Alex Garcia on Storytelling, Continual Growth, and Cuba Workshops

Alex Garcia, A small boat advisory in the Caribbean nearly upends the travelers on a boat traversing to an otherwise inaccessible area off the Nicaragua coast.

Pulitzer Prize and Cannes Lions Titanium Lion Winner Alex Garcia‘s Strictly Business 2020 talk focuses on diversifying clientele, avoiding being commoditized, and speaking to his transition from an on-staff photojournalist to working to being a storyteller in stills and video with clients in corporate, non-profit and advertising worlds. With a new year and new 2020 goals, we asked Garcia a series of questions about how his photography career has adapted and shifted, who inspires him, and Cuba Workshops.

As a photojournalist, can you give insight into the ways you’ve continually had to adapt your photography practice, and if your practice has been forced to shift with changes in news and print media?

Before I made the jump to freelance from working on staff at a daily newspaper, I knew I would need to diversify my storytelling in order to sustain a business. Fortunately, the storytelling sensibilities that guide decision-making as a photojournalist are in demand, in which authenticity, emotional intimacy and moment-based imagery are paramount. Most independent photojournalists I know take their approaches to magazine, advertising and corporate work to the point that they eventually adopt other titles, such as “editorial and commercial photographer”. I was on the board of the National Press Photographers Association and one of the priorities was to shift the organization to better serve the changing needs of photojournalists since many were no longer on staffs. Moreover, after starting to freelance while at the paper for what I knew was coming storms, it was interesting that large news organizations and I were essentially adopting the same strategies. We were both focusing more on video, creating storytelling companies, creating workshops, and ebooks. When you’re photographing every single day of a workweek, you learn a lot about what it takes to shape a narrative and to hold people’s interest in a scattered visual culture.

Alex Garcia, Portrait of a client at Casa Central, the largest social service organization serving the Latino/Hispanic community in the Midwest.

On your blog, you give a peek into your talk by sharing advice that you would tell your 2014 self. Can you share one piece of advice you would give someone making a jump to freelance work, and share one thing you’re doing in 2020 to push your own practice?

Nothing is guaranteed. Your style, your abilities, your prizes, your charm, your experience, your hustle, your client list. It means a lot to some people and nothing to others. This means you have to continually grow and reinvent. I’ve spoken to some of the top names in photography/motion and they’ll startle me with phrases like, “Well, if all this doesn’t work out, I’ll go find something else to do.” But it rings true. I tell some people this, and they’re like, “You’re kidding, right, you shouldn’t have any problem. You’re at the top of your game!”. And I’m thinking, it just doesn’t work like that. Even if you scale Mt. Everest, you have to keep moving or perish when the weather changes. That doesn’t mean you should live in fear, just with a healthy appraisal of reality.

In 2020, I’ll be more intentional in expanding the visibility of the company, Three Story Media that I run with my wife Laura Husar Garcia. Up until now, I have soft-rolled out the company so that I could find its place in the marketplace while balancing it with my personal brand. I’m excited for it to take shape. 

Alex Garcia, A Havana resident washes a dish as he surveys the interior of a dilapidated theater that he calls home. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming workshop in Cuba?

You could say Cuba Workshops is just a very big personal project. I’ve been going there since 1995, at first to visit family on my father’s side and then later to understand the culture better as a student, photojournalist and as a tour leader. After co-leading some tours with the New York Times Journeys program and the School of Visual Arts – New York, I gained some insights and confidence in how to lead such a production, which I did finally last year. The photo tours I lead are purposefully small, to allow us better access and to work without causing the kind of spectacle that you would create with a bus full of 20 photographers unloading at a single location. Essentially, I’m delivering to other photographers the kind of experiences I would have loved to have had on my first visit to the island. Between myself and a couple of tour managers in Cuba, one of which is my cousin who was already a working tour guide, we deliver curated situations. Every day we have photoshoots arranged, to supplement what they may find on their own. We follow all legal guidelines, which are changing by the day it seems. It’s a ton of fun, not just for the travelers who offer their testimonials on my site, but for the Cubans we meet who we support with our time, photography and donations.

Alex Garcia, A window washer reveals his enthusiasm for his chosen profession in downtown Chicago. 

Who are you currently inspired by or who has impacted your work and practice the most (photographers, readings, brands, media, etc.)?

So many and for different reasons. I really admire my friend Doug Menuez who was one of the first photojournalists to pioneer documentary photography in the advertising world. Documentary/lifestyle photographer Jonathan Chapman in Minnesota was always an inspiration for the way in which he held together both video and photo together with a singular vision. His passing last year was such a tragic loss. Mamadi Doumbouya and how his vision can captivate and influence others in the marketplace. I also admire what the New York Times is doing with their video series, The Weekly.  It combines both the pursuit of truth and storytelling in a new medium, in a polished manner. I love what my former Tribune colleague Stephanie Sinclair has done with the organization she founded to raise awareness about child brides around the world. I’ll be attending the National Geographic Storytellers Summit in a few days, and I’m sure I’ll be blown away by all the work that I’ll see.


Image courtesy Alex Garcia

As a Chicago commercial photographer and photojournalist, Alex Garcia been telling stories through some 6,000 assignments to date.  Along the way, he has the rare distinction of being part of the highest awards in both advertising and editorial; a Titanium Lion at the Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity and a Pulitzer Prize. Along with several other accolades, HarperCollins has called him “one of the world’s leading photojournalists.”  Whether it be stills, motion or a hybrid shoot, he’s learned to be resourceful, creative and dependable no matter the circumstance or level of production. He enjoys the benefits of being a sole photographer as much as he enjoys working with a team to achieve creative objectives and art direction on a larger production.  Garcia’s philosophy: Strong communication skills, direction and positivity on set are crucial to rally others to the creative vision on a project. Learn more about his upcoming workshops in Cuba!