Peace Corps Turns Graduate into Photojournalist

Photography: Andrew Cullen

In January 2009, more than 2,600 students were enrolled in a photography-related program at the campuses of the Art Institute, a chain of private art schools. Of those who were studying for a bachelor’s degree, nine out of ten would be expected to find a job in their field of study within six months of graduating. For associate degree students, the employment rate would be just over eighty percent. While those figures may be encouraging, stepping out of college into an industry squeezed by media cuts, falling stock prices and wedding couples concerned about their budgets is never going to be easy. The industry may be getting tighter but there’s no shortage of young photographers hoping to squeeze in. One way to build a name, stand out and develop the kind of unique brand that can lead to a successful career in photography may be to pack a bag, flee the crowds and head to the back of beyond.

Andrew Cullen graduated from Boston University in 2005 with a degree in photojournalism. Rather than pass his portfolio around media outlets more concerned about which staff photographer to let go next, he joined the Peace Corps looking to discover another culture, learn a foreign language

“and find some stories that would strengthen my photography portfolio while maybe doing a little bit of good for the world at the same time,” he told us.

The Peace Corps sent him to Bangladesh then, after evacuating the program for security reasons, flew him on to Mongolia, a place where Cullen had spent some time as a student. From 2006 to 2009, he worked in community development, primarily in English language education. When his stint with the Peace Corps ended, he stayed on as a freelance photographer, only returning to the US in the late fall of last year.

Documenting the Dzud

Most of the stories Cullen shot during his time in Mongolia focused on development, health and the environment. He photographed rural hospitals, air pollution in the residential districts of
Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, and cultural festivals, as well as a few travel pieces. His biggest story was on the dzud, a long, bitter winter so cold that livestock are unable to graze. In the winter of 2009-2010, one of the worst dzuds in many years killed about 9 million of Mongolia’s 44 million livestock animals.

“It hit the poorest herders hardest,” Cullen recalled. “If you had 500 animals and 200 died, you still had a good base to build back from, and you would still have enough to eat, and could make some money come spring by selling cashmere wool from the goats. If you had a herd of 30 animals and you lost 25, you might as well have had nothing.”

Most of Cullen’s story ideas came from his familiarity with the country. He had already been in Mongolia for several years before shooting full time, had read about the country and knew which stories most interested the foreign media.  Most of his ideas though — as well as many of his subjects — came from conversations he had had with Mongolian friends and acquaintances.

If coming up with stories to shoot in a country as interesting and photogenic as Mongolia was relatively simple, selling those stories was always going to be a lot harder.

“Finding buyers was a huge challenge,” says Cullen, “[especially as] a young, un-established photographer working from a country that tends to fly under the radar as far as international news goes.”

Most of his stories Cullen pitched before beginning the shoot, but some were shot first then sold afterwards. UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) commissioned some work from him, and EurasiaNet, a site focused on Central Asia, provided Cullen with enough work to keep him in the country.

Networking played an important role as well. Cullen sent emails to all of the international development agencies working in Mongolia to let them know that he was available to document their projects or social issues. When he was in the capital, he arranged meetings with their communications officers to discuss ways they could use his photography.

A New Photojournalist

Turning a long trip abroad into the start of a photojournalistic career then depends on two factors. Knowledge of the country is vital but has to be gained in the field and not just from books, media reports and travel guides.

“Give yourself time to explore the culture before you start blazing away with the camera, or you’ll end up with images that say a lot more about yourself and your norms than about the people you came to photograph,” warns Cullen.

And cultivating connections is vital too, both as a source of story ideas and to find outlets that publish and pay for those photographic stories.

Now back in the United States, Cullen is shooting and writing for a newspaper, finishing a travel guide to Mongolia, which will be produced by Other Places Publishing later this year, and running a photo blog on the New England music scene. He’s also looking for funding that will allow him to move back to Asia within the next year or two and is hoping to complete a portrait project and a social/landscape series back in Mongolia.

In other words, five years after graduating with a degree in an endangered profession, he’s doing all of the things that a professional photojournalist can do to develop their career. Much of that opportunity came from an early decision to pack a camera and head to a place that most photographers tend to ignore.

“Mongolia gave me a chance to follow stories that I was passionate about, and that weren’t being covered by many — or any — other photographers,” says Cullen. “It gave me a sort of calling card to set me apart from other young photographers. And it gave me a lot of practice finding stories where the stories weren’t always obvious.”

Andrew Cullen might have had a host of different reasons for joining the Peace Corps — a combination of curiosity, philanthropy and photography — but a long trip abroad has helped him to build the foundation of a long career as a photographer.

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