On the second anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, J-Source talked to Nick Kozak about what it was like to document the devastating aftermath as a freelance photojournalist, the business of selling photos and whether or not reporters can (or should) double as photographers.

On the second anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, J-Source talked to Nick Kozak about what it was like to document the devastating aftermath as a freelance photojournalist, the business of selling photos and whether or not reporters can (or should) double as photographers.

 

J-Source: It would be an understatement to say you've seen a few countries. Tell me a bit about your travels. When did photography go from being just a hobby to being a career option for you?

Nick Kozak: You could say that my travels started soon after I was born since I was born in Kuwait during my parents' trip around the world (they had stopped in Kuwait to have me and work a while). When I was about 3 years old we moved to Canada from France and since then I’ve only had maybe a year or two without international travel.

The travel bug was definitely passed down to me — since the age of 16 I've been travelling independently.

After completing my Bachelor of Science at the University of Toronto I took off to Asia. It was in Asia that I really fell in love with exploring distant countries and cultures and that’s when I really started pursuing photography.

It wasn’t till 2007 though when I started taking it more seriously and applied for the MA Photography in China. In an attempt to answer the question, I’ll say that photography didn’t become a viable career option till about a year ago but it was during and soon after my MA that I decided to pursue it as a career. 

J-Source: You did your Master of Arts in photojournalism in China. What does a Masters degree in photojournalism entail?

NK: Yes, I completed a 1-year MA Photography (Photojournalism, Documentary, Travel Photography) through the University of Bolton in Dalian, China in 2008.

An MA in Photojournalism entails getting your butt kicked. Most who pursue such a program don’t quite know what it takes to be a photographer (that’s part of the reason for enrolling in it in the first place). It’s a long process, realizing how much dedication is required and figuring out how to approach the path towards becoming a photojournalist.

Our program was excellent. It did a great job of introducing many topics on the theoretical side of photojournalism (add documentary and travel to that) such as the role of the single image in news or representation of cultures and places in media. Once the issues were grasped we were instructed on how to go and pursue personal projects. Finally each photographer chose one or two of his or her projects for a final dissertation and photo book. My project was photographing young people in the streets of Dalian in their ‘cool’ fashions with particular backgrounds found in public spaces. 

Aside from the curriculum and assignments there were plenty of opportunities to take photographs in a place so different from our homes; a place with so many people and things happening — that’s part of the success of a program run in an ‘exotic’ place. I was also compelled to go photograph the earthquake in Sichuan in May of 2008…I was there learning to be photojournalist, after all. 

J-Source: It's been two years now since the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti. You travelled there as a freelance photographer to capture the aftermath. What was that like? How did it work in terms of selling photos while you were there? How did it further your freelance career in Canada?

NK: That’s a difficult question actually. Why? Well, what frustrates me a bit — and I’ve recently done some reading about this — is that often times when a photographer goes to some dangerous or devastated place such as an earthquake zone the story then becomes about the photographer rather than the place and the people who are the subject in the first place. It is really important to keep in mind the people: the real victims of such natural and man-made disasters.

Anyway, as you can imagine Haiti, specifically the capital of Port-au-Prince after the earthquake of 2010 was a terrible place, a place where bodies lay rotting under the rubble of about a third of the city. Over 1.5 million people were left homeless and over 300,000 people were killed. It was very sad to see the suffering and yet incredible to witness people’s resilience.

It is my intention to go back to Haiti. I have to go back to see how things have improved and what still needs improving. I just heard that two years after the earthquake, 1 million of the homeless now have a roof over their heads. To me, that is incredible news as the level of destruction and lack of resources in that country make recovery very difficult.

As for the business of selling photography: That is a necessity of course. Photojournalists need to make a living.

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I distributed some photography through my agency Sipa Press and did receive some revenue. I also sold some images to a Polish photo agency after contacting them with photos of Polish rescue workers. At the time I was still just starting off and had few contacts. I was able to cover the expenses incurred from travelling to Haiti, though.

More importantly, after my return, I put together an exhibition of my photos with Well and Good at 52 McCaul gallery and we were able to donate over $5,000 to Care Canada's efforts in Haiti.  

Of course I’d be lying if I said that my work in Haiti did not further my freelance career in Canada but it’s not a simple equation. The photos are part of a larger portfolio that hopefully shows a dedication to photojournalism and an ability to capture images of all kinds of stories.

J-Source: What do you say of the idea that reporters should be photographing their own stories? In what instances is that okay, and in what situations is the eye of a pure photographer needed?

NK: Ha, photographers are up in arms about this trend. Sometimes I hate it too, but at the end of the day whatever works, works. There is no denying that the quality of work that a photographer creates goes beyond that of a reporter’s snapshots (there are exceptions of course and I have seen writers and reporters create wonderful pictures).

What I think frustrates photographers most is this expectation or idea that “anyone can do it.” Well, anyone literate can write too, correct? You see the obvious problem with that: training goes into every craft and photographers are photographers because they dedicate themselves and focus their energy on photography. Writers/reporters are good at what they do because generally they aren’t asked to divide their attention between crafts. That is changing to some extent and it is a little troubling.

We’ll just have to see what the media environment demands from us in the end but I do think that there will always be a place for pure photography and if the roles are juggled a bit by reporters also taking photos and photographers also writing then so be it. 

J-Source: On a typical day on assignment what is in your camera bag?

NK: Actually quite a bit of stuff is in my bag.

  • Canon 5D
  • Lenses: 50mm f/1.4, 70-200mm f/2.8, 28-70mm f/2.8, 17-40mm f/4
  • 540EZ speedlite x 2
  • Sync cords and 2 pocket wizards, mini tripod
  • Diffuser, tape, gells. a polarizing filter
  • Extra AA batteries, canon camera batteries and charger

 

Here are a few more photos from Kozak, whose work can most often be found in the Toronto Star, The Grid, and Toronto Community News. His photos have also been published on OpenFile, Torontoist and internationally by Sipa Press. More can be found at nickkozak.com

Zone 8, Detroit: Roger Walker, 20 sits on the bed that was his as a child in the dilapidated home on Winslow Street that was once occupied by his family. Detroit, Michigan, July 7, 2011.

 

Minor League: Warren Park Eagles Peewee Select hockey team members chat on the benches of a dressing room after an Eagles practice at Chris Tonks Arena. Toronto, Canada, March 4, 2009.

Laughing as the Curtain Falls photo essay: Ninety-nine year-old Irene Powell in bed at her home in Clinton laughing, her grandaugther Devin’s hand at her side. Clinton, Missouri, September 28, 2011.