For most of my career I’ve been a free-lance editorial shooter. I photographed for National Geographic magazine for 20 years, 12 of those as a contract photographer. During my time there I did many of the large picture stories that used to be the signature of the magazine. For most of those assignments I worked alone. I’ve never covered breaking news, press conferences or the kinds of social events where I’d likely encounter other photographers and my schedule rarely matched that of the stories’ writers.
Most of the stories I cover concern the consequences of events or conditions. I photograph people carrying on with their daily lives in the face of tragedy; fathers living with AIDS, mothers hauling water during a drought, children seeking education under the burden of extreme poverty.
Many of my stories take big themes—migration, aging, radiation— and narrow them down to make them accessible and understandable. Often the people I meet on these stories are poor and live in remote areas. It’s hard to contact them ahead of time and as a result I often find my stories as I travel through them. I began my career as a newspaper photographer and I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from that job; act like a journalist as well as an image maker, seek out stories, think on your feet, work quickly.
An earlier assignment tested my journalistic skills and challenged my solitary working style. A former student of mine who I’d taught at the Maine Media Workshops made me an offer I couldn’t refuse; she asked me to be the chief photographer on a project that would take me to Guatemala and Nicaragua to cover the impact of certain environmental conditions on peoples’ health and culture. With three of my major interests in play—environment, health and culture—I accepted the assignment. Then my former student asked me to find a videographer. Slowly I began to realize that the project was actually centered on making a video. My former student would be the producer and my role was to shoot still pictures for promotion and an accompanying exhibit.
I had to check my ego at the door. For the first time in my freelance career I was going to work as part of a time, which represented a pretty big adjustment for me. When I’m working, even if I’m present for only a day, even just an hour, I try to photograph the people I encounter with an in the moment intimacy. I find the best pictures come from intense, focused interactions. Now I would have to share those interactions and those relationships with a producer and a videographer. I had mixed feelings about that. I had heard from other photographers who had worked with videographers that tensions between the needs of still and video seemed to be a given. So I needed to find someone who would complement my reportage style of shooting and—this was critical—have a sense of humor.
I turned to a friend, the only person I knew who shot video in a style that I was certain the producer would like, a style best described as journalism mixed with lush dreamy landscapes. We had both worked for National Geographic. He knew my shooting style and I was confident he could contribute to the fast paced reporting we were going to have to do.
The shoot was three-weeks of frenzied travel. The videographer and I quickly developed a way of working that we called “Navy Seal” journalism.” It was brutally simple: We arrived without warning and with few preliminaries began shooting stills and video; we got the job done quickly and moved on to the next location.
Despite our pace, we kept looking for stories. When we found them, both the videographer and I presented a united front to the producer, convincing her to change her logistical schedule. Months later, when I saw the finished video and the exhibit, I was gratified to see that our insistence was not just egos on overdrive. Most of the more evocative pictures came from situations we found on the run and for which we’d lobbied for more shooting time. I found that working with a team was more fun than I could have anticipated. Being able to review the day’s work and then talk about the next day’s plans and hopes helped me sort out what I was doing and helped me determine that my pictures were going in a direction that was appropriate to the storytelling mission of the project.
I found that the key to working successfully as part of a team is to set up ground rules before anyone gets onto the plane. Time in the field needs to be parceled out and a hierarchy of need has to be determined. When I’m alone, I’m in charge; everything is according to my agenda. As part of a team I have to consider the needs of others—and still get the story.
Ultimately this assignment reinforced how much the landscape is changing for photojournalists. Now it’s a web and mobile driven world, a world of images in motion with accompanying soundtracks, and our success as journalists lies in learning to work in that world.