Q&A with Kate Medley, freelance photojournalist

Photographer Kate Medley stands in a field as several cows graze nearby

Kate Medley is a freelance photojournalist based in Durham, North Carolina. Her clients have included The Wall Street Journal, the Southern Foodways Alliance and the quarterly journal Southern Cultures. In this interview, conducted by email, Medley discusses her approach to photography, what makes an effective caption and how college students can prepare for freelance work. (Photo by Mark Kempf)

Q. Describe your typical workweek. What is life like as a freelancer?

A. When you become a freelance journalist, you throw the idea of a “typical workweek” out the window. It’s often a work world that alternates between feast or famine. I am always striving to reach more of a middle ground — laying the groundwork for greater work opportunities to avoid the famine and setting personal boundaries to ensure that the feast doesn’t overwhelm other priorities.

In an ideal world, I take on two or three photojournalism assignments each week. In addition to that, I maintain a list of longer term projects, which I work on when photojournalism is scarce.

Q. Your photography focuses on environmental portraits through the frame of Southern politics and social justice. What makes an effective photo with those themes?

A. I grew up in the politically and socially complicated landscape of Mississippi. The drive to understand – and help others to understand – the nuance of the South is at the heart of my work.

After working for daily newspapers right out of college, I went back to school and got a master’s in Southern Studies. I read the literature of this region, studied the sociology and learned a lot of history about the South. But at my core, I always felt driven to continue my work documenting the people of this place and telling stories about how the South is evolving.

The South is a region long burdened with tropes. In my photography work, I strive to tell stories that are less black and white — stories that might complicate one’s idea of the region.

Instead of photographing nouns, I aim to photograph adjectives and adverbs. I want to show the feeling, meaning and insight of the story.

Q. A photo typically has a caption. What makes a caption work well with an image?

A. A basic caption tells the viewer who/what/where/why. It should be able to stand alone, giving the viewer a concise idea of what’s going on.

It sounds basic, but a good caption must always include names of the people photographed — even if they are seemingly unreachable (i.e., a fleeting moment, or the subject is up on a rooftop, or you feel trepidation in approaching to ask for a name). As a photojournalist, I spend an inordinate amount of time tracking down correct spellings of names and creating systems within my workflow to ensure accuracy of names.

An above-and-beyond photo caption might include a direct quote from the person in the photograph. I occasionally use this “extended caption” approach when I pitch a photo essay or a series of images where I am functioning as both the photographer and the writer.

Smartphone technology makes the workflow of captioning infinitely easier than it was 10 years ago. When I’m photographing an event or a scene with lots of people, I’ll make the images with my dSLR, and then I’ll make a quick photo of that person on my iPhone, and I’ll use the caption feature on the iPhone to embed the person’s name directly into the image file along with any quotes or contact information.

The iPhone image functions as my reporter’s notebook — no one else sees this image. But I’m able to easily match it up with my dSLR image.

Q. What advice do you have for students who are considering careers in photojournalism and documentary filmmaking? 

A. Take a business class — or three. It will help you know how to advocate for yourself in the long run, regardless of which direction the industry or your career takes.

Leverage your position as a student to shadow and interview as many people as possible. Professionals want to help students.

At the same time, it is likely that your most important relationships are sitting in this classroom alongside you. Be generous and attentive to these relationships. These are the people who will be leading your industry in 5 or 10 or 20 years.

See examples of Kate Medley’s photography on her website, and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

1 thought on “Q&A with Kate Medley, freelance photojournalist”

  1. Your interview with Kate was one of the best to appear here. I went on her web site to see her photographs, and they are excellent. Thanks for bringing her work to my attention.

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