He didn’t want me to be caught off guard

I have found that people are a lot more willing to help than what he let on to be. I mean, look at what he was doing! I absolutely know I would not be anywhere close to where I am right now had he not taken the time to introduce me to the media world and extend to me its entire contact network.

From there, how did you find contacts who had a similar subject focus to yours?

You’re intentional about a subject or an idea or a field and you kind of attract other people, I don’t know how–it is not scientific whatsoever. I can’t qualify it at all, but you just kind of bump into people who are doing similar things as you, and that happened again in Athens. I ran into a writer, a researcher, and she was my foot in the door in Athens because she had access to all of these editors and newsrooms that were publishing stories. And so I began working pretty exclusively for her, and then kind of branching out from there.

Talk about getting the right photos when you don’t know the language.

Many times the interview wasn’t in English so I had to get good at making my best guesses as to what they were talking about and what emotions I wanted to capture. So a lot of times I was trying to capture a range of emotions on the person’s face: laughs or very heavy moments, maybe tearful moments and then I would send them all to the writer and then they could decide what they wanted.

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And I think that speaks to the [subjectivity] of journalism in general: every story that you read has gone through the filter of someone’s artistic lens or their subjective bias. There’s an incredible responsibility that belongs to the journalist and to the photojournalist–it’s impossible to be completely objective–to try to portray that person in the way that they want to be portrayed, and in a truthful way. And it’s so easy to skew things.

It’s eye opening when you’re actually doing the job and you can see [that] if you publish a slightly different photo and if you work things slightly differently it completely changes the context of the story.

Talk more about the challenges of working when you don’t understand the language.

In Ukraine it wasn’t terribly difficult–the Ukrainian-Russian conflict was and still is attracting international journalists, and so you’ve got a lot of people there who speak English, so that wasn’t terribly difficult on the networking side.

On the level of story production, as a photojournalist, that’s something that you have to wonder about way less than if you’re a writer. So if you’re a writer you need to either speak the relevant language or you need to have a translator.

So when I was there as a photojournalist it wasn’t a big issue for me. I tried to learn a little bit of conversational Ukrainian here and there but I wasn’t there for a terribly long time. The writer I was working with, she was Ukrainian…so she knew the relevant languages.

[In Greece] I was working for Athens Live, which is a Greek outlet but it’s written in English. So all of the journalists were English speakers as well.

And then on the level of story production: Obviously I’m working with a lot with refugees. So the first writer I was working with spoke Arabic and she was able to do these stories without a translator. And like I said earlier, I would be reading the room and also trying to pick up on what she wanted to communicate. You find ways of getting around.

What is your thought about “fly on the wall” journalism, or the role of the photojournalist as someone who shouldn’t interact with their target environment?

In my opinion, when you take a fly on the wall approach it becomes awkward and forced: you’re just kind of an outsider and everyone’s a bit uncomfortable if you’re not talking with people.

I take the absolute opposite approach. A lot of times when I’m in an interview people want to offer you food, want you to sit down, and then the interview happens…and if you’re not partaking then you’re just the awkward one out.

I’m affecting the environment by my presence. When you try to work in a pseudo-present position it just seems forced and awkward.

The thing that forced me to confront that issue right away [was in the Philippines where] they were working with little kids. And these kids–there’s no way that when you’re in a room with 50 kids that they’re going to leave you alone. And so they’re climbing all over me, asking to see the photos, they want me to take a picture, and…yeah; you’re there. Your presence is known and it is changing the climate of the entire room.

How important is a second language?

If you feel drawn in any direction, to any one region, I would say invest heavily in the local language. Pick one and try to study it as closely as you can. Which is something I’m playing catch up with right now.

In your perspective, how does media influence the global political landscape?

So the way I see media’s influence is…It’s kind of two ways.

One is by simply spreading knowledge. So simply by the fact that they’re disseminating truthful information–in the case where they are disseminating truthful information–the impact that that has on communities is attributable to the journalist.

Obviously prior to fast communication these things took a lot longer. But now the journalist can live tweet a riot or a war. It’s not even through the filter of an outlet. They’re just going right to Facebook [and it will] be like boom: this is Gaza tonight and it’s up in flames.

So that impacts me, that impacts my community of people, people see that, people talk about it and that influences the national conversation the national reality.

[The other way is that] they influence the national reality, the national conversation, is by their opinion. I don’t think that’s always wrong, if they’re being upfront about it, and that they are opinion pieces, or if you’re just being honest about your position.

What I think is not helpful and I think what no one needs is a media that claims to be objective, claims to be unbiased, but that in reality is [biased].

What are some common issues that come up in daily life for photojournalists working abroad?

Visa issues. I feel like [visas] are the most difficult landmine to navigate. There are unfortunately double standards when it comes to visa requirements all over the world. A lot of times the US actually has it harder or more easy, but not ever in between. In the Ukraine, I know at least for Americans…if you extend past your Visa it’s like a small fine. And then you can just pay it and probably stay.

Greece is a lot more difficult. Greece is known for having a pretty rigorous bureaucratic state that is not very productive. Everyone you talk to has a different answer. It was, you have to go to this office, or this office, or this guy, or do this. At one point I heard you had to open up a Greek bank account and have X amount of money in it. I was like, okay, I don’t see this as being achievable…I decided that I didn’t want to do that, and I was going to roll the dice [and not open the account]… I ended up getting lucky with that, and they were only interested in my visa.

If you’re not a freelancer, if you’re staff reporter, for example, I know those guys get a lot of help from their respective outlets in acquiring work visas. But like I said, if you’re a freelancer you don’t really have access to that. You have to figure out your own way to do it.

How did you combine your refugee work with a student visa in Athens?

I was going to just take a year long backpacking trip, networking in as many cities as I could. I was going to start in Barcelona and just make my way around the Mediterranean, connecting with the media types and the journalists in every city that I was going to be staying in.

But then I started looking at master’s programs because I didn’t want to take a year off from school. I was afraid that if I did take a year off, I wouldn’t come back to it. I found the perfect program for me–it was English taught at the University of Athens and it was a little over one year. It allowed me to stay in one place for an extended period of time without having to worry about getting in and out [because of tourist] visa requirements…

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And that allowed me then to focus on the refugee crisis for one year from many different angles and for a couple different writers.

The networking that I did in Athens was intentional, and also once again bumping into someone who was an important step in my process [made a difference].

What one piece of advice would you give to a young student interested in international photojournalism?

I’ll all pass along the greatest piece of advice I’ve ever been given, and that was from National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths…she was in Minneapolis, it was a book tour like six years ago. I took one of my Nat Geo magazines with her photo on the cover and I was getting it signed and I asked her for the best advice to a young photojournalist.

She said get out of your comfort zone. And I’ve tried to let that piece of advice inform my decision-making. It ends up meaning that you have experiences that most people can’t even imagine themselves in. This is where you run into people that are doing similar things as you are…so that’s good advice for networking. Out of your comfort zone is where you grow…[it’s the] advice that I’ve tried let to shape what is my very young career at this point.