Photography student to pro: Michele Spatari's photojournalism journey

Taking part in the Canon Student Development Programme was a turning point in Michele Spatari's life. Here he explains how he got started in photography, what he learned on the programme and how it has helped his career.
A woman lies across a sofa with her hands draped above her head, a face mask pulled down to her chin. In the corner of the grey room is a small planted tree with bright orange flowers.

Michele Spatari's personal project on the social and economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, No Place Like Hope, won the Discovery Award at the Encontros da Imagem festival in Portugal. In this image, a 26-year-old homeless woman named Justice lies on a sofa in a displaced person's unit in Johannesburg during the country's national lockdown in 2020. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens at 1/320 sec, f/1.8 and ISO500. © Michele Spatari

Making the transition from photography student to professional photojournalist is not easy. A passion for photography, an ability to shoot strong images and plenty of original ideas are all essential for the job. However, developing a network of connections and receiving advice and photography mentorships from senior professionals are also vital in helping you get established.

Italian photographer Michele Spatari is someone who has successfully made the leap from photography graduate to pro. After completing his studies, he took part in the Canon Student Development Programme in 2018 and is now a freelance photographer whose main client is global news agency Agence France-Presse.

He is now based in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he has covered major news events while also working on his own personal documentary projects. His images have been featured in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time magazine, and he has worked for organisations including UNICEF and the World Wide Fund for Nature. He was also selected as a Canon Ambassador in 2020.

A car skids around a track at night, with spectators lining the outside of the track taking photographs.

Michele has shot a variety of stories for Agence France-Presse. They include South Africa's Petrolheads Rodeo, which documents the popularity of "spinning" – stunts performed with heavily modified cars on specially-constructed tracks on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens at 1/125 sec, f/1.8 and ISO3200. © Michele Spatari

From architect to photographer

Unusually for a photojournalist, Michele's career journey began with a degree in architecture from the University of Ferrara. Towards the end of his course, he spent a year working on his final project in Beirut, Lebanon.

"I was interested in the role of public space in post-conflict cities, so Lebanon was a good fit," he says. "While there, I started using photography for my research and started meeting lots of photojournalists and documentarists.

"I got fascinated with photography through meeting these people and gradually decided that this was what I wanted to do. I realised I was mostly interested in researching cities and urbanism and how people shape their environment, and started using photography as a tool to explore and understand these themes."

Two people leaning in to look at the back of a Canon camera.

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When he had completed his architecture qualification, Michele started reaching out to people for advice on becoming a photographer. One of them was Canon Ambassador Marco Longari, whose coverage of the Arab Spring, from around 2010 to 2014, Michele especially admired.

"Marco was kind enough to reply," says Michele. "He said I had ideas and passion, but my photography was bad. He advised me to get an education in photojournalism and documentary photography." Michele went on to take a Masters in Photojournalism at the ISFCI in Rome.

By the end of the course, Michele had completed a long-term project on public showers and the housing crisis in Turin, for which he had won the Canon Italy Young Photographer Award. But, he says, "I wasn't yet in the industry." He needed to take the next step.

A selection of photo printouts are laid out across a table.

For the 2022 Canon Student Development Programme, 100 selected participants will be partnered with a professional mentor for three sessions during the summer, to work on and improve an existing project. At the next stage, 30 participants will attend a workshop in Perpignan, France, during which they will take part in portfolio reviews, practical sessions and discussions.

A group of people sit around a round table, which is laid out with photo prints.

The Canon Student Development Programme offers a unique opportunity for participants to have their work appraised by industry experts and Canon Ambassadors. "Having constructive criticism is the way you start growing as a photographer," says former participant Michele Spatari.

Joining the Canon Student Development Programme

To help himself move further towards a photography career, Michele applied to take part in the 2018 Canon Student Development Programme.

The programme offered the chance to attend the Visa pour l'Image international festival of photojournalism in Perpignan, France, meet leading photographers, picture editors, gallery curators and other aspiring photojournalists, and take part in workshops and portfolio reviews. "It was obvious that it was a great opportunity," Michele says.

As part of his application, Michele had to submit two photo stories. One was his Turin project, titled Rising Water, and the other was a smaller story about the eccentric owner of a burlesque nightclub in Rome. His application was successful and he was accepted onto the programme.

Each group of participants was assigned a mentor, and Michele's was the Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Daniel Etter. Together with Daniel, the group visited exhibitions, and participants were encouraged to look at images in detail and offer constructive criticism. They also had individual professional portfolio reviews and attended a series of lectures by speakers including Francis Kohn, former Photo Director at Agence France-Presse, and Thomas Borberg, Editor-in-Chief of Danish newspaper Politiken. Michele was also able to meet Marco Longari in person, and to be introduced to his AFP colleagues.

For Michele, the Canon Student Development Programme was important not only because he learned invaluable skills but particularly because he made important contacts. "It was a beautiful experience both on a professional level and on a human level," he says. "I made many friends and contacts there – people I'm still in regular touch with today."

A group of people sit on wooden decking, eating packed lunches from paper bags. They all wear lanyards with red straps around their necks, and one man is holding up a Canon EOS R and looking through the viewfinder

As well as offering photography mentorship opportunities, the Canon Student Development Programme also enables participants to meet informally and network with other aspiring news and documentary photographers.

Michele says one of the most valuable aspects of the programme was the feedback on his own work during the portfolio reviews. "Daniel especially was very honest and very tough on my work, which felt bad at the beginning," he remembers. "But having constructive criticism is the way you start growing as a photographer. Having a highly regarded professional like Daniel reviewing my work was very enlightening.

"When I got back to Italy, I added all the advice I'd received into my way of shooting the Turin project and it really helped to finish it. At the end, it was a much more interesting and mature piece of work than it was before I went to the programme."

A group of Abkhaz men sit around a table near the sea playing dominoes under a lamp.

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The 2022 Canon Student Development Programme opens for entries on 28 March. 100 entrants will be selected to take part, and will be partnered with a professional mentor over the summer. Then the top 30 will attend an exclusive five-day workshop in Perpignan that overlaps with the Visa pour l'Image festival. Finally, five students will be selected to take part in a prestigious portfolio review in Hamburg, and will be offered six-month mentorships, Canon kit worth up to €9,000 and a €2,000 grant.

Michele emphasises the benefit of the mentorship he received. "Once you've finished photography school, it's more difficult to have somebody who takes the time to look at your projects and discuss them with you and give you directions and criticism," he says. "The mentorship is something you can't put a price on."

A man stands holding food boxes as a crowd of people queue, one man stretching out his hands towards the boxes as he is held back by the man next to him.

Another image from Michele's No Place Like Hope project on the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa. Here, a man queues for a food package during a meal distribution in Johannesburg's Central Business District in May 2020. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens at 1/800 sec, f/1.8 and ISO800. © Michele Spatari

Michele's work today

The formal and informal contacts Michele developed on the programme led directly to him covering the 2019 elections in South Africa for Agence France-Presse, and he has continued working there for the past three years.

"When I arrived in South Africa, I focused on learning the skills to be a good news photographer," he says. "I wanted to be 100% sure I could get the best pictures out of every situation. Now I feel comfortable in most situations and have the technical skills I need to deliver images for a news agency."

After about a year in the country, Michele resumed working on his own personal projects. The first was No Place Like Hope, in which he explored the social and economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa. This won him First Prize in the Covid-19 category at the WARS Photography Awards.

He is currently working on three different projects: Ingozi, a long-term series on the rapidly-growing private security industry in South Africa; Ballads From The End Of The Desert, which he describes as "a visual exploration of the South African Karoo desert"; and a 15-minute video documentary, made in Barcelona, which "talks about the need for beauty that every one of us feels in our everyday lives."

A man wearing a stab-proof vest stands against a wooden wall holding a cap in one hand, a bandana around his mouth and nose, looking out of the frame.

One of Michele’s current personal projects is titled Ingozi and focuses on the private security industry in South Africa. In this image, a security guard prays in his company's barracks before the start of his patrol shift in Johannesburg. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens at 1/800 sec, f/1.8 and ISO2500. © Michele Spatari

Michele's advice for aspiring photojournalists and documentary photographers is to recognise that it's initially difficult to get established, but if you work hard the personal rewards are great.

"It's demanding on a personal and financial level," he says. "The first years will be super tough. But if you really know why you're doing it, it becomes more and more refined in your mind. If you're lucky enough to start working on something you really love, you have to be consistent and keep pushing. Things are not going to come overnight, but in the long run it's worthwhile."

For students trying to start their professional career, Michele recommends applying for every opportunity available, including prizes, grants and portfolio reviews – and of course the Canon Student Development Programme. "The Canon programme is special, but you have to take every other possible chance to show your work," he says. "Don't be shy – just go out there and do it. There's no better way to grow as a photographer or as a storyteller."

How does the Canon Student Development Programme work?

The Canon Student Development Programme helps photography students from across the Europe, Middle East and Africa region to advance their career and take the next step to becoming a pro photographer.

  • To enter, students submit a portfolio of up to 20 images from one story, along with a description of their project and a personal biography. Find out more about eligibility, dates and entry requirements.
  • Entries will be reviewed by editors from top media agencies including AFP, Getty Images and Reuters.
  • 100 entrants will be selected to receive one-to-one mentorships with a leading professional, who will support in refining the participant's portfolio over three sessions.
  • 30 participants will then be invited to take part in a prestigious five-day Canon workshop in Perpignan, France, during which they will join practical sessions hosted by Canon Ambassadors, group portfolio discussions and talks by leading photographers and editors. This will be followed by the opportunity to attend the Visa pour l'Image photo festival.
  • The top 5 participants will be awarded an exclusive place at the Hamburg Portfolio Review. They will showcase their work during portfolio reviews, be featured within a physical exhibition, and attend a series of appointments with international picture editors to kick-start their career.
  • In addition, the final five participants each receive a six-month mentorship, Canon kit worth up to €9,000 and a €2,000 grant.

David Clark

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