Tips: Telling Visual Stories
Everyone has a right to dignity. Use creative approaches. Photograph objects. Maintain confidentiality. Work with reporters you trust. Think about how you’d want your own story told. Don’t be afraid of taking a beautiful shot. Remember why you're there.
Editors note: This tip sheet, compiled by Karen Brown, was inspired by presentations given by Sima Diab and Tanya Habjouqa at the Dart Center’s 2019 reporting institute in Amman, Jordan: “Covering Children and the Syrian Refugee Crisis.” Watch the full video here.
In many ways, photography can be an invasive form of journalism – remember that no matter how much you try, you can’t melt into the background.
One challenge is knowing when to photograph. Your humanity should always take precedence. You might need to wait until after an interview with a reporter. Some photographers wait to take a camera out until the time feels right, in order to build trust. Others always have their camera out, to make it clear why they’re there. Sometimes you have to put your camera down, either to give subjects a break or to help out when that’s necessary. You’re there to photograph, so at some point you’ll need to pick it up again, unless you find the time just isn’t right or that it’s inappropriate to continue. This is a gut feeling, it’s reading the room, it’s understanding your subjects and in the end, it’s basic decency.
Number one rule: everyone has a right to dignity. For example, consider one portrait of a boy who lost his legs. His dream had been to become a professional swimmer. He is looking straight at the camera. The photo shows how the destruction plays out in the lives of people – and sometimes you have to take a devastating, uncomfortable photo. To be forced to look at the injustice.
In a world saturated with images, use creative approaches in photography. One reason people stop really seeing pictures is because they’re all shot in the same way. Avoid the tropes, and capture the refugee face in dignity. Tell a story through facial expressions – like a mom holding the hands of her sons. Sometimes photos can ask more questions than give answers – and promote important conversations.
If you’re limited in what you can shoot, photograph the objects of people’s lives. Show belongings of someone who’s leaving everything behind. That approach became a whole project that many NGOs ended up using as a frame for the refugee experience. Or use objects to tell a story – like, children’s shoes – to show their concrete experience.
Always think about why you’re there – what is your purpose in watching this misery unfold? Know that your work is important, and you’re not just adding to the noise. You’re there to come up with a new way to tell the story, a better way. If you’re there for one story, always keep your eyes open to another.
Think up creative ways to maintain confidentiality, to not show faces. Maybe have someone cover their face with their hands. Or have a child cover her parent’s face. Making this process collaborative with your subject, so they maintain their agency, can be an important tool.
Work with reporters/writers you trust. It’s important to respect each other’s work, and each other’s space. Work together to build trust among subjects, sometimes over many months. When this isn’t possible, talk to the reporter beforehand so no one is stepping on each other’s toes. Talk about how to approach sensitive subjects together, and be on board with each other’s code of ethics.
Spot news can be very chaotic and quick. Shocking images are part of reality. Sometimes you don’t have time to get consent in hectic situations. But remember you are human, and professionals break down, too.
It can be very hard to photograph your own community – and very painful. You always imagine yourself in that situation. It’s common to feel guilt at not having it as bad as your subjects.
To tell a better story, think about how you’d want your own story told. Give people agency in how they want to tell their story. Ask where they’d like to be photographed, or how they’d like to be photographed. Being collaborative in the approach can make for more trust with your subject and lead to stronger imagery.
Don’t be afraid of taking time to perfect/layer/compose a more meaningful image. Sometimes you feel guilty about paying attention to the aesthetic of a photo when your subjects are going through such pain – but taking a truly good photograph gives more meaning to the subjects’ time and experience. Maintain a strong sense of purpose and know you’re doing this work for a reason.
Work with the time you’re given. If you’re only given a few minutes to shoot a story (often after a long interview with a writer/journalist), use that waiting period to take in the environment, to look for clues or visuals that will enhance the story. Sometimes, you can also ask to take photos as they’re talking.