Q&A With NPPA Editor Tom Burton

I did a lot of researching and investigating as I was looking around for who could be a judge in our first-ever U.S. Armed Services Photo Contest. I targeted my approach toward military-related photographers. This was definitely fruitful as the path led me to this guy. But in the process, I noticed that the vast majority of the images I saw were of a journalistic nature. I saw many conflict images from combat photographers, images of daily life in the military, and the like. Knowing that this contest isn’t just about the photos, but more about THE PHOTOGRAPHERS BEHIND THEM, I knew I wanted to branch out a bit.

When I found Tom Burton via the National Press Photographer Association (NPPA) site, I knew I had to reach out. Tom has spent his entire career in the field of journalism both behind the camera as a photojournalist and in other roles such as director of photography and editor. I am proud and excited to have him involved with our contest. Read on to learn a bit more about Tom.


Tom, for the sake of our readers who don’t know who you are, can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Tom Burton and I am the editor for the National Press Photographers Association. I am in charge of publishing the association’s bimonthly News Photographer magazine and I edit our digital platforms. I became a member of NPPA more than 30 years ago when I was a college student, and joined the organization full-time in January 2017.

Tell us about about you first became interested in photography. When do you first get the bug? How did it grow?

I first started taking photos as part of my job with a weekly newspaper when I was a senior in high school. I was hired as a writer to cover prep sports and they handed me a camera on my first day.

You attended the University of Florida. While you were there, did you major in Photojournalism or Journalism? If not, what degree did you earn?

I studied journalism at the University of Florida and had a minor in English. My plans were to become a reporter, but as I continued to take photos I realized that I had an aptitude for photography and that I enjoyed being in the field on assignment.

Tell us a bit about your experience in photo school? Do you feel like you had time to develop? Were you afforded ample opportunities? Tell our readers a bit about how your college days helped start you on the path you are on.

My years at UF set the foundation for my journalism career and I still have connections there. I have served on an advisory council for the journalism department and over the last two years, I have been an adjunct instructor.

When I was in school, there was a fortunate timing where the local newspaper had a talented, award-winning staff. I was able to work with them and their chief photographer was one of my instructors. Their mentorship was invaluable at that stage of my career.

You have spent your entire career in journalism, and dedicated to visual journalism. In your career so far, what are some of the biggest industry changes you have experienced?

Easily, the biggest change in journalism during my career has been the digital revolution. The methods of delivering news as we moved from print to online changed business models and has lead to drastically smaller staffs. On the other hand, digital platforms have given a lot of power to individuals who can publish on their own without the need for corporate support.

How have the above changes impacted photographers?

Of course, the craft of photography has also changed significantly moving from film to digital and those changes are continuing. Photography is more accessible to the masses and more people can take photography seriously. It means that some work we did in the past that could be part of a career are gone, but it also means that more people are educated in photography and therefore more people can appreciate professional quality work.

Where do you see the field of photojournalism going in the next 10 years give or take? Any advice for young photographers hoping to enter the field?

As quickly as technology changes now, five years out is too hard to predict. It is just as likely that five months from now, something will come along that will change the way you work. Just look at how quickly drone photography has expanded and how 360-degree virtual reality video is taking hold.

For young photographers, or any photographer, I would say to be in touch with technology as it changes but to also build your work around storytelling. The ability to make photos or videos that tell important stories is not as common as the ability to operate a camera. Storytelling is also a skill that can be a unique style that will set you apart.

You have photographed Super Bowls, BCS Football Championships, NCAA Final Four, NBA Finals and numerous NASCAR races, making you an ideal judge for the Action category in our first-ever US Armed Services Photo Contest. As a photo editor, what do you look for when considering images from sporting events? Or when evaluating action images in general?

For sports photos, as with all photojournalism, the story is the most important editing decision. The play of the game is always going to be more important than a random moment. The player of the game is a priority over the middle-of-the-pack athlete.

Peak action is always a key consideration as is focus. But I also look for photos that can set the atmosphere or emotion of the event. I look for photos that show an angle or access that is unique.

Any advice for all the photographers out there who are considering entering images in the contest?

For contests, use entering as part of the learning process. A contest is a good excuse for reviewing your work over the last year and to compare it against other people working in your field.

Studying the winners from the past is a way of honing your own vision for your own work. Identify the winners that really affect you and analyze what the photographer had to do to make the photo. Then, work that knowledge into your own photos.

When the results come in, don’t be too upset if you don’t win and certainly don’t get too confident if you do win. As the film director Werner Herzog has said, “winning an award doesn’t make you work any better and not winning doesn’t make it less so.”

 

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