Incoming NPPA president Melissa Lyttle, vice president Michael King (on screen, upper left) and national secretary Seth Gitner were sworn in to their offices on Jan. 24, 2016 during the organization's board of directors meeting at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia in Athens. Photograph by Kyle Grantham

Incoming NPPA president Melissa Lyttle, vice president Michael King (on screen, upper left) and national secretary Seth Gitner were sworn in to their offices on Jan. 24, 2016 during the organization’s board of directors meeting at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia in Athens. Photograph by Kyle Grantham

Our new NPPA President may not have grown up with a camera slung around her shoulder, but after four internships that lead to over 15 years of experience in the business, she’s ready to take on her new role and bring change to the organization.

Melissa Lyttle, an independent visual journalist in St. Petersburg, Fla., was captivated by photography after taking a black and white darkroom photo class in her second year of college. Fascinated with nature, science and math, she was planning on transferring to Auburn to become a veterinarian, until something in that darkroom just “clicked.” Lyttle says the class “opened up another side of (her) brain”, and she decided instead to transfer to the University of Florida to study journalism.

Lyttle says she has found her “tribe” with the NPPA and is excited to serve as the organization’s president. I spoke with her about her plans as president and advice for student journalists:

How long have you been an NPPA member and when did you join?

I joined the NPPA as a student member in 1996, when I started in the photo program at the University of Florida. I let it lapse for a few years, when I felt as though the organization wasn’t for me.

In 2011, NPPA President Sean Elliot called me and asked if I’d be interested in being one of his three Board appointees and I laughed. I told him what I thought – that the NPPA was stuck in its ways. I’m sure I muttered something about it being an archaic organization full of old white guys, who don’t look like me, or think like me. Sean, to his credit, said something to the effect of, “I know. And the only way to change it is to do something about that.”

He went on to tell me I wasn’t allowed to complain about the problems unless I tried to be part of the solution. With that, he had me. I said yes and have been back as a member ever since.

How did you get to where you are now?

One of the great things about the UF J-school was that they stressed internships. We had to do both a one-week practicum and a three-month internship as credit in order to graduate. My one week practicum at The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. turned into a nine-month internship when I was asked to fill in for a staffer on maternity leave and then for someone who left the staff. That solidified that belief that, ‘yes, I really do want to do this for a living’. It was tough to go back to school after getting paid to make pictures full time for nine months.

I was on my way to a fifth internship, when I got a call from the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, asking if I’d be interested in applying for an opening they had that someone had recommended me for. I was on staff at the Sun-Sentinel for about four and a half years and then got a job at the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), where I worked for almost 10 years before taking the buyout in October 2014.

What are some of your main goals as the new NPPA President?

Some of my biggest goals as President are going to be making the organization as relevant to freelancers as it is to staffers, creating a sense of community, finding ways to increase membership (especially student members) and encourage member involvement.

On the Board of Directors, we talk a lot about the value of a membership, and I want people to know that their hard-earned money is being put to good use. Other than that, I’m excited with the direction our technology committee is going, helping to revive the clips contest, and bringing the magazine into the digital realm by making it more shareable and realizing the potential to use more video and photography online in our stories. I plan on continuing to encourage that.

Why do you think student membership and involvement in the NPPA is important?

It’s where I got my start, so I know the benefits definitely outweigh the costs. We’re making a huge push to ramp up networking opportunities and mentor programs for students, as well as trying to find ways to put resources behind a paywall that can benefit all of our members, but especially students. Student involvement is crucial to the future of this organization.

In your opinion, what are the main benefits for students to join the NPPA?

We’re about to relaunch our student quarterly clips contest, which is huge — it’s such a great way for students to not only get their names out there when they win, but also to see where they stand amongst their peers and all the great work being done. It’s a chance to be inspired through work being published in the News Photographer Magazine as well as on And most importantly, it’s a place to network and find mentors.

Other students I met going to NPPA conferences as a student back in the late 90s are still friends today. Staffers who reviewed my portfolio back then became mentors that I could go to for advice and feedback. For me, as a student member, it was nice to find my tribe.

UF has an amazing J-school, but the photo program was only three to four classes while I was there, and there were maybe a dozen or so other photo majors. When I’d go to NPPA conferences, I felt like I’d discovered this great community of like-minded folks. That’s priceless.

What do you want students to know about you as the new NPPA President?

I guess the biggest thing students should know is that I’m easily accessible (twitter, FB, email), and that I’ve been there. I know where y’all are coming from, and you’re definitely not alone in this big crazy field. If you have questions, ask.

What advice you have for student members?

Oh, I have a lot of advice for student members, the most important three being:

  1. If it’s not too late in your college career, take a few business classes, and maybe a marketing class, too. The trend is leaning toward you likely having to freelance at some point in your career. Those skills will carry with you, and it’s better to learn them now then on the fly later.
  2. If you’re not active on social media, you should be. And with regards to that — realize potential bosses ARE looking at it. They’re checking up on your Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, mainly because those are tools you’ll need to use on the job, and they want to see what kind of grasp you have of the medium as well as what kind of voice and following you’re bringing to the table. So don’t say anything on there you wouldn’t want them to see or put up photos from that kegger if you’re not cool with that being part of your public persona. If you do tend to be a little wild and crazy on social media, consider using them in different ways: lock Facebook’s privacy settings down and make it a portal for friends and family only, and start using Twitter and Instagram in more professional ways.
  3. As with most things, you get out of it what you put into it. Become a member, and then get involved: volunteer at workshops, ask how you can help, run for the Board, help blog, and so forth. We’re always looking for people with good energy and great ideas that are going to help move this organization forward.

*This interview has been edited for clarity.

Follow Lyttle on Twitter @melissalyttle and Instagram @melissalyttle.