Corinne Redfern on Storytelling, Journalism, and How to Not be Intrusive When Documenting Through Photography

So how does a storyteller convey someone’s story without being intrusive? How does one document without prying? Moment chatted with Corinne Redfern.

Corinne Redfern on Storytelling, Journalism, and How to Not be Intrusive When Documenting Through Photography
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Corinne Redfern on Storytelling and Journalism

How to Not be Intrusive When Documenting Through Photography

“This job is a privilege – to have people gifting their stories to you.” Corinne Redfern has been a journalist for over 10 years and is currently the Asia correspondent for the Fuller Project. In her line of job, as someone who focuses on telling human stories, ethics and etiquette play a major role. And while she focuses on words, she’s almost always surrounded with photographers, constantly collaborating to “present the story with depth and colour that honestly would be hard to equal with words alone,” as she puts it.

So how does a storyteller convey someone’s story without being intrusive? How does one document without prying? Moment chatted with Corinne Redfern. And to those who want to be a documentary photographer or photojournalist or who just want to tell stories that matter, this is for you, kids.

Corinne Redfern on Storytelling, Journalism, and How to Not be Intrusive When Documenting Through Photography

A wonderful portrait.

Corinne Redfern on Storytelling, Journalism, and How to Not be Intrusive When Documenting Through Photography

Children's faces.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your journey into journalism?

Before moving to Asia in 2016, I was Acting Features Director at Marie Claire UK. I’d spent about five years prior to that working on various consumer magazines in London – pretty much spending every single morning conference having to fight to shoehorn some international stories about women into each issue, while my editors invariably rolled their eyes before eventually giving in.

When I joined Marie Claire, I was given the opportunity to start reporting in the field rather than from behind a desk. The European refugee crisis was spiraling and dominating headlines around the world – but by August 2015, still nobody was exploring the impact it was having specifically on women. I remember sitting in our Features meeting and pitching a story with a woman from Syria. My editor agreed, and started discussing which renowned foreign correspondent to send to Greece – and I found myself overwhelmed with this urgent need to interrupt and ask (in a very shaky voice) if I could actually please go myself!

When my contract ended, I decided the time had come to stop trying to do investigative global reporting from behind a desk in London and move to Asia.

Have you always worked with photographers or you used to take photos yourself?

When I was working at Marie Claire, I was always assigned a photographer to work with. International journalism can be very lonely and you don’t often get to work alongside other writers, so the photographers I worked with became both friends and mentors. The first photographer I ever worked with was Georgios Makkas from Athens, and I think I still owe him most of my career – just for putting up with me over the eight days or so that we worked together while I flailed all over the place. I’ve also collaborated with Allison Joyce for a project in India, and Vincent Tremeau, who’s based in West Africa and who (very very patiently) helped me to find my feet. Even when I lost his Leica lens cap.

When I went freelance, the situation was a little different. I bought a DSLR and made an effort to teach myself the most basic photography skills, but I consistently made the most frustrating rookie mistakes like forgetting the battery or not having enough memory cards. And that’s before you even consider the appalling quality of my pictures! So I made a concerted effort to team up with freelance photographers.

In 2017 I was covering the siege in Mosul, and the very first thing I did was reach out to photojournalists who were in the region. I’d been in Erbil for about four hours when I met Francesco Brembati – an Italian photographer. We agreed to collaborate on a few stories and immediately found that we worked really well as a pair… so much so that we’ve actually been in a relationship ever since. And while that really wasn’t the original plan, it proved to be incredibly fortuitous – largely because we’ve been able team up on multiple projects across the continent, and consistently produce a really high standard of both words and pictures. I know for a fact that many of my reports for the Washington Post, Guardian or the Telegraph wouldn’t have been commissioned if it wasn’t for Francesco’s photos that accompanied them.

Words and photography, I think, is a perfect combination for great storytelling. Can you give more emphasis on the importance of quality photography in journalism and storytelling?

It’s funny that you’re asking me this this week, because I’m actually reporting a story without a photographer by my side for the first time in about two years. The knowledge that this story won’t be paired with photos is absolutely placing an increased pressure on me to make sure I can paint a fully accurate portrait using only my keyboard. And while that’s no bad thing, it’s making me even more reliant on photography as a private journalistic tool than ever.

Quality photography is another issue. I have such endless admiration for photojournalists who I work with - and those who I would love to team up with - who have the capacity to illustrate a hugely complex, nuanced situation in just a couple of frames. When their shots are paired with my sentences, we’re presenting the story with depth and colour that honestly would be hard to equal with words alone. I truly believe that both words and pictures need each other to wield the full weight of their separate power for impact and influence.

Corinne Redfern on Storytelling, Journalism, and How to Not be Intrusive When Documenting Through Photography

Floating colors and textures.

Corinne Redfern on Storytelling, Journalism, and How to Not be Intrusive When Documenting Through Photography

Daily work.

You mentioned you're not a photojournalist, but I still want to ask this question and know from the perspective of a word person often surrounded with photojournalists: how do you think can one be less intrusive when documenting through photography?

I think so much of our work comes down to treating everyone you’re documenting with respect – be that as a writer or a photographer. If the person you’re documenting doesn’t feel comfortable around you, then you’re probably not going to get the material you’re looking for. To be honest, you’re probably not doing a very good job.

That’s one reason why I prefer working in all-female teams whenever I’m reporting on women. There’s often an instant implicit bond or thread of connection between us and our case studies, which invariably helps to put everyone at ease. Ultimately, I want to do whatever I can to make the situation less intrusive or uncomfortable for the woman or girl that I’m speaking with. The best photographers I work with make that a priority too.

Of course, I work with male photographers regularly too. But I’ll often ask them to leave the room while I’m doing my interviews with women and girls, so that they feel like they can speak openly with me. It’s a small gesture of respect which goes a long way. I’ve seen photographers (although not those who I’ve partnered with personally) just walk in and start shooting without spending any time getting to know the person in question, and that feels so intrusive to me.

Do you have any tips and advice on how to document a story, especially the complex and sensitive ones, and still be respectful and ethical?

I know deadlines can make this difficult, but take your time. If you’re asking someone to share their story with you, don’t rush them to get to the bit you’re particularly interested in, or bring out your camera within seconds of shaking hands. This job is a privilege – to have people gifting their stories to you, more often than not when they’re at their most vulnerable, is an extraordinary act of generosity and selflessness. I believe passionately in the purpose of journalism and storytelling for creating impact; but more often than not, the change we drive is often part of the ‘big picture’, and is unlikely to transform the lives of the people we’ve spoken to for the feature or article in question.

On a short-term basis, often the only person who directly benefits from a piece of reportage is the journalist – be that through an editor’s admiration, some retweets on social media or international awards. That's something I'm still working to reconcile myself with, and I think it’s a fact that's absolutely crucial to remember, whether you’re a writer or a photographer or a filmmaker.

With that in mind, the very least you can give is your time.

Do you think there's a shift on how the subject would react when you / a photographer shoots with a mobile phone versus a DSLR?

I do think that people all over the world are increasingly desensitized to mobile phones and mobile phone photography – while larger cameras can still make someone stiffen and freeze, which is why the best photojournalists who I work with take the time to make their subjects as comfortable as possible with all their kilos of kit. Francesco is particularly adept at knowing exactly when to put his camera down – or actually, when to bring it out in the first place. He’ll sit for hours with our case studies as we talk, and making sure everyone is OK with the situation before he opens his camera bag. Even when he starts taking photos, he does so with incredible care. As a journalist whose work often depends on developing a mutually trusting relationship with my interviewees, I really appreciate that. Whatever we can do as a photographer-journalist team to make the subjects of our stories more comfortable has to be the priority.

One thing that we often discuss is the importance of consent: with a mobile phone, the truth is that your subject might not even realise that you’re taking their picture. As a journalist, I don’t publish my behind-the-scenes photos in magazines or newspapers, but I do post them on social media – and even though I have a pretty small following, I still need to check that’s OK with the person in question before doing so.

Any final words for aspiring storytellers? Be it through words, photos or both…

I think the most important thing is just always remember how lucky you are to be in this situation at all – just to be in a place where someone is letting you into their private life and allowing you to pull at the strings of their memories until their stories unravel before you, or where they’re allowing you to witness their most intimate, unguarded moments of everyday vulnerability. Whether you use words or pictures as your storytelling tool of choice, this can be the best job in the world – but nobody owes you their experience. It’s only when you remember this that you’ll be able to build the relationships and take the time and care that you need to do their stories service.

Corinne Redfern on Storytelling, Journalism, and How to Not be Intrusive When Documenting Through Photography

Classroom.

Corinne Redfern on Storytelling, Journalism, and How to Not be Intrusive When Documenting Through Photography

Mother and child.

Happy Shooting!

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