My photo career began about 20 years ago, while I was in graduate journalism school. I was in grad school only because I was given a fellowship and had no other professional offers on my plate. Luckily I had a friend from my undergraduate years back in my home state, who was on the Governor's staff; he got me an interview and I was hired to be the Governor's personal photographer and the senior photographer for the Department of Tourism.
This allowed me to drive South Dakota from border to border, running thousands of rolls of slide film through my cameras at state expense, shooting everything from people, landscape and still life to the dreaded grip-and-grins that are the staple of political and government shooters.
This served as my education in applied photography, and I was paid to do it. Although my entrance to professional photography was based on both luck (relationships) and hard work (perfect undergrad record), my advice to you would be to seek an internship in a similar government tourism agency in you own state or one with a large tourist trade.
During my three years on the state payroll, I hired several interns for the summer tourist seasons to help ease the load. One of the first interns I hired eventually succeeded me when I moved to Dallas to pursue commercial/advertising assistant work. Another intern I hired went on to succeed him and currently is the senior photographer. Both of these past interns continue to be friend and push work my way.
All three of us contributed to a photo poster series produced by SD Tourism during those years and distributed state-wide and beyond at nominal prices. I insisted that our names appear in credit lines on these posters, which proved to be one of my best career moves. I was called to the Governor's office along with my immediate supervisor and dressed down for publishing this series of posters, which he deemed a colossal waste of money.
Twenty years later these posters can still be found adorning the walls of government buildings, schools, motels, restaurants, private offices and residences statewide. Not such a colossal waste of money, afterall.
That first intern is currently living in the Black Hills and runs a successful nature stock and book publishing business. I've continued to shoot advertising/commercial and editorial subjects exclusively until the last few years, when I began to dip my toe back into the fine art landscape genre.
The Governor, after serving an unequalled sixteen year run in the statehouse, has just been elected to the US House of Reps and has his eye on the Senate seat coming up for grabs in two years He is a close personal friend of the Bush dynasty.
In recent years his staff has hired me to photograph the President on a visit to the state and just this week called to shoot a grip-and-grin session locally, which I respectfully turned down due to a turned ankle. My hopes for the future include the possibility of getting work from the federal government (Can you san the National Park Service or office of Tourism?).
My advice is this: Do whatever you can to be noticed by those with power and influence as early in your career as possible, regardless of whether that first job yields a paycheck. Settle for free materials and travel or stipend and class credit, whatever is necessary to get noticed early.