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|| News Item: Posted 2009-09-03

Getting Lost
Jenna Isaacson Pfueller has lost many things in the last six months, but not hope.

By Jenna Isaacson Pfueller

Photo by Jenna Isaacson Pfueller

Photo by Jenna Isaacson Pfueller

Thousands gathered in front of the Capitol to pay respects as the procession for Sen. Edward Kennedy made it's way to Arlington Cemetery on Saturday, August 29, 2009 in Washington, DC.
One day last February I was shooting the Super Bowl, one of the coolest assignments I could've ever imagined doing in my career. Two days later my cell phone rang. I was at home, eating a quick bite and editing through my cards after shooting three assignments out of town that morning. I didn't get to it in time and it went to voicemail. I called back and the executive editor answered. After some rambling and awkward silences on the other end, I hung up.

I was laid off.

In my thirty-one years I've lost a lot of things. Car keys, fights with roommates, favorite pairs of socks, photo contests, both of my parents and occasionally my mind. But nothing prepared me for losing a job, especially over the phone. Especially when they knew I'd be alone to hear the news.

Because after being in papers for ten years, it felt like I was losing my identity. My husband Ed and I had gotten hired together at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the largest of the New York Times regional papers, in the summer of 2006. We left the safety of our small town paper jobs, ready for a new challenge and a new place. We bought a house, moved my 95-year-old grandfather down to be near us and settled into our new lives as Floridians. We were comfortable in the thought that of all places, Florida would support newspaper products until the last breath of the industry.

But once we got there, we quickly noticed the downturn picking up speed. Several rounds of layoffs claimed two of our friends and other co-workers in the months that followed. Many of those that weren't laid off either left or began seriously looking at jobs elsewhere. We lived in fear for over a year that it would eventually be our turn.

And then it was.

Photo by
My husband and two other photographers were laid off in October 2008, bringing our photo staff from 10 when we started, down to just five. It was an awful feeling, getting up to go to work at the same place that had just laid off my husband and trying to be positive. With so many laid off photographers from our paper still in the area, trying to make a go of freelancing in such a small market wasn't really an option for either of us. But as luck would have it, Ed found a job very quickly through the classifieds. His new job as the photographer at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. meant that we'd have to live apart to pay the bills. After the New Year, he moved in with his sister's family and started his new job.

By the time I got my call four months after his, I'd already spent a month alone in Florida. I stayed until April by myself down there, readying our house for sale, meeting with lawyers, having garage sales, applying for jobs in DC and trying to figure out what to do with my grandfather. On top of it all I had to put my aging cat to sleep.

But I quickly realized it was all for the best. Newspapers have had years to adjust to the challenges they have, yet they still haven't figured it out. I knew the quicker I was out, the better off I'd be. So the last time I walked into the newsroom to get the last of my things I looked around-and I was the only one smiling.

Coming to DC set off a light bulb for me and opened my eyes to a world of photojournalism beyond newspapers. Everyone needs photos, not just news outlets. And there are people that are willing to hire you for your vision, who pay well and appreciate your work.

Moving to a city was exciting but intimidating at the same time. But thankfully the photo community here in DC has been warm, welcoming, and incredibly helpful. Within just a few weeks I had lunch dates with other women photographers that were kind enough to share their tips on the business. I'm deeply grateful for the Women Photojournalists of Washington, or WPOW, who are generous enough to take newcomers like me and help us get on our feet the right way.

Work is starting to come in fits and spurts and I'm not sure I'll ever get used to having so much downtime. Social networking sites have helped me find a few clients and friends in the business have been kind enough to pass things by way. I still apply for jobs here and there that spark my interest, but eight months of unsuccessful attempts to get full-time work has made freelancing my best income option at the moment.

My first two freelance assignments in DC came from a friend I'd met in college who now works as an editor at the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. While I thought I'd be a nervous wreck photographing my first event at the Capitol on deadline, the staff there made it a breeze. I got amazing access to Sen. Al Franken's swearing-in ceremony and celebratory events thanks to the Pioneer-Press, and made the first photos in a long time that I was really proud of. In a strange way, I felt a little freer mentally to chase my own vision of the event as a freelancer than I felt I used to do as a staff photographer. The weight of having to get "the shot" felt lighter somehow, since I only had something to gain from the experience. I felt I made better images because of it.

Photo by

Jenna Isaacson Pfueller
There's a steep learning curve to figuring out the business aspects of freelancing, stuff I wish they'd taught me in school years ago. No one gets into photography because they love spending all day learning QuickBooks. But now that I'm freelancing, I no longer feel like I'm on the outside looking in on the best parts of life. I can have an opinion instead of just photographing those voicing their own. I can pursue my own interests instead of just doing photo stories on interesting things. And I can work for people who appreciate my vision, my hard work and my experience. Don't get me wrong, there is certainly that element of news that I miss. I miss my newsroom friends and that "being in the know" feeling. But I don't miss the dark cloud that hung over our newsroom or the feeling of dodging the bullets of constant layoffs.

It's not often that life forcefully pushes you off the hamster wheel and gives you a chance to figure out what you really want from life- and from yourself. I learned that when you're free to fail, you're finally free to try new things. For any of you facing the possibility of being laid off, just know that it won't be easy, but it's also not the worst thing that can possibly happen to you. There really is life outside of the newsroom.

I've lost a lot in 31 years-heck-just in the last six months alone. But the one thing I won't lose is hope.

(Jenna Isaacson Pfuller is a freelance photographer base in the Washington D.C. area. You can see her work at: and

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