Documentary photographers, like photojournalists and photojournalistic images, are expected to capture the world or everyday life, as it exists, without stage managing or directing or editing the scene. Documentary photography is popular to chronicle significant and historical events, or just to tell stories in images. It can be a long process if you are doing it on your own. Building a documentary photography project is a journey that guides you to understand better a topic, and your position in relation to it. Aside from the work you do in the field, getting familiar with places and subjects, shooting photos or conducting interviews, working on a project involves a good amount of research and production that needs to happen before, during and after the completion of the project. Here a few advices:
1. Do research on your subject
As you read this in 2020 there is no topic you can imagine that has not been written about, photographed, documented in some form. Even if your project covers events happening in the news, there’s always a visual tradition linked to the representation of that kind of events, which might be related to politics, war, protests or natural disasters. If you’re photographing a place you think no one has ever photographed before go back to art history, and you most likely will discover paintings, sculptures, architecture that can offer ideas and inspiration.
The moment you decide to work on a topic it becomes your job to know it intimately. You can do it by reading books and articles, researching archives, attending exhibitions, browsing the web for current photo projects on similar themes.
The amount of material you’ll discover should not discourage you from working on your goal, but it will give you an awareness that’s fundamental in order to find out what’s your place in relation to the topic, and what perspective you can offer.
Some projects will inspire you, some others will help you realize which mistakes you don’t want to make. Give yourself the chance to get bored of the images you feel like you’ve seen already, that other photographers could have taken, and broaden your field of references to find connections to a movie, literature or an art piece.
2. Find an idea
On any wide, complex topic, you’ll have to chose the angle to give to your project, and what you want to say about it.
When you present any story to an editor or a gallerist you can assume they’ve seen projects on a given subject a thousand times. They’re tired of the visual rhetoric tied to it. Still, you need your work to surprise them and yourself, taking the story from a different angle than usual or applying a unique approach to it.
You won’t work on a project on climate change, but on the way climate change is affecting the course of monsoon in southern India. Not on violence against women, but on the way an activist organization in Cairo is helping women who are victims of domestic abuse.
Think visually. Knowing yourself as a photographer helps you understand which kinds of approach would work for you. Most interesting topics are complex and hard to visualize, but many of the best ideas result from the need to circumvent obstacles.
Bodies of work like Rafal Milach’s “The Winners” and Tomas Van Houtryve’s “Blue Sky Days” are good examples of how themes as propaganda and surveillance can be addressed in creative ways.
3. Write a short statement
When working on a new project, one of the first steps is writing a couple of paragraphs that state what the project is about. This text can be sent to an editor as a pitch for a story to be assigned or upon the project’s completion, but it’s also a tool you can use for yourself. It forces you to put black on white what you’re interested in and what’s the message you want to send, and it helps you concentrate in a given direction while you’re shooting.
Think of this as the moment you tell something to a friend or a therapist and that idea or feeling takes a real shape for the first time. The way you set priorities and the words you use when you need to explain an intention to someone else force you to be clearer with yourself, and facilitate your concentration when you’re shooting.
This paragraph can and should be rewritten overtime as you dig deeper in the knowledge of the subject and its characters, eventually change some initial preconceptions and realize new important aspects of the story you ignored before.
When you’re writing to an editor, you can use data to suggest to the reader why your story is relevant, and possibly why it’s relevant at the very moment you’re writing. Editors usually need news pegs, anniversaries, specific events that justify the publication of a certain story at a given moment, because they’re constantly monitoring which themes drive a wide public interest in a certain historical moment, season or day of the year.
You have to be very concise, and give the editor the chance to imagine from a visual point of view the work you’re going to produce.
If you intend to or have already used any specific visual approach (a gallery of portraits, landscapes, diptychs, an alternation between still lives and traditional documentary photography), then write it down in a sentence.
4. Draw a concept map and make a production plan
A concept map is a personal tool you can use to plan your shoots and establish connections among any ideas you might have, related to your project.
My advice is to determine one central concept that connects to all other ideas on your map, then start thinking of the other elements you want to include. Write them down on the map to see how they are connected to the main idea, and among themselves.
As you work on your project, the map will help you visualize which elements you neglected, which ones you have a lot of material for, which shoots you should plan.
According to the nature of your project, draw out a loose production plan. Are you planning to complete your project in a month, a year, more? Which events do you need to be present for? How often do you plan to visit a certain subject or location?
5. Get Access
Unless you’re shooting a project on your own family or friends, there’s always going to be some level of production involved. Most of it consists in contacting the people who can give you access to the situations you want to photograph. NGOs working in the field, medical centers, writers who have worked on a similar theme, embassies, homeless shelters, political parties, are all entities whose press offices can be called or emailed, to get through doors seemingly impossible to open. This takes some time to get used to, as it takes self-confidence, knowledge of the subject and savoir faire to overcome our fears and convince strangers to trust us. Overtime this strengthen photographers’ personalities and becomes second nature though, as you discover that sometimes access turns out to be shockingly easy, while others it takes many doors shut on your face before getting where we want to be shooting.
The precious connections you get should be cultivated throughout the time you’re shooting and afterwards, being clear from the beginning about the nature of the project and its possible distribution. Failure to communicate effectively can often result in misunderstandings, disappointments and the possible revocation of the access itself.
It’s fundamental to respect the trust people allow you or understand their reticence to expose themselves to a public of strangers. That said, once the permission has been gained photographers should ask subjects to sign model releases allowing them the right to use the photos for editorial and cultural purposes, in order to avoid any legal problems related to the distribution of the project.
A number of model release templates can be easily found online.
6. Look for funding
There are different ways to look for funding for your work. Which one is right for you depends on the nature of the project, but be aware that most backers are willing to dispense money for photographers who have already done a substantial amount of working on a topic and plan to continue working on it.
There are a wide number of grants available throughout the year to support projects on different themes. Climate change, human rights, education and development are only some of the topics most easily sought out by grant providers. Entire lists of grants and their deadlines are available online, and dedicated facebook groups are also active to keep the public updated on them.
The Alexia foundation, the Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation, the Magnum Foundation grants are only some of the most known, but the more precise the topic you’re interested in covering the easier it is to find specific grants relatively easier to get, because they don’t receive as many applicants.
There are also dedicated grants and funding opportunities for women, minorities and professionals who are underrepresented in the industry. IWMF for instance has been funding working trips for women journalists in any field (photography, writing, radio, video and TV) on a rolling basis in specific areas of the world, and providing them with a free training for journalists in conflict zones. Women Photograph created a database of professional women photographers around the world and supports projects by women and non-binary artists.
There are a number of awards which give money to winners and sometimes runner-ups, others which only grant some visibility. The Leica Oscar Barnak Award, the Carmignac Photojournalism Award, the Eugene Smith Award are among the most prestigious awards which support winners with a considerable amount of money, but in this case as well a good research can help you find less competitive ones.
According to the topic and the area you’re focusing on you might be able to find private firms, institutes or research centers interested in similar photographic material to the one you’re producing. You can use this opportunity to produce material ad hoc for their needs, which could unlock access to restricted areas or people, as a paid job. This kind of deals can easily enable you to produce the kind of work you need for your own project at the same time, as long as you keep, by contract, the copyright on the images and have no restriction on how to use them.
The editorial market is a hard one to navigate at this moment in history, since the last decades have seen budgets shrink progressively and assignments become scarcer and shorter in length. The amount of money you’d receive from selling your project to one publication could hardly ever reimburse even the expenses you had to produce it. That said, as a freelancer you have the opportunity to sell the story to more than one outlet and the accumulation of different sales can constitute a bigger payback. Usually a publication won’t republish a project that has already been issued in the same country by a competitor, but it will publish it if it’s been featured only abroad. Among the few exceptions are the New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. Contracts normally ask photographers to observe an embargo period, 30 days for instance, at the end of which they are able to resale their photos.
7. Find the contacts you need in the editorial market
If the goal for your project is to be featured in a publication, do some research on which outlets are publishing stories on the same line as the topic you chose, and which ones favor a visual style and approach similar to yours.
The environment in the photography field is very competitive, but conscious that it’s virtually impossible for any of us to produce and distribute projects on our own, photographers continuously help each other sharing contacts of editors and fixers, lending and borrowing equipment, giving advices on how to apply for certain visas and getting access to a wide variety of places. A collaborative and generous mindset goes a long way overtime.
It takes time to get into the flow, dealing with new tasks and a variety of strangers on the top of finding the concentration to produce and edit the work. What I can say considering the experiences I had is that no matter what project you’re working on, it is not only shooting pictures that ends up being a rewarding experience. It’s the people you meet because you’re looking for contacts, the reading and reasoning you’re forced to do when you need to write about your project, the adrenaline of getting access to a place you thought was off limits, the surreal situations you would never find yourself into if it weren’t for photography. The efforts you make end up building a baggage of experience that stays with you, sometimes changes you as a person, and it can be even more memorable than the photos themselves.
By Gaia Squarci
Gaia Squarci is a photographer and videographer who divides her time between Milan and New York, where she teaches multimedia at ICP (International Center of Photography). She’s a contributor of Prospekt agency and Reuters. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time Magazine, Vogue, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, among others. Her work has been exhibited in the United States, Italy, France, Switzerland or in the UK.