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Jordan Stead


Hi Jordan. What brought you to Seattle? Is it a good place to live as a young photojournalist?

Seattle is my birthplace and will forever be my home at heart. I traveled extensively as a teenager with my mother and uncle throughout Europe and South America, yet Seattle has a special quality to it that I just cannot seem to place. The photo community in the Pacific Northwest is strong – not only do many excellent, established shooters reside here, but the attitude between photographers is open and inviting. Those interested in this industry are incredibly lucky to have such a tight-knit community here.

Out of all the careers out there, why photography?

Photojournalism – or photography in general – was not my original plan. I began my higher education in 2007 at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, with a knack for video production, but with the goal of being a creative writing major. Over the course the first year at WWU, I discovered the visual journalism major offered by the incredible journalism department at my college. Needless to say, I fell into the concentration as it touched on the three crafts I was passionate about: writing, film, and photography. Everything changed after taking a photojournalism course from professor John Harris in the fall of 2008. I discovered the meaning of what I thought cameras existed for, and my focus shifted from creative writing to documenting life through stills.

You have a great shot of prostitutes on the street in Tijuana. What’s the story behind the picture?

While interning for worldwide wire service ZUMA Press during the summer of 2010 in California, I took a trip to Tijuana, Mexico, to take the chance at documenting the escalating drug violence in the city. At some point in the early afternoon, Tijuana police accosted my travel partner and I under the suspicion that we had come south of the border to buy drugs. We were thrown against the side of a building, our pockets emptied and our bodies frisked. As one of the officers began to reach for my camera, I surprised them both by speaking to them in Spanish, explaining I was a photojournalist from the United States as I pulled out my credentials. It was a long shot, but it worked. The two quickly apologized and left in a hurry. Moments later, I shot the picture that has since gone on to win me a number of regional and national awards: five young women, all prostitutes, hovered outside of the door of their brothel, relaxing while on break. The moment was fleeting, yet I felt as though I had captured the true essence of what these prostitutes really were, despite their surroundings and occupation – simply young women at heart.

How do you typically develop ideas for new photo projects?

In the most simple way possible: I think about what is interesting to me, research the idea to see if it has already been done, and work on the necessary contacts to make it come to life. Stories never come to you – you have go to them, time and time again. Looking through old takes is another way of spurring story ideas that may have been lurking around in the back of my mind at one point in time. While attending the 2011 Palm Springs Photo Festival, I shot extensively for several days around the Palm Desert and the Salton Sea. Images from those takes, viewed months later with a fresh perspective, recently became a series entitled “Desolation,” which examines the uninhabited - and sometimes sparsely inhabited - extremes of the stretch of land in that geographic region.

Can you tell us about your photo story on Mac McLeod? How did you find him?

While shooting for a story on horse breaking for Western Washington University’s Klipsun magazine, I was in awe of the reporter’s main character for the story and asked Mac if I could continue to photograph him. He accepted, and we began a great relationship not only as a photographer and subject, but as two people from incredibly different backgrounds that could learn from each other. Larry "Mac" McLeod had grown up in the desert plains of Texas, living the rough-and-tumble cowboy lifestyle from an early age. In November 2010, he and his wife, Tru, moved from the Lone Star state to Ferndale, Washington, to start fresh with their horse training and showing business. Mac, a nationally award-winning and world-traveling horse trainer and rider, was the first of his kin to move away from Texas since the Civil War. During his first months in Ferndale, Mac received notice from an oil company that the land he still owned in Texas was rich with oil deposits. Long story short, his financial troubles are over, and we remain friends for what I can imagine will be a long time.

You’ve interned as a newspaper staff photographer and also worked as a freelancer. Which do you prefer, and why?

I’m hungry to see every facet this industry has to offer. Every opportunity I have taken part in so far – be it a magazine, wire service, or newspaper – has offered new challenges to hone my skills as a photojournalist and, more importantly, as a person. I love the constant grind of newspaper work, the perfection of magazine commercial shooting, and the freedom of personal freelance work. Everything is different. I think it is easy for people to forget that being a photojournalist is not only about pictures at the end of the day – it’s about being a people’s person. I forgot who told me this, but “photojournalism is 20 percent skill and 80 percent attitude.” Interesting take, but it makes sense if you think about it.

You have a remarkable number of publications and awards, considering you just graduated college this spring. In your opinion, what has helped launch your career so rapidly?

Going above and beyond expectations and requirements, especially while in college. From a student’s point of view, I see plenty of good shooters that just don’t take the extra step to make that picture, enter that contest, pass up being a couch potato just for an hour or two, and so on. Stay hungry, stay humble, work hard and refrain from being a jerk – it can’t hurt.

What is a common mistake you see young photographers make?

Not being professional, “rushing” their career, abusing social media to excess, and getting a big head about things. One of the worst traits a person can have is to be cocky, and in this business you don’t want to blow your only shot somewhere by acting like you know it all. Keep an open mind and take the advice that comes your way (sometimes with a grain of salt…).

Do you think it's important for aspiring photojournalists to go through a university photography program? How do you feel about the visual journalism program you attended at Western Washington University?

I wouldn’t say it’s necessary in any way, but it certainly has helped many photojournalists along over time. The journalism department at WWU was an amazing opportunity. It sparked my interest and helped me along the way in refining my goals, but 90 percent of my career thus far has been self-made by “going the next step” beyond schooling. So much information is available via the Internet and in face-to-face meetings; milk your resources!

How do you go about advertising yourself?

So far, I am not too out of the ordinary. My Qufoto website, a Flickr blog, and the basics (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Gmail…) make up the extent of my digital presence. Outside of that, I am a huge proponent of meeting other photographers and editors in person. After all, without someone getting the pleasure of meeting you in real life, you’re just another faceless email or online profile.

Can you tell us about any of the interesting characters you've met or relationships you've developed as a direct result of being a photojournalist?

Countless. To me, the characters and the relationships are the best part about being a photojournalist. I am 22 years old, and just because I have this stupid black box in front of my face, I have had the pleasure of seeing some things that most people never get to see. Many good friends and great experiences have come out of this path, and the best part is that it is still early in the game for me.

What other individuals do you respect in photojournalism today, and why do they get your appreciation?

I cannot say enough about my photo friends and colleagues in the Pacific Northwest. My peers and professors in the journalism department at WWU are also outstanding people who have been nothing but the best to me in both support and attitude over these past several years. To anyone who has ever given me a shot, whether it was through an internship, critique, workshop, scholarship, or freelance opportunity – thank you.

Now that you’ve graduated, what’s next?

That is always the question, isn’t it? For the next three months (summer 2011), I have been selected as the photo intern at The Skagit Valley Herald in Mount Vernon, Washington, working just as a staff photographer would at the paper. I’m already applying for further internships and staff photographer positions across the nation for the upcoming fall. In addition, I am available for freelance work worldwide. Thank you for the interview opportunity!


About the photographer

Jordan Stead

Jordan Stead is a photojournalist and recent graduate from Western Washington University with a major in visual journalism and a minor in environmental studies. He has interned and been affiliated with such companies as ZUMA Press, Seattle Magazine, The Bellingham Herald and The Skagit Valley Herald (current). His work - both in stills and video - has received national attention through awards with the National Press Photographers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, Scripps Howard and the Washington Press Association. Aside from organizing the world into one rectangle at a time, Stead enjoys cold showers, hot vacations and temperate attitudes. Stead is currently at work in the King, Skagit and Whatcom counties of Washington state.

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