Being good at asking questions is essential both in the pre-production and production phases of most photography projects. You might be working on an art project or something rather personal, but you can be sure that these notions I’ll write about, borrowed from journalism, will be useful nonetheless.
As part of my very first photography project, Broken Screen, I interviewed blind people about their experiences as they live their lives within a system constructed on the rules of seeing. This piece was a rudimental montage of their answers (2012).
While researching a topic you read and cross-reference different sources, but at this stage it is always essential to have a talk with someone whose direct knowledge can complement or corroborate your findings.
Depending on the nature of the project you might be talking to a spokesperson, a psychologist, an activist, a doctor, anyone who can help you progress in your research. That kind of talk can happen over the phone going over a list of questions, and provide you with a clearer idea of how and where to find the people you’d like to photograph, and which locations it makes sense to include in your visual work.
The information you gathered up to this point helps you write a pitch (for publications) or a project statement (for the art world). In both cases this is a short text that states what you will work on, why it is relevant and what message you want to send.
Writing this text shakes you out of the vague and nebulous concepts you had in mind to help you understand what you want to do in practice. Sometimes going from a topic to defining your angle on the topic, understanding what is THE main question behind a project, is the hardest task, and once you found it you’re already halfway through it.
What are you looking for?
The reasons why you might want to interview some of the people who are involved in your project (I’ll avoid using the term “subject”) can be various.
- Collect information
- Obtain quotes, anecdotes. For instance you might know certain facts related to the story, but you want to hear them from the perspective of the person you’re photographing.
- Emotion/character study. Words might communicate to the viewer/ listener a message that either enhances or contradicts what the subject is expressing through body language. If you’re also working with audio/video the intonation of the speech, the silences, the accent contribute actively to the nuances of the work.
Even if you intend to use only photography, or photography and written quotes, I’d suggest to always record the interviews at least in audio. That way you can concentrate on talking to the interviewee instead of struggling with fast note-taking, and if you made the effort to get a good recording you can potentially use the audio track as part of the work itself, in case you change your mind and want to add a multimedia component to the work.
In his project The Ameriguns Gabriele Galimberti has portrayed American citizens who privately own a large number of firearms. The portraits themselves are striking, showing individuals or entire families posing proudly, surrounded by a carefully arranged choreography of their countless guns. What makes the project nuanced and relevant for the debate on gun control in the US, though, is the information Galimberti gathers in the interviews, and the characters’ motivations and backstories he includes in the captions.
On the same topic, the artist JR has worked on an interactive web collage for Time Magazine called Guns in America, inviting 245 people in a studio for staged portraits and asking them questions drawn from their life experiences related to firearms. In the webpage the individuals form a large crowd, polarized between the ones who are pro and against gun use. The viewer can click on their individual portraits within the crowd and listen to audio fragments from their interviews.
In order to be effective in a photography project, the material you get from interviews needs to be radically edited down. Most of the time I interview people for 45 minutes to an hour and I might use just one short written quote, or a one-minute-long audio piece. Sometimes an interview can even be reduced to just one question. In her series Blind, Sophie Calle asks a number of people who were born blind the same question: “What is your image of beauty?” She takes a portrait of each of them and then takes other photos to give visual shape to their answers. In her book The Notion of Family, Latoya Ruby Frazier writes down dialogues she has with her mother about their relationship. “What do you see when you look at me?” She asks her.
What makes an interview successful?
I’m satisfied with an interview when I discover something relevant to my project that I didn’t know, didn’t expect and maybe wasn’t looking for. I love when it helps create a connection with the people I’m photographing, when it provides me with strong quotes and possibly gives me good ideas for new photographs I can create within the same body of work.
Being interviewed is also an experience that I’d suggest to anyone. Like therapy, good questions can bring focus to things about yourself you hadn’t fully realized, and if you’re working on a project they can help you carry out your interest and goals.
A colleague who has worked extensively in war zones told me once about the time when, a 24-year-old photographer anxious for affirmation, he communicated to his parents that he was leaving for Iraq for the first time. They had seen it coming, but they insisted to sit him down and interviewed him about his motivations, recording his answers. He was puzzled at the time, but watching the interview years later he admitted that this step had been fundamental for him to find such complex answers inside of himself, and informed much of the work he ended up doing.
In the next article, which will be published next week, I’ll talk about how to conduct an interview, and how to pose questions.
By Gaia Squarci
Gaia Squarci is a photographer who divides her time between Milan and New York, where she teaches multimedia at the International Center of Photography. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time Magazine, Vogue, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, among others.