College vs. Experience: Which Is More Important?

A conversation with award-winning photojournalist Dudley M. Brooks

Around November of 2019, my editor and I sat down for a common conversation. “What’s your plan after high school?” was the question asked of me. I eluded the answer every time it came up. While I’d love to rough it across the country living my #vanlife, travel blogging, and freelance writing, my parents think I need a more stable plan. But now it’s April, and with Decision Day around the corner there is another nagging question: “Do you actually want to go to college?”

I answered this question by avoiding it until now. I had the awesome opportunity to talk to a professional in my field of interests, Mr. Dudley M. Brooks, Deputy Director of Photography for the Washington Post. He has won several awards, including the Robert F. Kennedy Award for International Photojournalism. Brooks was kind enough to answer all my questions on the debate of going to college vs. learning from personal experience.

Truestar.Life: How long have you been in your field? 

Dudley Brooks: [I’ve been in it] around 40 years.

TSL: In what ways do you feel college helped you as a photojournalist?

DB: [College] gives you some perspective. You know, photojournalism and journalism in general is about having a lot of background information and being able to have a perspective on issues that you may end up covering. A lot of that you get from digging into advanced courses or advanced information on how things work, which is what college gives you. You are able to… dig deeply into a lot of the philosophies, a lot of techniques and traditions and understanding of how successful journalists operate… in order to give you some background on how to move forward.

It’s like anything. Journalism is a profession like any profession, and if you’re going to study computer engineering there are things you need to know in order to be a successful computer engineer. Journalism is pretty much now the same way, and so I wouldn’t say it is absolutely necessary, but I would say that it is well advised.

Another thing is that in university and college, with education and training, you meet people. You bounce off ideas and meet people who become your network and with journalism it is important to have an established network or a continuously established network, because it never stops; you’re always meeting new people and coming in contact with folks who can feed you information or trade off information and ideas.

TSL: Do you feel a traditional college route is essential for success in this field? 

DB: Yes, but I always kind of advise students that if you are going to study journalism your entire course studies should not just be how to write or tell stories, or photograph, or how to do this. It goes back to background information. I would advise students to study business–take business classes, take history classes, etc. Being a journalist is to be very well rounded and you could do very, very well in how to photograph or write something, but unless you have perspective in how the world works or why these particular things you are tackling are important, or how they fit into a larger scheme historically, socially, or whatever else, you are not operating from as much of an educated position as you should be. The best journalists are people who are naturally curious about everything, they are looking at all types of topics, they’re interested in everything. You basically become a sponge for information because the more information you have the better you are going to be at this profession.

TSL: If you were to go back to the beginning of your career as a photojournalist, what are some alternative routes you would have taken instead of or along with college?

DB: You see when I was in school, which is a long time ago, there were no hardcore photojournalism courses or fields of study. There were a couple, but not like it is now… so a lot of what I did was self-taught. I mainly studied fine art, which was a good thing to do because it developed an aesthetic as far as how I used my camera and composition.

It depends on the type of photography [or writing] you want to do. If you want to tell stories, then you need to learn how to find stories, how to interpret them, what to look for, and you need to study what a lot of other people have done. You can do it without that, but it is better if you have hardcore lessons and training you can rely on.

TSL: What advantages do you feel college provided for you that someone without that experience couldn’t find elsewhere?

DB: It gave me a network of people I met in college that I still keep in touch with, and they’re in a lot of different fields. It’s a great place to make mistakes as well as learn lessons. Hopefully those two things are combined so that you learn from your mistakes. It is a situation where it is not as career-crushing to make mistakes there as opposed to when you are getting paid for it. That’s a whole different level of commitment to it.

TSL: What are some resources aspiring photojournalists can use now to prepare for the industry?

DB: Look at a lot of pictures. Go to the bookstore and just look at picture books, just look at a lot of work. We live in a visual society; everything is visual from billboards to movies to TV shows to advertisements to newspapers to fashion magazines or whatever. Look at a lot of work and then when you look at it, try to employ the things that you see within the work that you do for yourself.

Everything is a resource, everything is an idea waiting to happen. It goes back to being interested in everything, being curious about how everything works and how it all fits together. There’s so much content out there now, streaming services or whatever, where you can watch countless documentaries on “this is how this person did this” or “this is how this person did that.” I used to read a lot of autobiographies of people I admired and looked at how they set their lives up and how things happened to them and the positions they put themselves in or found themselves in to where they were able to have access to opportunities to move them another step forward, or they learned something new that increased the value or the productivity of what they produced on their own. Basically, look at countless resources, read a lot about a lot of different things, but for photography look at a lot of different people’s work. All types of work: fashion photography, food photography; learn about all of it. Be curious about all of it.

TSL: What are your final thoughts on the college vs. career debate?

DB:  Be passionate about it. Anything you want to do you should be passionate about. Realize there’s so much competition that you have to constantly keep working on your skill level. Everything is practice. Even when you’re doing it for a living, you are still practicing something new or another technique or another angle. You have to constantly be working. Constantly.


Even though we talked mainly about the journalist field here, I urge all my seniors to talk to a professional within your field of interest if you haven’t already. Decision Day is May 1st and between the nonrefundable tuition deposit and the fact that beyond the doors of high school our possibilities are endless, the decision part of Decision Day may seem pretty daunting without as much research as possible. Keep in mind that college is not for everyone, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to attend just to make anyone proud (that’s a waste of time and money so please don’t do that). It’s our year Class of 2020. Let’s finish strong, no matter what path comes next.


By Patience Hurston, Senior, Thornwood High School

Twitter & Instagram: @itsyaafavvv


Written by TrueStar Staff

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