CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts – Being a freelance photographer is the most privileged job in journalism. Nothing else comes close.
There has been a great deal of discussion recently around freelancers and the perils they face. But I would argue that the fundamentals for this kind of work have not changed. And I would give the same advice to freelance photographers today that I was given over 25 years ago.
Stories need to be told and you have to be close to people to understand and tell their stories. This kind of photography cannot be practiced in a hotel. Close proximity can increase the level of risk, but it is worth it. And the risks can be managed if you are thoughtful in evaluating your surroundings and managing your work.
While being a freelance photographer in under-reported corners of the world can bring great risk, it can bring great rewards as well. The single greatest reward may be that as a photographer you are forced to be among people, to share the intimacies of their lives and document how they navigate the turmoil around them. It’s a privilege to be able to amplify their voices and to be there to bear witness.
Some of the most important lessons I have learned are simple, obvious and very practical.
A sensible first step, if you are going to be in a place where you will be covering a conflict, a natural disaster, or a disease outbreak, is to undertake a risk analysis. This sounds more complicated than it is. A good way to start is to talk with colleagues who are already on the ground or who have just returned. Better still, talk with local people or foreigners who have lived for a long time in the country you are visiting, preferably people with whom you have some connection deeper than finding them on Facebook.
Beware of experts who are not really experts. Be careful to test the information you receive with other sources and try to make sure at least one source is local. Universities, local newsrooms and NGOs all have informed people who can help you.
An aspect of this risk analysis should also be a candid discussion with the editors to whom you may be pitching your work, to be sure that expectations are managed as much as possible. You should read carefully through this field guide and be sure you have checked out the resources that other organizations listed in the guide have to offer. Get as much information as you can.
Another important step before you leave is to make sure a significant other and/or a responsible and easy-to-reach next of kin knows where you are going and when you expect to return. While in the field, you should also create a new community everywhere you work. You want to cultivate relationships with people who understand your work and will notice if you are missing.
When you have your risk analysis in place, you can start packing for the trip. Even that seemingly simple act of filling a duffle bag or backpack with what you need has to be carefully thought through.
My first rule of thumb is to be organized and liberated from distractions. So I travel with three identical shirts, socks, underwear and two pairs of identical trousers. That way you don’t have to waste time wondering what to wear. I keep everything in the same place (for example, my light meter is always in my left breast pocket). When things go down around you, you don’t want to spend time wondering where you put your fresh roll of film, extra battery or new SD card. I mostly use one lens on one camera (I leave the spares in the hotel or car).
I don’t share this with you because I think I have anything to offer you stylistically; none of this is a fashion statement. I know it may sound slightly absurd, but I don’t want to be distracted by choices that are not important. Keep your wits about you and stay focused. And keep away from Facebook and Twitter. Distraction is dangerous.
One of the things that makes freelance photography stand apart from other forms of journalism is that it’s rarely a rung on the ladder to fame and fortune. It is not a step to being a celebrity. Let’s face it, you will work largely in obscurity in a craft where the pay is bad and where very often the last person to be recognized and acclaimed on a big project is the photographer.
Use this to your advantage, because that relative anonymity brings with the job a certain freedom. Freedom to roam and freedom to concentrate on the job at hand — representing the lives of others. You have to be able to immerse yourself in the lives of the people around you.
Yes, this proximity can bring with it a high degree of risk. But in my experience, people are often extremely generous in allowing outsiders into their lives, often because they want their stories told and they want to feel connected to the outside world. Treat the civilians you meet with dignity and respect in the way you act and the way you dress, and by being mindful of local customs. If you do that, you will often see people open up to you in unique ways. On a very practical level, showing respect to locals may also result in them protecting you from those who might cause you harm. They might also end up being good advocates for you if things do go awry. And, of course, showing respect is just the right way to carry yourself in the world no matter where you are.
Make no assumptions, and trust your own instincts:
I was very nearly killed in my first experience of combat. The only thing that saved me was chance. I got into trouble because I assumed that the people I was with knew what they were doing. I followed them blindly because I had less experience than anyone in the group. It was 1989 and I went on a long-range patrol with the Khmer People’s National Liberation Army, a Cambodian resistance group allied to the Khmer Rouge, who were fighting the Vietnamese army and the Cambodian government. We marched from Thailand down a long valley surrounded by hills, passing through villages and camping near the only source of water under the only trees in the area.
I knew instinctively this was wrong. I grew up in rural England and knew from observing nature with my grandfather that hills are good observation points for predators. Water and trees are where all prey seek refuge. I presumed that some villagers would telegraph our movements especially as this was a civil war where no side could claim universal support in any village. I trusted the unit commander, but he had grown up in Paris and had bought his commission. My trust came from a lack of confidence in my own judgment rather than confidence in his. We were hit by a multiple rocket launcher while we slept in our hammocks at noon. The unit took extremely high casualties.
It was a quick lesson in understanding that assumptions are dangerous and sometimes fatal. To survive this kind of work, I would need to learn fast and trust my own instincts. Working in war zones or violent, unpredictable areas leaves few opportunities for second chances, and if you are going to do it you need to treat it seriously. You need the best preparation, the best training, the most focused mind and the best support you can find. You also need to be surrounded by the best people. Choose your colleagues in the field carefully.
The most valuable travelling companions are often local people, or locally based foreigners with good local knowledge. Having colleagues who understand how to read the roads, how to sense when things aren’t quite right and who can understand what is going on around them is invaluable. They also have the most at stake, and are most at risk. That has a way of focusing the mind, often making them safer and better able to calculate risk.
Local people also can help you challenge your own prejudices and broaden your point of view. Most Western correspondents learn what they know from reading or listening to other Western correspondents, and that often perpetuates misconceptions and reinforces the status quo. A good local companion will help you become better informed and make you a better correspondent. If you hire local civilians to work with you, it is important to understand the special responsibility you have for them. When you leave, they stay behind. They, their families and their communities may pay a price for what you do. Always think about those you are leaving behind.
Team up with someone you trust, who has good knowledge and experience. It is always preferable to share the burden of decision-making; it expands your resources, and when you are weary your partner can be strong. But it can also be a disaster if you choose the wrong partner. Freelance photographers often have as much or more experience in conflict reporting than the writers with whom they are assigned to work. Writers who are staff may decide they are in charge because they are full-time employees.
Most good writers and those with considerable experience will understand the value of working with a photographer who has experience and knowledge. Respect for each other should take shape quickly. If it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to propose cutting loose and working on your own. Any responsible photo editor will understand that this is sometimes necessary and wise. And, if the editor doesn’t like it and you feel strongly, turn down the assignment. You cannot afford to be a passenger with no voice in a war zone. Trust your gut instinct.
I would avoid the culture of hanging out in bars or embassy compounds with diplomats, political operatives and generals. It is dangerous to assume they know more than you do. Even if they do, the chances are they will not share the truth with you, or each other. The fact that less then 1 percent of the journalists in Kuwait who went to cover the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 made it across the border is testament to that.
If you want to know what is happening, find your own sources. Make friends with the local taxi drivers, get to know local junior military commanders and senior non-commissioned officers. But don’t be seduced by power. People in power are almost by definition far removed from the ground. And photographs are taken on the ground.
Be honest, with others and yourself:
Your job is to represent what you see as honestly as you can, not to give clients in New York, Paris or London what they think they want. Don’t be afraid to challenge preconceptions rather than reinforcing them. Don’t make assumptions based on your own prejudice. Have an open mind. Be open to admitting you don’t understand what you are looking at and try to understand it more fully. That effort will make you a better storyteller, it will make you a more honest and less partisan journalist and it might save your life one day.
Gary Knight is co-founder and visual editor for The GroundTruth Project, co-founder of the VII Photo Agency and founder of the Program for Narrative & Documentary Practice at Tufts University.