Questions with an Educator: Kim Komenich

by | Sep 15, 2019 | Questions with an Educator, Strictly Business Blog

Child in occupied town, San Miguel, El Salvador, 1988. Photo by Kim Komenich.

This week’s Questions with an Educator features Kim Komenich.

Kim is an Associate Professor and head of the photojournalism sequence at San Francisco State University. He has had, and continues to have a very successful career in photojournalism; even winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. He now shares his extensive career experience with his students and works to help them navigate the rapidly changing photojournalism industry. Here he details his prize winning project, his path to his current teaching position, and some of his favorite aspects of teaching.

We asked: Please describe your Pulitzer Prize-winning project about the Philippine Revolution. How did this project come about?

Kim said: I was a newspaper photographer from 1979-2009 and this assignment was part of some ongoing coverage that we were doing of the fall of the Ferdinand Marcos regime. The photos that won the awards were a collection of daily newspaper assignments that we edited into a 14-picture essay. We then entered this photo essay in the news picture story category. The photographs had to have been taken in a calendar year, so most of the photographs were taken in January and February of 1986, and the essay won the 1987 Pulitzer for Spot News.

These photos have their roots in some trips I made with San Francisco Examiner investigative reporter Phil Bronstein to the Philippines in 1984-85. The San Francisco Bay Area has a big Filipino population – one of the largest in America. We found that the readership responded to our Philippines stories, many of which had a Bay Area angle. This helped justify further investment in the story. In all, Phil and I made five trips between 1984-87.

This was all before digital, so I had to take a darkroom with me to develop film and make prints, as well as use a machine similar to a fax machine to send the photos. The photos themselves were daily newspaper photos that accompanied stories about corruption or manipulation that Marcos and his cronies had been getting away with for years. I found that not too many photos can be taken of a corruption investigation, so I focused instead on photographing the human impact of the corruption. I was able to find and document things like human rights abuses, child labor and other results of manipulation by the Marcos regime. Although these photographs were short term in the sense that we were on a daily deadline for a newspaper, I found it very rewarding being able to assemble the photos into a longterm project that had a real impact on our readers. I published a collection of about 100 images from the project in a book called “Revolution Revisited” in 2016. I went back to the Philippines and interviewed more than a dozen of my photo subjects, rich and poor, for the book’s final chapter.

We asked: How did you acquire your position at San Francisco State University? How has your experience as a professor affected your own photography?

Kim said: I worked at Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner from 1982-2000 and continued to work for Hearst after it bought the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. I took a buyout from the Chronicle in 2009, two years after I completed my Master’s degree at the University of Missouri, specializing in photojournalism and multimedia storytelling.

I left the paper in March 2009 and by August I was putting my Master’s degree to use by becoming the first tenure-track multimedia professor at San Jose State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. By 2011, I had written four classes that established the school’s graduate multimedia degree. In 2015, shortly after I was promoted to associate professor and awarded tenure at San Jose, I was hired as the head of the photojournalism sequence at SF State. Earlier this year, I was once again promoted to associate professor and given tenure. For more people, it’s a six-year process. It took me an extra four years because I switched schools.

In 1987, shortly after I received my awards, Ken Light (who is now the Reva & David Logan Professor of Photojournalism at U.C. Berkeley) asked me to teach documentary photography at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. It was a great move–Ken who is a documentary photographer, asked me to teach documentary photography while he taught photojournalism. It kept us both fresh, I think.

Those were great years. Our guest speakers included Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Davidson and ASMP San Francisco co-founders Jack and Dorothy Fields, who told us about ASMP meetings at Wayne Miller’s Orinda home attended by Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange. 

I taught one day a week for about 20 years. I always found that the academic who keeps their day job gets to wear multiple hats. Back then I really enjoyed being able to trade my experience for the energy I got back from my students. In a way, I think we inspired each other. 

I was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford in 1993-94 and one of the most important lessons I learned came from the fellowship director Jim Bettinger. The Knight, more than any of the big fellowships, prides itself on innovation. We were discussing the state of photojournalism and he told me that it seemed that journalists were “using new technology to practice journalism as it was.” Bettinger was looking for future fellows who had the bandwidth to embrace the craft while redefining the art.

I kept his words in mind as I worked to redefine the curriculum at San Francisco State to ensure that students learn state-of-the-art photo and multimedia technology, and then put it to use by searching for fresh, compelling stories and subjects.

On the first day of class I tell my students that one of the toughest tasks that a journalism teacher faces today is trying to teaching communication skills to students whose parents told them not to talk to strangers. In no small part my goal is to encourage students to look someone in the eye, to be comfortable in the void and to fight the urge to flee.  To be curious and to let something “strike you.”  I try to teach that.

We have four courses built on one another. Photo I teaches the basics, while Photo II focuses on the “staff skills” like research, pitching a story and making deadlines. Photo III is what I like to call the “save the world class” which concentrates on the social documentary tradition, grant writing and crowdsourcing. Photo IV, on the other hand, is the “save your ass” class because it hones in on the business practices that will allow students to make a living while chasing their dreams. The class concentrates on editorial photography, lighting and emerging story forms.

We asked: How would you describe your teaching style? Has it changed over the years? Explain.

Kim said: When I began my career we were still using film. Looking back, it was all so cumbersome and restrictive. In those days my main concern was finding a way to take and deliver a storytelling picture sooner than my competition. Back then, we newspaper and wire service photographers made up the bulk of the people in the world who could shoot, build a hotel darkroom, develop, print, caption and transmit an image in an hour or so. Those skills kept me on the road for years.

Today, breaking news photos are often crowd sourced within minutes. Everybody with a smartphone is a potential news photographer. So what can I teach photojournalism students, then? I concentrate on two things: I want them to live the “photographic life” as Sam Abell says. I hope they come to understand that every encounter, every moment, has visual possibilities. And I want them to be good storytellers.

For photojournalists it’s about finding a story that matters, and then it’s about using all of our amazing tools in the right proportion to create a story that will matter to a reader. In my experience, a student’s “subject radar” and sense of aesthetics evolve with every story. So of course I encourage them to become fearless about trusting their gut feelings and checking out the possibilities. Our “intelligent failures” often teach us as much as our successes.

Obviously photojournalism students have to strive to master the craft of photojournalism as a core competency. I find that having sustainable career, especially in the early years, will require more. We teach our students employable skills in video, audio, and multimedia as well. The multimedia dimension gives student the necessary skills to pay the rent while they wait for their dream job in photojournalism to come along.

I want students to understand that the great stories are hard to find and to photograph. Our bodies and minds are wired to tell us that an investment of time without a quick result is a bad decision. Then the self-loathing creeps in– “this is a bad idea”… “I’m a failure, a phony”… “I’ll never succeed.” In nearly 40 years of attending presentations by successful photojournalists, I’ll wager that 80 percent of them said that that they had come to understand that learning to outlast these feelings of self-sabotage were part of the process. I urge my students to learn to be comfortable in the void. If they can learn to fight the urge to flee… well, that’s when the magic happens.

We asked: Why did you decide to return to school for your Master of Arts degree many years after initially graduating college? How did this experience impact your career and your own teaching?

Kim said: When I first went off to college, I felt like my family had left me as opposed to me leaving my family. My mother died when I was 18 and my dad died when I was 20, so I really needed to be careful about the choices I made in school. It was a difficult time, but in the absence of other choices I decided that my education was what would get me where I wanted to go. I leveraged my status as a student and contacted photographers who had my dream job and asked to go on assignment with them. I saw them work, I listened to the conversations they had with their subjects and later I saw them edit their work. I absorbed as much information as I could.

After the Philippine Revolution work was published in 1987 I was asked to teach my first documentary class. I knew what an impact my education had made on my career, so I was excited to have an opportunity to give back.

Four years after receiving the Pulitzer I decided I needed a tune-up so I signed up for the Missouri Photo Workshop, the longest-running workshop in the history of photography. The Missouri workshop has a reputation for being a boot camp for picture story photographers. You fly in to a small Missouri town along with 40 other photographers from around the world and you find, pitch, shoot and edit a picture story in four days.

Like many MPW attendees, I was, shall we say, “humbled.” It didn’t matter what was in my portfolio or what awards I had won, my faculty team members Stormy Greener, Don Doll and Lois Raimondo saw to it that I was taking my next step. To make a long story short, I pitched probably a dozen stories on Monday and Tuesday and didn’t get to take my first picture until Tuesday night. I had a day and a half to shoot. I didn’t “win” at MPW (it’s not a contest), but I learned things that week about research and pitching that I still use and teach today. 

This experience taught me how, in the right hands, it’s possible for a student to make major breakthroughs in a very short time. I just needed to get out of my own way and quit repeating myself. I needed to create. I was invited to join the MPW faculty in 1991 and this will be my 24th year teaching the workshop. In 1998 I was offered a two-year gig as a lecturer at the Missouri School of Journalism and an opportunity to pursue my Master’s degree. I told my students I felt like Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School.”

It was perfect timing. I had about 20 years’ experience as a film-era photojournalist when I came to Mizzou in 1998. This two-year appointment would afford me the opportunity to apply what I knew to the rapidly evolving age of digital photojournalism. 

It’s important for teachers to stay in the game. I shoot–mostly short films about photographers. Teachers have the luxury of already having a “day job.” Mine requires doing ongoing creative research and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. Besides that I’m a little long in the tooth to still be shooting wars and revolutions.

We asked: What is your favorite part about teaching aspiring photographers? Why?

Kim said: I love watching my students when they know they’ve got their teeth into good story. The students that are in a state of fascination about their stories are the ones that really keep me going. They remind me of myself when I was their age.

My goal is to bring students as close to “turning pro” as possible before they graduate. San Francisco is a very expensive place to live and often our students work multiple jobs to stay in school. This makes our time together in class and the student’s time in the field even more precious. I want their stories to be pure and undeniable. I am in awe of those who pour their heart and soul into their work, because I know the personal sacrifices they are making. I love to watch when a student finds their “zone” – when they go from being a photojournalism student to being a photojournalist who happens to be going to school.

If this article was of interest to you, take a look at some of the other articles in the Questions with an Educator and Questions with a Pro series.