Top ten tips for roving photojournalists

In D-Photo Issue No. 45 we published a beautiful photo essay by James Ensing-Trussell from Topic Photo Agency, documenting his trip to Vanuatu on a medical outreach assignment with the Fred Hollows Foundation New Zealand. Mindy Yeh also travelled with the foundation, shooting the outreach assignment on video. The following are the pair’s hard-learned tips to for photojournalists working on location over multiple days.

1.  Have a plan

Before leaving, know what your story is and what you want to try to achieve. Always set yourself at least two objectives, in case one does not pan out.

In the case of this assignment, the story of 25 year old Adam was suggested by the local eye nurse who had pre screened him before our arrival.  His case was chosen because it was unusual for such a young person to be affected by cataract blindness, and he had very good potential for a successful outcome from the treatment.  Being the income earner of the family, his burden was heavy, which provided us with a good background story to tell.

We also set ourselves with a secondary assignment to document the local eye nurse, Basil.  As back-up stories we also selected a couple of other people whom we knew would give great reaction shots when their sight was returned.

2.  Being prepared

Understand when, where, and how you will achieve your plan. Before you depart, invest in research.  Ask yourself, what are your risks?  How will you travel?  Where you will be staying, how will you charge your batteries, and anything that will concern your tools. It is much better to be paranoid than to arrive and discover an item completely redundant due to a lack of a power supply. The more knowledge you have about the place you are going, the better your result will be.

Generally I prefer to be flexible with my plans once I arrive on location, but to have the basics prepared.  It is unproductive to waste time trying to find accommodation. I always set a budget based on estimated costs obtained during research. Remember to allocate money for Koha.  Generosity is a universally appreciated currency, and you will certainly need the support of the locals.

3.  Have a backup

For everything.

Camera, lenses, money, copies of passport and documents.

Back up your images!  I shoot images to two cards and separate them for storage in waterproof containers, carrying one set with me at all times.  I don’t download and delete anything until I get back home.  Which ever backup system you choose, stick to it.  Any item that is essential will need a spare, or an alternative for longer assignments.

4. Get Hooked up

The more contacts you have on the ground before you leave. The easier your assignment is going to be.  Local knowledge is essential.

One of the first things we did when we arrived in Norsup was to try and get in touch with the local eye nurse who Fred Hollows NZ had supplied as a local contact.

The only information we held was his name, and where he worked. Word quickly spread throughout the villages that two foreigners were looking for Basil the eye nurse.

The following day while commuting on the back of a truck towards the hospital, our vehicle came to a sudden halt without warning. A woman who we had not spoken a word to since the trip leaned towards us and pointed to a passing car that had also stopped and said, “ That’s Basil.”

5.  Blend in

I find it is easier to relate to the people around me when I look less like a photographer. It helps by having a smaller camera and lens if possible, and the dustier the bag the better.

Putting yourself into the shoes of your subject makes it easier for them to relate to you.  I recommend avoiding travelling in a rental car. Even though the local bus will take you longer and make you dustier, you never know what gems it will reveal, as you will see and meet more characters that way.

6.  Take your time

Invest in spending time with your subjects.  No one will give away their heart and soul in a rush, so make the effort to build a comfortable relationship between you.  Even when you don’t need to be photographing them, spend time hanging out and help them with what you can.  No one likes to feel like a product.

I am always very conscious of the fact that I will be using images of the more intimate moments of their life. This gift should not be misused.  Sometimes you will be faced with the decision to put away the camera and respect people’s privacy. The rule of thumb I use is, “Would I be happy with being shown in this light?”

7.  Throw away the plan

There are times when your best ideas won’t work.  Be prepared to adapt and follow your instincts.

The story of Adam provided us with a great range of shots, showing his isolation, and struggle with blindness.  He was a shy, kind and humble man and my gut told me that he would have a more subdued reaction compared to others when his eye patch was removed – the key moment.  I decided to capture a couple of other people as backup stories. Although perhaps less unique they would still highlight the work achieved by the Fred Hollows Foundation in the Pacific.

8.  It’s hard work

When it is hot and sticky, and the beach is calling, remembering why you are there can be hard.

With this assignment, the hours were long and much of the time was spent waiting for things to happen.  It helps to eat well and sleep well, this generally helps me stay focused.  At the end of each day I review my work and set a goal for what I want to achieve for the next day.  Throughout my project I continuously set short term goals.  “I need to get this shot of this happening”

9.  Back home

Once you have returned home, easing into the grind of everyday life, it is difficult to keep up the momentum to finish the stories.  Faced with the prospect of sorting through thousands of images, as well as captioning, editing and archiving, is a daunting thought.

I find it best to get straight into this as soon as I am back. Once you lose the excitement and passion it is hard to regain it again, as there is always another adventure calling for your attention.  As time passes, the story will become less and less relevant.

Make a point to work on the photos as soon as you can, as images kept on hard drives, unedited and without caption are, in effect, still untaken.

10. Lean form your mistakes.

As a photographer I am always unsatisfied with my work. The joy this gives me is that next time I will do better.  On this assignment we invested a lot of time in Adams story, but I felt I didn’t manage to nail a great returning home shot as a good conclusion to his story. We just ran out of time. Given another opportunity I would have spent another day with him back in his village living life as a fully sighted man.

For us this project is a personal one, It gave us a chance to not be shooting for the money and to be focused on something that we care really about.  Documenting people’s experiences in this way is a wonderful privilege and always makes you appreciate the things that make life important. The compassion and hard work of the Fred Hollows medical team was truly humbling.

The Fred Hollows Foundation is a non-profit organization with the aim to eliminate avoidable blindness in the Pacific Region.  This is achieved through providing funding and education for Pacific eye health professionals as well as support for targeted outreach expeditions throughout the region