If you’re interested in a career as a photographer in law enforcement this FBI Q&A will give you a good insight into life working for the agency.
FBI field photographers are essential to conducting investigations. On any given day, FBI photographers document crime scenes and criminal activity in all sorts of challenging conditions. It’s a career that FBI Jacksonville Field Photographer Jon Fletcher has enjoyed for nearly a decade, following an equally long career in photojournalism. Since joining the FBI, Fletcher has captured thousands of images that have proved critical to bringing justice in multiple high-profile cases and has documented hundreds of events to help tell the FBI story.
To recognize May as National Photography Month, Fletcher shares some of his favorite FBI projects and images and guidance for those seeking a career in law enforcement photography.
What led you to want to work for the FBI?
Beyond references in the news and portrayals in the movies, the FBI was not on my radar until I was assigned by my then-employer, a local newspaper, to photograph the new special agent in charge of the Jacksonville Field Office. Approximately four years later, I applied for a position as an FBI field photographer and eventually found my place there following a lengthy interview process. Joining the Bureau does not happen overnight—the application process takes patience and time.
What’s the biggest difference between photography for law enforcement and your work as a photojournalist?
Capturing law enforcement operations adds a heightened level of pressure and responsibility. You must make images that are a true and accurate representation of the scene. Each photograph has the potential to undergo a great degree of scrutiny for a case, so it’s important to capture images within the protocols and policies of the agency. I feel satisfaction when the photographs I take aid in bringing justice. The job is very rewarding in that sense.
What types of photography positions does the FBI offer?
The FBI offers a variety of photo specialties such as forensic and scientific photographers who document evidence, or audio-visual production specialists who create still and video presentations for training or community education campaigns. Despite the reputation that Hollywood might portray about the FBI, the organization has many forward-thinking and creative people and positions.
Do you ever feel like your creativity is limited?
Law enforcement photography is certainly more rigid, with less creative freedom than I had as a photojournalist. However, as in journalism, I am always trying to tell a story with the images I make. I have enjoyed learning the various techniques used to document different types of evidence. In addition, working in a field office has afforded me the opportunity to photograph our people and events outside of casework, which is important to documenting the FBI’s history. In all, I now have a greater appreciation for the function and value of photography than when I started my FBI career.
What is a typical day like?
Like any other job, there are aspects that are mundane. But then, in a moment’s notice, what I thought was going to be a “typical” day quickly turns into something very different. FBI photographers must physically be in the scene to document it, and that has taken me to some interesting and unexpected places.
What types of equipment do you use?
FBI field photographers primarily use digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera systems. We each have a wide array of lenses for any scenario—from extreme telephoto, to systems capable of 180 degrees of view, and macro lenses for smaller items of evidence. We are able to photograph high-quality, 360-degree spherical images, and we carry an array to illuminate indoor or outdoor scenes as needed. We are also trained to use equipment for ground-based and aerial missions.
How can I improve my own photography skills?
The best advice I can offer is to have a solid foundation in the basics of exposure—aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. With that understanding, it’s easier to build your technical expertise and have command over any camera to make the photograph you see. I also think it’s important to maintain a passion for image making and photograph the things you find interesting. If you have personal investment in the photographs you take, they will be better.
What other skills are needed to be an FBI photographer?
Besides a technical command of the camera, I believe adaptability and pre-visualization are important skills to have as an FBI photographer. Often, the scenes we enter are chaotic. We must quickly adapt and photograph them in an orderly manner that will stand up to examination in court. As I’m capturing that scene and moment, I must also anticipate what will be needed later. This skill comes largely with the training that the FBI offers, but I also believe that all investigators develop that sense by working a variety of scenes over time.
Do you shoot video as well?
Although my title is field photographer, there is an expectation that I will learn and use other visual media on the job. I often work with video and audio on the forensic level to do enhancements for investigations, and I also shoot and produce pieces that feature our people and their work.
Tell us about some of your favorite projects and images.
My favorite photographs tend to be ones that combine an execution of technical decision-making with artistic choices. On the job, I’ve enjoyed capturing different aspects of our employees at work, such as an on-going series of public relations imagery that highlights the many FBI positions—from cyber agents to SWAT team operators to polygraphers. It’s rewarding to show the public what life is like behind the scenes.
Any other advice?
If you’re interested in joining the FBI, I recommend first becoming adept at whatever your chosen field happens to be at this moment and build on the skills that position provides. The FBI seeks dedicated employees who have a strong work ethic and a sense of pride in their job—whatever that might be. If photography is your passion, I suggest learning your equipment inside and out. It’s imperative to learn the capabilities of your gear, and making good exposures should become second nature. You should also have an interest in and understanding of photo post-processing and video. These are skills you should bring to the table, while learning how to photograph crime scenes is something you will learn through the top-notch and complete training that the FBI offers.
This Q&A is republished by kind permission of the FBI – all images © FBI.
Learn more about photography careers at the FBI