It was late. Justin Ide was sitting in his car, in a bad part of town, doing a “cruiser shift” for the Boston Herald. He was listening to a police/fire scanner and waiting for something bad to happen. When someone finally did broadcast an emergency over the scanner, the race was on to beat the Boston Globe photographers to the scene and get the best shots for tomorrow’s edition of the paper. The competition was fierce between the two journals, and as they loved to say at the Herald, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
As scary as that sounds, Justin didn’t usually feel afraid. Of course, he was cautious and alert when going into dangerous situations, or the aftermath of them, but to him, documenting intense moments was never about sensationalizing local news or snagging a better photo than the competition. Justin puts it this way, “I’ve always felt that my images, especially those that most folks don’t get to see, are important to capture and share. Bringing “light” to stories that don’t get the attention they need is what’s important.” For Justin, photojournalists face the risks inherent to their job to do a public service that truly matters. It’s the reason he worked so hard to become the veteran photojournalist he is today.
From an early age, two things were very clear about Justin Ide: his love for photography and his desire to help others. In 8th grade, his older brother gifted him a Miranda camera and by 9th grade he had taken on his first “international assignment” – a school trip to Tijuana, Mexico with his classmates. He’s been shooting ever since. But he’s also been serving others his whole life too. In high school, Justin did six weeks of service with the Youth Conservation Corps living in a tent in the Smoky Mountains while helping to rebuild trails. After college, he did two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. By the time he returned from the Peace Corps, Justin knew he wanted to be a photojournalist. It was the perfect way to combine his passion for photography with a life of public service.
A Path Well Chosen
To reach his goal, Justin saw two potential paths. One was graduate school, and the other was to simply spot news type images and provide them to a local newspaper in need of said images. He opted for the latter option, purchased a radio scanner, and listened to it 24/7, chasing down every interesting call he could. That’s how he captured his first newspaper image: a firetruck rollover on the way to a house fire. Justin was right behind the truck when it happened. One firefighter was airlifted but thankfully, no one died. His images from the accident made it into the local paper.
At the same time, Justin offered his services to the local photojournalism professor at West Virginia University. He would open the lab, help mix chemicals, answer student questions, etc. In exchange, he could use what he wanted in the lab, gaining access to valuable equipment. Eventually, the professor introduced Justin to the editor of the Times West-Virginian, who offered him a try out. Justin made the cut and spent the next two years as an official staff photographer.
Working for a “little newspaper” meant handling multiple assignments, sometimes a dozen a day. Justin found himself shooting 30 cars on Thursday for the back of the TV Guide, going to the animal shelter every Wednesday to shoot 20 animals for their ad on Saturday, and chasing down community stories in between. He relates, “With that many assignments on your plate, you have to go into each assignment ready to assess it as quickly as possible, find good light or a good story, and then work it over as much as you can because at the end of the day, you’ve got to produce something and present it to the editor.”
It was hard work, but it was worth it. Those skills proved invaluable to Justin when he moved to Boston. He started out freelancing for the Associated Press, chasing down stories on his own like he did in West Virginia. He also got a part time job working at an ophthalmologist’s office taking internal photos of the eye. One day, he was answering phones at the closed office when something on the radio scanner grabbed his attention. An anti-abortion extremist had just carried out a shooting at a local abortion clinic – just one block down the street from where Justin was currently sitting. Immediately, he closed up shop and ran to the scene. He was the first photographer there and he got shots of the first responders bringing out victims. The Associated Press picked up the photos and they ran everywhere.
It wasn’t long after that the Boston Herald hired Justin as a staff photographer. There, he covered numerous emergency situations including fires, shootings, stabbings, robberies, even political unrest in Ecuador in 1999.
Once a Photojournalist, Always a Photojournalist?
Eventually, Justin moved on again and became the Director of Photography at Harvard University’s Office of News and Public Affairs. That position gave him the chance to work with some incredible storytellers. Justin learned some invaluable lessons there, but his life was about to take another unexpected turn.
Justin had spent years chasing fires for the Boston Herald. He shot the happenings as per his assignment, but he was always interested in the firefighters’ faces. He took close up portraits of many of them, knowing they would never be published, simply because he admired them. They were there, willingly showing up for people in need during what might be the worst moments of their lives. It took guts and self-sacrifice and as they walked out of those burning buildings, they looked heroic. So, when Justin moved to a small town in Free Union and couldn’t get access to the internet, he started hanging out around the volunteer fire department, which had free internet. And while he may have shown up for the WiFi initially, one thing led to another and beginning in January 2016 Justin became an EMT and a firefighter. He spent the next seven years living the life of the men and women he had so admired in Boston.
These days, Justin resides in Charlottesville, Virginia working as a commercial and documentary photographer. But when it comes to shooting people, businesses, and personal projects, it’s clear that Justin’s newsroom habits are still serving him well. We asked Justin to share some of the lessons he learned over the years as a photojournalist and he did not disappoint. What follows is some of the best advice we’ve heard for photographers of any genre.
Lessons from the Newsroom and Beyond
Your best shot is yet to come. Turns out, a photojournalistic mentality can help you keep pushing yourself to do better. Justin relates that many times when he came in to see the night photo editor at the Boston Herald with a photo he felt really proud of, the editor would look at it and say, “Kid, no matter what you do today, it’s going to be wrapping fish or sitting at the bottom of a bird cage tomorrow. So, get out there and make some more pictures.” That reaction stuck with Justin and even today it makes him feel like his “best picture” is something he’s yet to capture. Front page news today can be gone tomorrow, so it’s important to push yourself to keep shooting and honing your skills.
Everyone can learn from everyone. Sure, Justin got to learn from some big shot creators while working at Harvard, but he doesn’t discriminate when it comes to picking up new thoughts, ideas, and techniques from others. Justin is a frequent workshop attendee, and what he’s found is that you don’t have to be standing next to some big shot to learn or make a creative breakthrough. The point is, as Justin puts it, “all of us are constantly learning.”
Recognize that stories are everywhere (and be prepared to record them). If you think there is nothing to shoot where you live, you’re wrong. “Every person you see has a story. I don’t care if you live in a town with 10 people or 10,000 people, there are stories for every single one of them.” Justin compares the stories around us to taking a nighttime flight and looking at all the little lights down below. Behind each light is a person, and behind each person is a story that’s all their own. With so many stories all around us, it’s important to stay prepared. Keep your camera on you, especially if you know there’s a chance you might stumble across a story that matters. And when a scene presents itself, take as much time as you can to work it over. Keep shooting until you find the best way to tell the story you were looking for.
Find stories that interest you. Stories may be all around us, but the trick is finding one that really speaks to you, one you feel passionate about. “If [a story] doesn’t excite you, it will show in your photos. It won’t work,” Justin says. Plus, doing your research about a subject before and during any photo project is key according to Justin. If you don’t truly care about your subject, you probably won’t do the research needed to tell an honest story with your photos, one that allows you to stay responsible to the subject. Many of the stories that matter to Justin deal with agriculture and food. Several of his past and current projects center around the food we eat and how we get it – a subject that carries over into climate issues. It’s a place he gravitates to because it’s a story that desperately needs to be told. “A lot of people don’t realize how difficult the work is to keep us eating,” Justin says. Telling that story keeps his photos genuine and engaging.
Break the ice like a pro. In most situations, breaking the ice means putting yourself out there and being able to briefly explain what you’re trying to do. Justin recommends thinking up a quick “elevator pitch” you can tell people if they ask why you’re in a certain place or what you’re doing. “Be willing to talk and open yourself up and you’ll be good,” Justin says. He also carries cards, which serve a dual purpose. Not only do they legitimize what he’s told someone about being a photographer, they are a way he can share photos with his subjects if they’re interested – a gesture that usually puts people at ease. Most of all, don’t sweat interactions with your subjects. “Just approach people like there is no ice to break,” Justin recommends.
Archive your work. Some stories take years to tell, so don’t toss an unfinished project, even if you take a break. Justin recently shared of his unpublished firefighter portraits back from his days spent chasing fires for the Boston Herald. The response to the faces of these firefighters – some who are no longer with us, some who have retired, some who have since made chief – was huge. Keep your work around and keep it organized, because you never know when the right time to tell a story might come.
Justin applies these tips and techniques to every project he tackles, whether it’s a personal project, a documentary family photoshoot, or an assignment for The Washington Post or Reuters, and the results speak for themselves. We’re extremely honored to share one of his projects with you here, which Justin calls “Cowboys in Virginia.” “These are folks most people don’t know about. They rise early, work hard all day, and do it seven days a week,” he says. Most of them are farmers with large tracts of land to care for, adding the agricultural element that Justin is passionate about. It’s just one more story in a now long list of important stories Justin’s been able to tell over the years. And at the heart of it? The people. Because as Justin puts it, “if nothing else, I’m a people photographer for sure.”
Justin’s photos in this article can be found in his recently published zine Every Rodeo starts with a salute to the flag which you can find on Blurb.