The ability to consistently capture storytelling moments as events unfold is a skill that separates the professional photojournalist from the everyday person taking pictures with their phone. The thrill of winning a marathon, the community of a cultural festival, the tension of a political protest (as captured below by James Breeden) — this category of photography is what we refer to as Social Documentary.
Wonderful Machine defines reportage as:
Capturing real life as it’s happening—including social documentary, breaking news, and conflict/crisis. Usually news coverage, but sometimes showing people at work or playing sports. Anything revealing the human condition, shot in a journalistic (though sometimes in a more artful) way.
Alicia Vera, based in Mexico City, shoots assignments for The Washington Post, NPR, and TIME. Not all reportage photography is about the intense conflict & crisis stories that might first come to mind. Most photojournalists cover a wide range of stories, including food, fashion, culture, politics, and sports.
The Photo Desk Manager for NBC News Digital, Matt Nighswander, explains:
We get our really hard-hitting stuff — combat photography, protests, wildfires — from the wire services, so we don’t usually hire for those.
The most prominent wire services include Getty Images, the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse. All of those organizations use a combination of full-time and freelance “stringer” photographers to cover the events of the day.
Ben Norman’s photos frequently appear accompanying political articles in the New York Times. He knows that reportage images need to be more than just well-shot, objective photographs – they also have to tell stories.
Many news assignments require photographers to be “a fly on the wall,” covering events without actually engaging with (let alone directing) their subjects. But there are also times when a photojournalist needs to shoot controlled portraits of people in order to tell their story. Often working on tight deadlines, photographers have to quickly develop a rapport with the people they’re photographing to do justice to that story. Bryan Tarnowski advises young photographers to “talk to folks and try to build a relationship with them even if you only have a brief amount of time.” For him, fostering these relationships and connecting with subjects on an emotional level is essential.
If you’re not emotionally invested in the people or the subject matter you’re photographing, then you are not in the right line of work.
Similarly, Ben tries to engage with his subjects whenever he goes out to shoot.
If you have five minutes with the subject, spend the first four minutes talking to them and the last minute photographing them.
Regardless of the story, photojournalists have an obligation to their subjects and their readers to tell that story responsibly. Laura Beltrán Villamizar, Founder and Head of Photography at Native Agency, as well as Projects Picture Editor and Creative Director at NPR, shared her thoughts on some of the ethical questions that photojournalists should be asking themselves while shooting:
At the end of the day, your story is someone’s life. It’s that simple. If you see someone in a vulnerable situation, assess to what extent your story has more value than the circumstances in which the person is at that point. What is happening? How dangerous is the situation? Also, can you convey the situation without photographing the vulnerable person? Can you show vulnerability in another way?
‘The Vulture and the Little Girl,’ the 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by Kevin Carter, showing a starving child being stalked by a vulture, raised questions about when a photojournalist should intervene versus when they should only cover the story. Ben Norman says,
If I’m in a situation where I’m the only person that can help, I will never pick up my camera first; I think you have a basic human responsibility to help out if you’re the only one that can help or if you’re the first one that could help.
Additionally, there are other responsibilities that photographers have — not only to the subject but also to themselves.
The photographer has a huge responsibility to be as present as possible and that includes taking care of themselves before they get onto the assignment so that all of their attention is on the job. There have certainly been shoots when I was younger where I wouldn’t take care of myself as much and that’s not fair to me or the subject.
Of course, being present while on the job is a necessity, but you also have to be the right person for the job before you can get the assignment. As Villamizar puts it,
I have connections with people in certain regions or countries around the world — they are local, speak the language, and I have seen their work or have worked with them. There are also themes that I know certain people have covered or have an interest in, so I’ll reach out if something in that topic comes out.
Other times, you might pitch an idea that you’ve already shot, or a photo editor might find you on a list you don’t even know you’re on. For example, Nighswander adds,
A lot of people on the team come from various publications and other news outlets, so they all come in with people that they’ve worked with before. We have a couple of industry spreadsheets and a map where we put those names, and I just hired someone from D.C. whom I found on the map.
To get on NBC’s radar, a young photographer needs to get started somewhere. While the big names mentioned here are great publications to aspire to shoot for, there are plenty of local papers and online news publications that are looking for photojournalists. As Alicia Vera noted, starting with self-assigned projects is a great way to get noticed as well.
I was working in the marketing department for strip clubs in San Francisco. I had been interested in documenting the lives of sex workers and began doing so on my days off. That was the beginning of two self-assigned projects that opened doors for me in the photojournalism world.
To learn more about photojournalism, see these organizations: