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How Photographers Can Learn to Conduct Interviews

How Photographers Can Learn to Conduct Interviews

How to prepare, pose questions, be present. If you missed it, read the first part of this Tips series here.

How to conduct an interview

Canadian writer and documentary filmmaker Harold Crooks interviews late blind poet and publisher Steve Cannon in New York City in front of a wall painted by artist David Hammons  for the upcoming documentary “The Melt Goes On Forever” © Gaia Squarci

● Do your research – If you’re interviewing someone you can look up on Google then read as much as you can about them, and if you find other interviews make sure you’re not going to ask the same questions they heard many times. If you’re interviewing a regular person, be prepared for the broader context that frames the single person’s experience. Everything that’s part of your previous knowledge on the theme you’re dealing with can help you.

● Ask yourself what is your main purpose to do the interview and prepare a few questions to use as a guideline. There can be general ones to break the ice, and then there need to be others directly linked to your purpose to interview that person. This list will be the spine of the interview, but a flexible one.

● Explaining to the best of your knowledge how the material will be used. The notion of “informed consent” implies that the interviewee understands the potential consequences and ramifications of the publication of the material. It is your responsibility to make sure they do.

● Try to keep any interview under an hour of time. In that way the interviewee doesn’t get too tired and editing won’t become excessively long for you. People might have less time though. Tell them approximately how much timethe interview should take, so that you both know what to expect.

● Create a relationship. You are there in the room with them. You need to give them a reason to tell you something that they wouldn’t necessarily tell someone else. During an interview you trigger a dynamic that is similar to the one of a portrait session. The person reacts to your presence, your expression, your gesture and posture. If you are nervous people will read your energy and think you don’t know what you’re doing. So relax, and try to focus on the connection to the person in front of you.

Crown Heights, Brooklyn. March 21, 2020. ”Trevelon and I matched on Bumble last week, Sunday night at 11pm. We talked on the phone for 30 minutes. Then video called for 30 minutes. He makes me forget all that’s happening in the world right now.” From a project called Haze, shot during the first wave of Covid-19 lockdown in New York City. © Gaia Squarci

● Keep eye contact and listen. It is important to make people feel that what they’re saying is important to you and they’re important as an individual, not only because they’re part of a certain ethnicity / age group or they live in a certain neighborhood.

● Don’t think about the next question while someone is talking to you. They deserve all of your attention, and if you don’t listen you won’t be able to formulate follow up questions, which are the most interesting part of the interview. Follow up questions are directly based on what the person is saying and how they’re saying it. Yes, you need to have your list of questions, but if you go back home only with the strict answers to those questions there’s little point to the interview. It means you basically got what you expected. The interview needs to be a discovery.

● Think twice before interrupting. As a general rule it is good to shut up and listen. If you’re recording and will be editing audio you will not be able to use people’s complete answers if you interrupt them. If someone goes off a tangent you can start from what they’re saying and try to go back on path with another question. After people finish answering, wait a few seconds before asking the next question. Silences can be revealing, and the person might think a few seconds, then add something more.

● Respect the interviewee’s requests not to use their name or full name,or keep some information off‑the-record, and if the person could potentially be endangered by the publication of the information they’re giving you, then do what you need to protect them. This might mean, ultimately, deciding not to use the material.

How to formulate the questions

In September 2021 the Mexican Supreme Court depenalized abortion in the country. I interviewed several people across the spectrum about their experiences and opinions related to this topic. © Gaia Squarci

● Keep in mind Journalism’s 5 Ws: Who? What? Where? When? Why?

● Ask specific questions that the person is able to answer. I often try to get people to tell me anecdotes that can turn their answer into short, engaging stories. For instance: “Where were you on election night? Did you follow the polls? What is the most disturbing event you’ll remember from this political year?”

● Formulate questions to avoid “yes” or “no” answers. Instead of “Do you agree with the recent law that restricts access to abortion in Texas?” Ask, “What do you think abut the recent law that restricts access to abortion in Texas?”

● Do not suggest the answer in the question. People need to be free to answer the way they  feel, without being influenced by what you’re trying to get from them.

● If you think you will be using and editing your audio, ask the subject to formulate complete sentences in their answers. For instance: When were you born? If the interviewee replies: “in Paris” you have no way to use that bit of information in your audio. If s/he replies: “I was born in Paris”, you have it! Sometimes you might want to keep your questions in once the piece is edited, but make a choice. If you keep the questions in, they need to be well formulated, brief sentences that go directly to the point.

This is an edited recording of my first phone call with Ninoska, a woman I contacted during the first wave of Covid-19 pandemic in New York City, as she was living in lockdown with her daughters and an abusive husband. A year later I was able to meet her in person and develop with her a project called And You Shine Instead, about her reaction to psychological violence, thanks to a National Geographic Society grant.

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.

From my project Ashes and Autumn Flowers, a fragment of an interview with Mario, volcanic guide on Stromboli island. © Gaia Squarci

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