Best Practices for Working with Photographers & Photography

11 posts / 0 new
Last post
Best Practices for Working with Photographers & Photography

Below are a few questions to begin this conversation thread:

What are the best practices for organizations to support photographers in the field regarding their safety and security?

What factors most greatly affect positive outcomes in the relationship between photographer and organization?

What “lessons learned” can you share from working in your area of expertise?

Advice for Organizations

I posted this in another category but it seemed appropriate here, too. 

I've worked for a fairly wide array of advocacy and humanitarian organizations over the years

In my experience, only a few understand the most advantageous ways of using photography and photographers. 

I often interact with communications officers who have specific, often cliché images in mind. At times, it feels that some want to construct a unnecessarily controlled visual narrative. 

My advice would be to hire vetted, capable photographers and trust them to document the story according to his or her intuition. As photographers, we spend our time figuring out what works in terms of visually storytelling. 

In my experience, the best NGO projects are born of some informed freedom on the photographer's behalf. The communications team will tell me some themes and locations that they'd like to see and I take it from there. With some room to breath, I take it upon myself to approach the stated themes but also seek the unexpected. We must forget what we expect to find and embrace and follow what's actually there. In my view, this is how strong narrative work is born.

At times, I think that organizations want to closely oversee the creation of materials and while this is somewhat understandable, it can suffocate a photographer's creative energy and cause him/her to switch to auto pilot. I've seen a lot of wasted opportunities between terrific organizations and good photographers because of this dynamic.

Here is an example of what I saw as highly successful collaboration between myself and Amnesty International. I spent a little over a week traveling with two AI researchers along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. While we moved together, I was under no obligation to remain at their side to make picture of their activities. Instead, I explored the environment and found pictures that I don't think either of us were expecting. Because of this freedom, I was able to put together an interesting and somewhat cohesive series of the experience inside the Yida refugee camp. Because the images hung together, I was able to place them in TIME magazine's Lightbox platform. This greatly increased the amount of eyes that saw the work and thus gained some knowledge of the situation.

I echo Pete, for sure. 

I echo Pete, for sure. 

Trust is essential if the organization truly values what is happening in the communities in which they work. I have found that an organization's approach to their field work reflects in the way in which they hire and work with media makers. Orgs who listen well and want to delve deeper into the truths of the areas they are working will trust the photographer to stray from a 'shot list' or prescribed notions of their work in the field -- and be very excited about the results. Pete, your example with the Amensty + TIME piece is a really great one, thank you for sharing.

I'll add one more pitfall of when an organization holds a photographer/storyteller too tightly to a prescribed story or shot list -- there is very little room for exploration or the beautiful randomness of documentary storytelling that can yeild not only unique stories, but also field knowledge or qualitative data for the org itself. For example: if you send me out to , "Tell a story about a child who is sick taking a pill provided by the org, and getting well." ... that very statement makes a ton of assumptions about a place the org may not have been to themselves yet. What if the more powerful issues aren't so obvious, but could add an extra element of humanity to your images + stories about your work? 

For example -- I was covering lack of sanitation in Bangladesh in 2012, and found a school without toilets that had kids chronicly missing class. The assumptive story was that the kids were not coming to school because they didn't have toilets... but when I spent some time there and asked around, I found a girl who spoke up about how she couldn't stand to come to school for awhile because the kids at the nearby school, which had toilets, considered her and her fellow students poor and of a lower class than they were because they "didn't even have toilets at their school." She was bullied each day on her way to and from the school, and would stay home on days she couldn't stand to face their abuse. The story here spoke more to a universal feeling of marginalization by those who think they're better than you; not just about sickness that results from lack of toilets at school. I found the audience responded to and resonated with her story in ways I don't think people would have with a story about toilets missing from the school. 

Asking questions, pursuing curiosity, and responding positively to stories that defy conventional wisdom -- these are definitely things I encourage organizations to give photographers freedom to do in the field. Let them use their own eyes and hearts to find the human stuff that otherwise goes unseen, unheard or unexplored.

What a perfect anecdote, Mo!

Such an apt anecdote for on this topic. Had your communications officer held the reigns too tightly you never would have found that incredibly powerful aspect of the story. Sometimes I suspect that certain individuals go into communications jobs because first-hand content creation did not work out for them. That's certainly not always the case as I know a great many talented photographers, journalists, etc who shifted to comms positions for personal/stability reasons. I think, however, that those who made the transition because they did not necessarily have the storyteller’s intuition are those that can cause problems with hired photographers/filmmakers, etc.

Advice for Organisations

I agree that many NGOs do not often grasp the opportunities presented by images in supporting their advocacy. I think this can sometimes be because comms teams and research/advocacy teams don't always plan projects in an holistic way. Without everyone, including the photographer, at the table it is difficult to produce a robust strategy that integrates the role of the photos. The end result can be a last minute scramble for images or a photographic brief that does't realise the full potential of the images because not much thought has gone into how they fit in the project.

I think you are also right that the expertise of the photographer as a storyteller is not always recognised, and certainly some 'breathing space' should be given to allow them to do their job to the best of their ability. In my experience the best use of photography in advocacy campaigns comes when a multi-disciplined team is working together - research, campaigns, comms, media and the photographer. I know of examples where this dynamic has not existed and the photographer was given free range and came back with images that were great but didn't serve the comms and advocacy strategy. A similar situation can develop when a photographer tries to pitch an existing body of work to an NGO - these are rarely a 'best fit' with work that is often planned years ahead with specific objectives and targets. In the end they don't serve either party very well. 

They are positive developments though. NGOs are moving away from just seeing images as useful in fundraising and campaign materials. We are seeing more integration of images in research materials providing visual evidence to support text based reports. Marcu Bleasdale's work with HRW 'The Unravelling' on the Central African Republic shows a good intergration of images with research, as well as a good working relationship between reseracher and photographer.


The Unraveling

Soon to be a book, "The Unraveling: Central African Republic" because Marcus won the the 2015 FotoEvidence Book Award.

In this case Marcus had long experience in Africa and was knowledgable about the conflict in CAR.  He and Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at HRW, who was the lead  team member with him, knew each other and had a good working relationship.  Peter will be contributing essays to Marcus' book.

So, seconding Robert, communication between the planners, researchers and field team will improve the outcome.  A photographer who understands the issues and the goals of the NGO will do a better job than one brought in at the end of the process to document the NGOs plan.

Freedom & Respect

I agree with Pete. Photographers are very experienced and know what they are doing, so they deserve much freedom when working on an assignment. At ART WORKS, photographers bring their finished photos to us and we work together to curate the exhibit. While I write the captions and help choose the photos for the exhibit, these materials are always sent to the photographer for further review, suggestions, and critiques before we move forward.

I have heard from many photographers that organizations will ask to use their photos without restriction or will ask for donated prints. In a world where everyone is an amateur photographer and we share our mobile photos and snapshots all over the internet, it is important to recognize the importance of keeping a professional photographer's images secure and preserving the value of their prints. Any sort of usage must be cleared with them (printing for an exhibition, in exhibit materials, on websites, etc.) as they will have strong opinions on resolution and dimensions, any sort of cropping or editing, printing, appropriate credits, and so on. You must be prepared to clear the specific use of every photo and to share any proceeds that may result. 

Some thoughts on security

I think that negotiating security parameters is tricky. 

The reasons for this, in my view, are two fold. Most freelance photographers cannot afford the type of serious, reliable insurance that covers us for injury and extraction in truly hostile environments. Truthfully, neither can most organizations. Understandably, the latter wants to shift the onus for such coverage onto us as independent contractors. Where possible, organizations ought to augment insurance coverage for photographers they bring on. Again, to justify this cost, it is important to bring on serious, vetted photographers who will create work that has a life beyond the NGO website and annual report. 

Second: important image in human rights narratives are often made in areas and situations that NGO's are simply not permitted to go. Yes, HRW and AI are willing to send researchers into active conflict zones but many other organizations have more conservative security postures. From a storytelling standpoint, I always think that stories about human rights abuses resonate more when the abuses are placed into the appropriate context. For instance, in 2011, I photographed the victims of mass sexual violence in eastern DRC and the related trials of the perpetrators. While these images were somewhat intriguing on their own, I believe that they became more so as I worked to situate them into the broader context of the war. Now, after several years of covering the conflicts in eastern Congo, those initial images have found a more appropriate place in the broader narrative. I wanted to place them in an sequence that allowed viewers to understand the issues that swirl around these egregious instances of male-perpetrated violence. 

In order to make many of the contextualizing pictures, I had to venture well beyond the security cordon that most NGO's had set. I needed to see the experiences that soldiers were having in combat. I needed to see how they were living and explore the contours of their experiences. I wanted to understand if elements of their experience were in fact related to the prevalence of civilian abuses. This meant taking risks that most NGOs were not comfortable with. 

I'm not sure what the answer is exactly but these are challenges that I've observed. 

Freedom & Respect & accountability

A lot of important factors pointed out by Robert, Pete and Claire on the importance of storytelling freedom. There is one thing that bothers me and I would want to hear your opinion.

 I have had NGOs come back to me after the completion and delivery of the assignment demanding for more photos. The signed agreement specifically laid out the number of images and their requirements, which I obviously adhered to. The demand for different photos (for example landscape/ travel pictures) came after a period of few months, as the organisation had to make presentations for fund raising.  NGOs are supposed to be committed to the highest level of accountability be it with the humanatarian causes they work for or with people.

The question is - it appropriate for them to ask photos for free? Do we photographers not have to pay our bills and rent? I am not against the idea of donating images and time for a good cause, but the problem arises when the organisation tend to rely on us and take our time and hardwork for granted.  

Photographers' rights

It seems photographers' careers are not always well-considered by other people. It has become so easy to share images, which leads some to think that it's just as simple for a professional to provide additional photos (let alone the issues around sharing files, publishing and printing them at certain sizes, etc). 

Whether or not it's appropriate for NGOs to ask, it will unfortunately happen. I've never experienced this on either side of the ask, so I have no idea what the rationale might be behind expecting free photos. ART WORKS always aims to provide stipends for those participating in our various exhibits (unless a photographer wants to donate the images, which often happens), and any additional grant money we receive for our projects is shared with the photographers as well. We are always upfront about our tight production budgets and make sure photographers know we do everything we can to compensate them appropriately – this approach has worked very well for us in the past, and of course we wish we could pay more in many instances, and continue to work hard to achieve this.

Many don't stop to think about the costs of equipment, travel, the time spent cataloguing, curating, processing, etc, let alone living costs and the difficult job market. Perhaps some sort of awareness campaign or informational packet needs to be created and shared for all of those requesting and viewing images (i.e. everyone). If I recall correctly, some academic journals had printed black squares in lieu of pictures to call attention to images that were not available due to permissions issues. That simple protest was very compelling, and something similar might have a huge impact on news agencies and their audiences.

Tausif Shaikh Anonymous's picture

really amazing article to read