Interview with Lisa Schreiber, Photojournalist

by Cathy Sivak
Interview with Lisa Schreiber, Photojournalist

From high school football to raging fires to the presidential press pool, photojournalism is a way of life

A life-long interest in photography led Lisa Schreiber from learning about photography from her dad to 4-H photography projects, which in turn led to a photojournalism degree from Ball State University in Indiana and a career as a newspaper photographer.

As a way to encourage and advocate youth photography efforts, she takes time out from her hectic work schedule to be a 4-H photography judge.

An award-winning photojournalist currently with the Post-Tribune newspaper serving Northwest Indiana, Lisa enjoys the variety of assignments she covers. Highlights include the chance to photograph both U.S. presidents who have been in office during her professional career, President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush; it's a tradition she'd like to continue.

“Being a photojournalist is a really fun, exciting and rewarding job, where you get to meet new people and learn new things every day,” she tells “That is what keeps it exciting and keeps it fresh.”

You & Your Career   |   Education Information & Advice   |   Job Information & Advice   |   Industry Trends


You & Your Career

Tell us about your career in photography. How did you break into the photography world, and how did you advance to where you are today?

My dad was an amateur photographer, so I learned a lot from him at an early age, 8 to 9 to 10 years old. My first taste of photography was through 4-H photography projects; now it's come full circle and I am a judge for the 4-H fair. In high school, I was on the yearbook staff.

I went to Ball State and majored in photojournalism. From there I had an internship with the Medinah County Gazette. I moved to LaPorte, Ind., and did stringer work for the Michigan City News Dispatch and the South Bend Tribune for a while. I worked full time at the News Dispatch for six years, then I went to the Post-Tribune, and I've been here for six years now.

How did you decide to get into journalism photography?

When I first got interested in photography, I wanted to be a nature photographer; but I realized after I got in college, there are very few full-time jobs for nature photographers, whereas if I went into photojournalism for newspapers, there's a steady paycheck, insurance and all of those benefits. I figured that I can still pursue art and nature photography on my own.

What do you enjoy most about your photojournalism career? What are the pitfalls?

I love being able to meet so many people from so many different careers, being able ask them personal questions and see into their lives and their work. That's really exciting. As far as pitfalls, the hours can really suck. I work nights, weekends and holidays, and I have to be available if something blows up, and sometimes my personal life suffers for that. Also, I do a lot of driving.

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

Margaret Bourke-White is my biggest influence. Her photographs were often used in Life magazine, she did a lot of really artistic shots of places you wouldn't consider beautiful, like of steel mills. I've always been fascinated by her style, by her being a woman in what is typically considered a man's profession. I was also influenced by Orson Welles and his work with cameras angles in films, the drama you can create by the way a shot is taken.

Have you won any awards or recognition for your photojournalism work? How important is this recognition to you, personally, and to your career?

I‘ve won a few Hoosier State Press Association awards over the years. Really, the daily work is more important to me, my editor's opinion is more important than any award. When you are first starting out in your career, or even looking to switch jobs, awards do look good on the resume.

What are some of your favorite projects that you've completed and why?

Definitely the most memorable one was when President Clinton came to Michigan City to campaign in the summer of 1995. He did a speech in Washington Park, I got to be part of the national media pool, I was right there with him, with the big-name photographer guys from Time and Newsweek and so forth. It was really exciting to work with those professionals, in fact, I was almost was more excited about the photographers than President Clinton. I've gotten to photograph both presidents that have been in office since I started professionally, so it would be nice if I could continue that tradition.

One of my favorite places to go for photo assignments is the steel mills, there's just something about them that calls to me.

hat are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I'd like to find some more time to purse art photography on my own. I'd also like take some classes in other things that interest me, including I'd like learn Spanish. Knowing how to speak Spanish is becoming more and more important for journalists, especially in big markets, in order to do a good job and be able to talk to the people you are photographing. My college French isn't helping much.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about photography in order to be successful? Do you think that it's important to truly enjoy the field in order to be happy in life?

Yes and yes, definitely. The job can be very stressful, it's very competitive and its very time consuming. You really have to love what you are doing in order to make it work.


Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your photography education.

I went to Ball State and majored in photojournalism; I minored in French and classical cultures, which I got interested in for some reason. My family pushed me to take Spanish instead, but I didn't want to be like everyone else; plus it seemed so exotic to learn French. If I could go back and change, I would have minored in business along with the photojournalism major.

As a student I worked on the Ball State Daily News, the student-run newspaper all the way through school. I served as the photo editor, and I was a member of student chapter of the National Press Photographers Association.

How did you decide to study photojournalism? And how did you find a school?

I looked specifically for a photojournalism school. In Indiana, Ball State seemed to be the best option. It's got a good program, plus, it was not to far from home and the in-state tuition was a good thing.

How has your education benefited your career?

It made it possible for me to get my first job. Because I majored in photojournalism, they were able to teach me to be a journalist. I took writing classes along with photography, and I have actually written a few stories, not just photo captions.

What did you like and dislike about your education?

It was very hands-on, and we did lots of lab work, which I liked. The photographers were a very close-knit group in college. We did a lot of things together in and out of class, helped each other out with things like editing our portfolios. One thing that the school could improve on is that they didn't do a very good job of helping us with finding internships or jobs after graduation.

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you pursued your photography education?

It may sound sexist, but it is different for women than it is for men. With the time responsibilities you have with the job, it's hard to have a personal life, especially for women, who tend to kind of lead the household. It's difficult to work those kinds of hours and maintain some sense of order at home. I didn't realize it when I was in school – they tried to warn us – but I didn't know what they are saying and was like, “Oh, I'll be fine.” Keeping up at home is tough. If my husband and I ever were to have children, I'm not sure how we would juggle childcare and my schedule.

How can prospective photography students assess their skill and aptitude?

Read up on it, check on it on the internet, look into photographers work, find someone you are interested in and focus on learn about them; when I was in high school, I did a job shadowing day with a local newspaper photographer and was able to ask lots of questions about his school, his job. That really helped me decide to go to Ball State. Most local papers will have someone willing to help out students.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs? How important is it to get a photojournalism degree to land a job?

Locally, Ball State is one. I do know people who have gotten hired who don't have photojournalism degrees or any degrees at all; it really boils down to talent. With talent, you can probably get hired without a degree. But it is good to have a college education, especially income-wise.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in a certain type of photography?

Check and see if they offer photography as a major if that's what you're really interested in, look into job placement; the quality of the school paper where you'll get your feet wet. Check out the professors, as far as what type of life experience and job experience they have.

What can students applying to schools do to increase their chances of being accepted?

Work hard in all of your subjects and get good grades; grades are going to be the biggest deciding factor whether you get in or not. Even though you are going to be going into photography, you really do put math and English and geography to work in journalism. For writers and photographers, you need to be able to understand what the story is about. You need to know a lot about politics and history, and there is a lot of math in photography. Everything to do with the manual settings uses math.

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in photography?

Passion for photography is very important. If it's really something you're passionate about, and something you very much enjoy, then you need to weigh the life balance, quality of life issues.


Job Information & Advice

Describe a typical day of work for you. What exactly do you do as a professional photojournalist?

We work eight hours days, five days a week, our schedules are made about a month ahead of time. I check the log of assignments for the day, print them out and go do them.

We take pictures to go with stories in the newspapers. The shift I'm working depends on what I cover. If I'm working the day shift, I cover lots of school events, city meetings, political meetings, and general type news stories. If I'm on the evening shift, I cover lots of high school sports. And of course the breaking news stories like accidents, fires and murders can happen on any shift.

On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?

You need to be very even-keeled and adaptable. Your schedule could change at any moment, for instance, if there's a major car accident or a fire, then you have to be able to wrap up what you're doing. You have to be able to adapt. It's also a very competitive job, especially if you are in a market like the one I'm in, where there's another competing paper. You may show up to an assignment and there's another photographer there, so there's added pressure to get good shot, better than the competitor. You also need to have good writing skills; editors get a little upset if captions have misspellings or don't make sense.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most? Favorite gadget?

I use a Nikon D2H camera; I have an Apple laptop, and of course the cell phone. My favorite gadget has to be the cell phone. It makes things really efficient, so that I don't have to go back to the office to submit pictures anymore, I can send them over the phone. For instance, I recently shot Friday night high school football in the town I live in, and I didn't have to drive an hour to go back to the office to turn in the pictures, then turn around to go home again. I just send the images over the phone.

What are some common myths about your profession as a photojournalist?

I got called paparazzi the other day, and that really hurt my feelings. I was standing outside the federal courthouse waiting for a gentleman to come out to get his picture. It's hard, but there are certain things we have to do as part of our job. Lots of times we get stereotyped as vultures. Another is that a lot of people stereotype a newspaper photographer as an overweight, middle-aged man in a bad suit, sort of a slob. I recently went on an assignment and the woman was like, “Oh, you're not at all what I expected.”

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Those assignments that none of us wants to do, when you have to interview a family who's child was killed in a drunk driving accident or a situation like that, it can be very difficult. Lately we've had a lot of people from our area killed in the war in Iraq, and we've spent a lot of time dealing with families that are affected. Those are the times when things can get pretty stressful.

Best photography tips for a novice?

Get close. The biggest mistake is people tend to stand too far away. Don't use a flash unless you absolutely have to. Try some creative angles, instead of straight on, try to shoot from up high or down low. Try to take candid photos, where you capture realistic images, rather than poses.

Interesting anecdote about life as a photojournalist?

I have a most embarrassing moment. One of the things that is difficult about this job, if you call in sick, everyone else on the staff has to pick the slack and work overtime, so you don't call in if you can avoid it. I went to work with a terrible stomach, I was feeling was kind of O.K., so I went in. I was covering an athletic banquet at Lalumeire, a prestigious private school northern Indiana, and I was standing in the back, waiting for the banquet winners to get their awards so I could take a group picture. It was taking forever; and I was getting sicker by the minute. I literally had sweat dripping from my face, was feeling like I was going to pass out. I took the pictures, and than nearly ran from the building, got outside the doors, and proceeded to throw up right there. There are parents milling around, saying goodbye to their kids, and everyone turned around to see the puking photographer. They were all shuffling the children away. It was by far the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to me on the job, but I got the picture.

Describe your ideal job or assignment. Nightmare job or assignment?

The ideal job in this career would be Monday through Friday, 9 to5; those jobs do exist. The ideal assignment is anything where you get the chance to meet someone new, find out about something new. That is what keeps it exciting and keeps it fresh.

I had one nightmare assignment, a house fire. I was photographing the fire and the homeowner came home drunk, and was very upset with me for being there. I wasn't on her property, within my rights, but she started pushing me around. A firefighter literally pulled her off me; that was a frightening experience.

What are the greatest stresses, what causes you the most anxiety?

Those difficult assignments where you are dealing with death and destruction; those are stories that need to be told, but it's difficult for me. I don't necessarily empathize on every assignment, but there have been times that I've cried, like when people are really upset about a tragic death. It can also be hard when you don't get upset; you sort of wonder, “What's wrong with me?”

What are your top pet peeves as a photographer?

Being called paparazzi really bothers me, and so does the way some police officers view news photographers as vultures.

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating photography students?

It's really limitless. Corporations hire photographers for advertising shots; you can combine photography with PR jobs; and of course newspapers and magazines, online sites.

What are the best ways to get a job in the field of photography?

I would say to make sure your portfolio is current, check with local professionals that you know, ask for help with your portfolio, for them to help you, weed out the pictures that don't belong there. Sometimes we have a personal attachment to an image. It may be a favorite picture with a great back story on how you got that picture, but if that back story doesn't show when you are looking at it, it doesn't belong in your portfolio. You need a concise, edited version, so seek out some help. Make sure the format is current and fresh and easily viewed; most portfolios are on CDs now, no more slides or images on blackboard.

Industry Trends

How has the digital photography craze impacted your profession?

Technology has changed so much. My first internship out of school, I was hand developing black and white film, and I've gone from that to digital to doing everything on my laptop and cell phone. The technology changes seem to come in increments every year, where there is something brand new I've had to learn to do. Now everything is digital. You don't have to necessarily be technically minded, but it helps. Black and white, most of the photographers I know, including myself, still dabble in art photography on our own. I recently got a Holga, a cheap plastic mechanical camera that doesn't even require a battery. It takes interesting, sort of crude pictures… that type of experimenting helps keep you creative.

What are some other photography trends you see which could help photography students plan for the future?

I know before long we're going to be shooting assignments with video cameras and pulling stills off as the images. I'm not really looking forward to it, though it will increase the chances of getting your shots, because you'll be able to pick out just the right moment. The idea is to the lower end of costs, the same way digital photography lowered costs from traditional film.

How is the job market expected to develop over the next five years?

In the future, there may not be as many print photographers at the newspaper level. We've seen staff sizes on most newspapers shrinking. There will be jobs, though; the internet publications still use photographs.

Do photojournalists typically use specialized computer programs? How important is it for graduating students to be well-versed with these programs?

We use PhotoMechanic as a browser, import pictures into Adobe Photoshop to work on them. It's very important to be well versed, especially in Photoshop.

Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

Yes, in fact now we upload almost all of our photos to a web site on line, people can view our outtakes and order copies. That's something new. Before, we were searching through files so people could get copies. We even get a commission on the web site photo sales.

What are some of the top challenges facing the photography profession?

I would say the smaller job market, for one, as well as just the challenge of the new technology, learning something new every year. It changes constantly, and it seems the moment you by a new camera it is obsolete. When I first started, photographers were expected to furnish their own equipment. These days the newspapers purchase the equipment; mostly since everything changed over to digital, it was so expensive.

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