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.