Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Smith’s 2015 Commencement Address

Thu 21st May, 2015

By Staff in Insight, Recognition, Member Benefit, National

What advice would you give to young journalists? Here’s APA EP President Brian Smith's Commencement Address to the 2015 graduates of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Brian's University of Missouri Commencement 2015

Greetings honored graduates, distinguished faculty and generous parents who paid handsomely to bring you together.

It’s great to be back in Columbia!

I was truly humbled and honored when I received Dean Mills request to speak to you today. I’d like to thank Dean Mills for the honor of addressing you today and also congratulate him on expertly guiding the School of Journalism for the past 26 years! May future leaders of Missouri’s School of Journalism always remember the example you set over the last quarter century whenever they hear the word “Dean”…

I’d also like to thank David Rees and Rita Reed for the role they played in bringing me here today. The photojournalism program could not possibly be in better hands. Cliff Edom and Angus McDougall would be proud!

This was such an unexpected honor and even my lovely wife was moved to say, “Wow, that’s really amazing!” Then she continued, “I would have expected Missouri would have asked one of their famous graduates like Brad Pitt or John Hamm.”

And that would be the one and only time my wife has ever compared me to Brad Pitt and Don Draper…

Aware that a commencement speech is a 10-minute delay of your post-graduation celebration, I asked a friend who makes his living making people laugh for a few tips to make this speech entertaining.

“You have absolutely nothing to worry about,” he said, “if they wanted an entertaining speech they never would have asked you…”

Never forget that while it’s great to have friends who tell you what you want to hear –truly great friends will tell you the brutal truth whether or not you want to hear it.

With that in mind I decided to roll up my sleeves and give this speech the old college try. In other words I’ve been “thinking” about “writing” this for the last six months…but I actually finished it a few hours ago.

What can I say? I work well on deadline.

Here are 10 things I wish someone told me on graduation day:

1. Work Harder

Success is 10% talent and 90% hard work. Talent may get you in the door – but hard work will separate you from the pack. If you want to succeed, you need to work harder than the next guy or gal. Hard work pays off.

2. Never Stop Learning

Never give up your thirst for knowledge. Your best asset as a journalist is to engage people and to possess the ability to strike up a five-minute conversation on absolutely any topic. One day soon you’ll realize the value of all your Arts & Science elective classes.

3. Talk to Strangers

Apologies to your parents who warned you as a child not to talk to strangers – but it’s time to remove that warning label. I tell young photographers that the best thing they can do to become a better photographer is to search out 50 strangers and photograph them in a way that reveals not merely what they look like — but who they are. The single most important thing any journalists can learn is how to speak to people, figure out what makes them tick so you can relate to them in a way that makes them feel comfortable enough to relax and tell you their story. This is no tricks or gimmicks to this. Simply be genuine. Whether you love them or loathe them, be genuinely interested in the people you’re covering.

4. Swing For the Fences

When you have a great opportunity, don’t play it safe. One of the greatest assignments of my career was as part of a three-photographer team covering the Los Angeles Olympics for the Orange County Register. Our competition had a team of 28. There simply was no way the three of us sit shoulder-to-shoulder with them. So my boss, Ron Mann, told us forget the safe shot everyone else was taking. Look for the shot everyone else was missing and he’d have out backs if we tried and failed as long as we gave it our best shot. Take your Shot! The greatest failure is failing to try. There’s a lesson here for those of you who will one day be editors or producers. If you want great work – stand behind the people you ask produce it.

5. Sweat the Small Stuff

Forget everything you’ve been told about “not sweating the small stuff.” Journalism is all about the small stuff. Pay attention to the smallest details as they often tell the story. Your attention to detail will separate you from the pack.

6. Tell Stories

I don’t mean the type of stories Brian Williams and I tell about our missions flying fighter jets with J. Lo over Iraq… As journalists, we should never be the story. We have the opportunity – indeed the obligation – to speak for those who don’t have a voice. I feel immensely fortunate to have witnessed both the greatest and worst moments in many people’s lives. Never forget our obligation to the truth at those moments. I can’t imagine anything that surpasses the front row seat you will have witnessing history.

7. Embrace New Technology and Methods of Communication

When I was in school no one considered the possibility of telling a story in 140 characters but social media has opened up new opportunities to communicate to people we might never have reached. The tools and medium may change but content is always king. An iPhone placed the hands of a trained photojournalist is a great tool – but smartphones alone should never replace a photo staff. Yes, Chicago Sun-Times, I mean you…

8. Treat Every Assignment as if it’s Your Dream Job

If you are trying to move up a better job or better assignments, treat every assignment as though it’s your dream job. If you’re working at a small weekly newspaper and your dream is to work for a large metro, approach every assignment as though it was your first week at your dream job. The same is true if you are at a large metro newspaper and dream of working for Vanity Fair. Treat every single assignment as though it’s for your dream client. Don’t slide by now with the idea that you can raise the quality when you get your dream job or you’ll never get there. The truth is that as you move up the ladder, the assignments don’t necessarily get any better – the expectations just get higher. Raise your game NOW!

9. Prepare to Get Lucky

Never apologize for luck! Some of my best photographs were sheer dumb luck. But here’s the thing – the harder you prepare – the luckier you get. Luck is a bi-product of hard work and preparation.

10. Never Work a Single Day

Once you find
something you love to do, become
the best at doing it and – you’ll never work a single day in your life. Journalism – when practiced properly – is never a job. It is a calling! Since graduating from Mizzou, I’ve lived what can only be described as a charmed life. I’ve told Bill Gates exactly what to do for an entire hour, dined with President, hung out with a billionaire on his private island, shared cupcakes with Anne Hathaway and gotten drunk with George Clooney all in quest of a great portrait. Does that sound like work to you?

And now, just for Spinal Tap fans, the numbers go to 11!

11. Don’t Forget to Have FUN!

If you want to be better at what you do – have more fun doing it. Hopefully each of you chose this path not for the money, but because you love it. You probably won’t get rich – in fact the only way I can guarantee that you can make a small fortune in journalism is to start with a very large one. Yet journalism can enrich your lives is ways few can imagine! Never forget to have fun!

Today is your day to breathe the rarefied air of this accomplishment that you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Celebrate tonight with copious amounts of rarefied beverages! You deserve it!

Don’t be alarmed when one day soon the clouds lift and you realize the mountaintop you stand upon today is actually base camp and the summit towers an endless climb above you.

Your climb has just begun.

Your journey will get steeper – yet the view gets better with each step you take. Not every step will be straight up the mountain – expect a few slips and slides along the way that might leave you battered and bruised. But keep going. Don’t give up.

At times you will struggle to catch your breath so take your time as you ascend. Those who take one step at a time can savor the view much more than those in a rush to the top. The climb will be dizzying. You may feel sick to your stomach as you glance over the edge. At times you may be ready to give up hope of going on. Don’t give up.

Savor every step of your journey and you shall enjoy a view that few others ever see. It’s truly the journey – not the destination – that shall enrich your lives in ways few could imagine.

In closing, I’ll share these words from my favorite Anchorman, Ron Burgundy, “Stay Classy, Columbia!”

Brian's Graduation Day 1981

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