David Guttenfelder: A photojournalist’s journey

By Mackenzie Moffit

On Monday, National Geographic photographer, David Guttenfelder, a University of Iowa alumnus, spoke to a group of School of Journalism and Mass Communication majors about his career and the life of a photojournalist.

He started off by explaining how he got started while in school with the Daily Iowan, working with film, putting in late hours, and gaining his foundation in the nature of being a news photographer. He then went on to talk about his time spent during his junior year of college spent studying abroad in Tanzania, where he immersed himself in the culture of college life abroad at the University of Dar es Salaam. He learned to speak Swahili, Tanzania’s native language, before studying abroad and did not speak a word of English for the duration of his stay. While becoming engaged with the locals, he became passionate about the issues that surrounded them on a daily basis.

After returning to Iowa, Guttenfelder finished his final year of college and then decided after much planning and consideration, to return to Africa. He had discovered a passion there for the problems surrounding the area and wanted to document that to share with a larger audience. He told students that his initial plan was to go to Africa and work as a photographer for a few months before returning home to pursue a career. In actuality, he said, he ended up spending the next twenty years of his life abroad.

After telling his story, many curious young students asked questions about the nature of his work, challenges he faced, and about the business of photography in general. Some of these questions ranged from everything including what type of photographic gear he used to how he dealt with some of the crisis situations he had seen.

Guttenfelder had two major pieces of advice for aspiring young photojournalists. The first was to follow your passions. He explained that so many young journalists go to crisis zones just to be there, hoping to make a name for themselves, with no tie or connection to the situation. He said that this did not make for compelling work and that instead, young writers and photographers should do stories based on the things that truly interest them. In today’s society, this rings especially true with all of the worldwide hostility; it may be easy to go where the action is, but heavy consideration should go into that decision prior to leaving after college.

The second piece of advice was regarding a topic that is becoming ever more present in communication classes, that is, personal branding and a thoughtful use of social media. Guttenfelder explained his use of Instagram to find communities of like-minded individuals who are interested in similar subject matter. He said that his personal use of Instagram was that of a purist, he only uses his iPhone and he uses it as a way of portraying a more personal aside of a larger story that he may be working on.

As journalism and public relations students, this idea of personal branding and finding a niche online is incredibly important. It is a way to market not only a product or idea, but also yourself, and a valuable tool in making your name known and networking with people globally.