Originally hailing from Johannesburg, photojournalist Nic Bothma has built an enviable career in an industry that rewards incisive precision and an impartial lens. Becoming a photojournalist in Cape Town in the 1990s – an era in which the global news community was hungry for dispatches from a politically divided state – Bothma began his photojournalistic career working part-time for a BBC television news crew while studying anthropology at the University of Cape Town. While working under industry veterans like James Nachtwey, Kevin Carter, and Joao Silva, Bothma soon realized that photojournalism was, in large part, another, more creative form of anthropological documentation.
As Bothma gained confidence in his skills, he realized he could make a living as a photojournalist while satiating his passion for documenting the human experience. By 1994, Bothma was confidently selling his work as a freelance photojournalist. Later, Bothma carried out a six-year sailing expedition across the Caribbean and back to the French Polynesia, where he documented several native tribes and produced an extensive body of work.
Today, Bothma’s specialties are wide-ranging: From documenting sustainable living approaches to capturing action shots of some of the world’s greatest athletes, Bothma’s work has earned him numerous international awards. Represented by the European Press Photo Agency, Bothma additionally exhibits his work at a variety of art galleries. Here, he talks to Artrepreneur about honing his techniques and why he takes a diverse approach to selling his work.
Becoming a Photojournalist
NM: How did you get your start as a freelance photojournalist?
Nic Bothma: I was fortunate in that South Africa, at the time, was an amazing international story, and there was an international demand for images from South Africa. Here, I was a young photographer working on a major story. And it was in the day where there was no digital yet, so I could take a picture, print up a print, and walk into the newspaper and ask if they wanted the picture. If they didn’t want it I would go to another paper. Various outlets would take my material and it sort of built from that.
I was also sort of really cheeky, if they didn’t buy it I would ask them why they didn’t want it. I wanted feedback and they gave me feedback and told me what would sell.
NM: That’s a great way to develop a technique, particularly because you didn’t study photography. How did your photojournalism practice evolve?
Nic Bothma: My dad was a photographer, and that’s how I had developed an interest in photojournalism. I used to study photos I liked and ask myself ‘Why do I like this picture? What makes it work?’ The bulk of my learning came from looking at work and examining why it was good. Being able to work with these photojournalists was also a wonderful experience because I could run alongside them and learn how they work. I was a BBC runner on a tv crew and saw exactly what they did. They were established in the photojournalism landscape and famous and working on a global scale, so I modeled my way after them – these guys were really established newspaper photographers.
NM: In the wake of the digital media landscape, how has photojournalism evolved since you started your career?
Nic Bothma: In this day and age where fake news is prevalent, photojournalism is a clear and honest form of journalism. We need people to continue doing the work in difficult places. It’s a weird time for photojournalism because with cell phones everybody is a photographer. News photography has somewhat been taken over by citizen journalism. But the more in-depth is still in the realm of trained photojournalists because when there’s a lot of cameras around you cant always trust the source, but photojournalists are trained to be impartial. It’s an important job at a difficult time because there’s an explosion of visual noise out there, and we have to work hard to separate the two.
So for example with the Boston Marathon bombing, there was an article on photojournalism and they highlighted that when they analyzed the pictures they found there were about five photographers that comprehensively covered that event, and though there were tons of people with cameras, they didn’t take relevant pictures. There were only a handful of good journalists who kept their head and got the pictures which were important to study and understand. So that was really telling for me: Even though there’s this massive increase of citizen journalists, not all of them are trained. It certainly made it more difficult, but you’ve just got to adapt and work with what’s happened and what’s changed
NM: With that in mind, how have you developed your own personal style as a photojournalist? How do you manage to be in the right place at the right time?
Nic Bothma: I’m thinking about what is the clearest, cleanest possible way I can present the truth of what’s happening here? The way I position my body, the tools and tricks one has a photographer, what I incorporate in the background; I use all of that to capture the moment.
Over time, you become more experienced and you develop the power to steer towards the future. You’re trying to read life’s societies and groups. Groups of people have habits, and you learn to preempt what happens next. You use your ability to try to predict where you should be and what’s going to happen. It’s tricky and risky, a constant risk assessment that you’re doing on the fly. Is it worth going there for that picture?
Transitioning from Freelance Photojournalist to Full-Time Staffer
NM: You’re currently working on a full-time basis with the European Press Photo Agency. How does that relationship work? What’s your schedule like?
Nic Bothma: I’m full time with the EPA since 2003, which means I basically cover international interest stories out of Cape Town, and I’m called quite often to cover what’s going on. I also do quite a lot of sports, so I’m often changing up the variety of subjects I’m covering.
I’m pretty much on call all the time. You’re never really off because you’re constantly monitoring news and making contacts with stringers and fixers. So on that side, you’re always on. Then you’re planning coverage, so I might say I want to do a feature on this, and I need to plan for that. Some weeks I can shoot four or five days or every single day if there’s games, or sometimes I’m working 1 hour days every day. But I can be working and just have to shoot one day of the week or not at all.
NM: Do you have a lot of leeway in terms of what you cover?
Nic Bothma: It’s pretty much up to me, I’m in charge of my region and as long as what’s needed to be covered is covered, my bosses in Germany are pretty flexible. If there’s a breaking story then ill get an email from an editor asking me to get some coverage and I’ll have to start getting hold of people. In my region, I’m only going to fly for a big story. I’ve got stringers, I’ve got two stock guys and I’ve got about 20 other photographers that I assign to jobs.
NM: Sounds like a dream job for most photojournalists. Is it common for most of your colleagues in the industry to be on staff with an international photo wire?
Nic Bothma: Well it’s a big thing because its very stressful worrying about finances and doing accounting, and worrying about where the next job is coming from is not easy. There’ certainly a level of administration here with a budget I have to look after, but it’s nice to do my work and not worry about my personal finances. So that’s very important and photojournalists have gone through this evolution. A lot of newspapers have had to let go of great photographers, guys who used to be called upon, top freelancers who would travel around the world to shoot. Newspapers worldwide have cut back – the New York Times went from having 20 staff photographers to just five, and instead, they’ll work with an agency. At EPA, we’re a team of 400 photographers around the world supplying a 24/7 news service. Our industry has actually gotten stronger but for freelancers, it’s gotten a lot tougher.
NM: How might a photojournalist looking to work with an international photo wire get the gig?
Nic Bothma: It’s important to become known by your local newspapers and develop a relationship with them. That’s how I started. Some people can go another way. You also have to go and knock on doors and let people know, ‘I’m living in this country,’ and let them know if they need you. You have to offer it to them and ask if they’re interested. There’s a lot of competition for our jobs and it’s not easy at all.
NM: To that end, what’s your best advice for someone that’s currently becoming a photojournalist?
Nic Bothma: I would say to be very thick skinned to start. You have to face a lot of rejection, you must have a passion and love for it. You’re not going to get rich. You have to be self-motivated, you have to be critical of your own work, and look at other people’s pictures. I always believed that a photographer doesn’t need a CV, you need a portfolio. If you want to get started, pull together a portfolio of strong pictures, and no one is going to look away. It doesn’t really matter to have simple degrees in photography if you can’t handle yourself in a situation and come back with good pictures. With photojournalism, a lot of time you’ll have to do that without being paid. Find a story you’re passionate about, and go and cover it. Make a picture story and then you’ve got something to show.
Selling Photojournalism as Fine Art
NM: Aside from working with the EPA, do you produce any other work? Are you able to sell your photos to other photo wires?
Nic Bothma: Pretty much within the news realm I don’t work with anyone else but I can work for non-competing media, so I do some commercial photojournalism work on the side, such as surf photography. So for example, I’ll shoot a windsurfing brand as a side photojournalism job, or a wedding or some other odd job, I don’t have much time but I do some to supplement my income. But never within the news realm. When you work with a photo wire, you have a contract saying you work for us and you cannot go and apply to a newspaper. It’s something that’s a very non compete sector of photography.
In addition, photojournalism has over the years has become more and more of an art form and galleries are more interested in picking up documentary pictures. So that’s something I’ve been doing, as well.
NM: I’m curious about whether you’re permitted to sell photographers that have appeared in newspapers via galleries. Do you retain the rights in those photos?
Nic Bothma: There is a rights issue, but generally the photographer does retain a copyright. If you shot for a magazine, and you’re a freelancer, usually the magazine would own the copyright. But let’s say you shoot some other material that’s not part of the assignment then that’s yours. It just depends on what contract you have. Generally, I won’t sell what’s been featured. If I do a limited edition series I could print up a range of pictures printed in a specific way, which then makes that something different. Or, in another case, although the picture has been published, I’d sell it as a signed print. But that’s only when there’s a joint copyright. I wouldn’t do that if it was pictures I shot for a magazine.
NM: How did you gather interest from galleries? How did that relationship begin?
Nic Bothma: I approached a gallerist that I heard about that was really supportive of photographers and photography and she helped me a lot. She mentored me in what would work in galleries and what wouldn’t. I’ve developed a few series that I’ve sold through galleries mainly.
NM: What percentage of your revenue is generated through gallery sales?
Nic Bothma: I’d say five percent. I would like to grow that area and I would like to shoot more photojournalism-style photos for galleries, and eventually I would like to get back to freelancing. I’dd like to get to a place where I’m working for myself when I’m older. It’s a young man’s game working with agencies, but I’ll be a photographer all my life. I love it and I think its something you can do all your life.
NM: When working with galleries, how do you price your work?
Nic Bothma: I rely on the advice of gallerists. It’s a very funny world, it’s a world where you’re talking about provenance and auction listings, and they’re all relevant to the artist as something that’s existed in the art world on its own. You have to learn what’s going to make a photographer. It’s about where and how you’ve exhibited, where it’s been auctioned, who bought your stuff. And so I rely on the advice of a good gallerist, it’s a good idea to find someone you trust and can work with and get the relationship going.
NM: Tell me about the awards you’ve won. Did you enter those competitions yourself?
Nic Bothma: A bit of both, some awards I’ve won were entered on my behalf, I won several awards by surprise, a lot of times picture editors enter awards without your knowing. I’ve won the National Press Photographers Association award, won several awards I didn’t even know existed. They put the pictures forward. But I do, as a matter of course, enter on my own sometimes, as I see it as a way of appraising my own work. It’s very helpful because they put your work into context and you listen to the conversation about your pictures.
NM: Has winning these awards made a difference in your career?
Nic Bothma: In my case, not a hugely significant change. I think you just get more credibility with employers, but mine know me quite well. Its just really you’re bringing some accolade to the agency so it’s nice to be able to share that news. I think nothing really changes, you get a slap on the back and you move on. It lifts your profile a bit and they like to hear that. It’s not the be all and end all. It doesn’t mean you’re not as good as the guy that did win an award.