Six Strategies for Getting Closer to Your Subject

How should a photojournalist, or any journalist for that matter, develop a relationship with his or her subject? Without forming a personal connection, it’s difficult to move beyond a basic understanding of the subject — and false perceptions or cliched interpretations can result. The photojournalist falls into the potential trap of misrepresenting the subject. Here are six strategies I use to build closer relationships with my subjects.

1. Do your research. Research enables you to establish common ground and set an informed — and hopefully, inspired — tone for the shoot. By learning how your subject views the world, the challenges they face, and how they’ve been misrepresented or misunderstood in the past, you can develop a fresh perspective — and share this with others through your work. Even if the subject is as close as a member of your family, doing some advance research is almost always beneficial.

2. Focus on them. Now that you’ve done your preliminary research, how do you approach the subject? You should initiate a conversation that is focused on them — not you. No cameras should be obvious at this point. Get inside the subject’s world. Let them speak to you. Actively listen to them; active listening is a great skill that not enough people have. Listening will give you the information you need to dig deeper in to the subject’s world, to carry the conversation forward. That is when you might say something like, “This is really fascinating. I had never realized that this side of your story even existed, and I bet others don’t know about it, either. I would really like to do a photo essay about this. How would you feel about that?”

3. Communicate the benefit. It is human nature to like being the center of attention. Sure, it doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I have found that it appeals to most of the subjects I have come across. Still, you need to be able to communicate the benefit of your project to your subject. Perhaps you’re giving your subject an opportunity to tell a long-forgotten or overlooked story. Or perhaps the subject has a serious illness, and your efforts can help alert the world to this illness — the impact on the individual, the family, the doctors and nurses — in the hope that broader awareness might lead to new treatments or cures. If your subject is a company, the benefit might be building the company’s brand recognition. Don’t blurt out all your benefit arguments at once, though; if you put all your cards on the table at the outset, you will have nothing left to use when the relationship takes an inevitable downward turn (we will get to that in a moment).

4. Establish trust. Without trust, you will never get past the subject’s outer shell. All you will be able to do is experience the persona that the subject is exhibiting, and make assumptions about what else is going on — neither being very satisfying. It is actually easier and more productive to take the time to establish trust. Not only will you be able to see deeper in to your subject’s life, but you will also start to be invited into scenarios you were not aware of. You earn trust by keeping your word. I became accepted by a number of “white power” groups, for example, because I promised them that what I photographed and reported would be just what I saw and heard, with no opinion attached. They were skeptical at first, having had other journalists write negatively about them, but when they saw that I was keeping to my commitment, I started to be invited to all sorts of events they were holding — even getting advance notice about their future plans.

5. Maintain the relationship. During lengthy assignments, it is inevitable that the time will come when your subject forgets the original reason for giving you access to their lives/companies/events, but they are not sure how to tell you how they feel. Instead, they become distant, less open. They stop sharing things with you. This is OK; everybody needs their own space sometimes. But make sure you recognize what’s going on so you can do something about it. Go “offline” — i.e., no camera, no notebook. Take the subject out of their environment if you can, to a neutral location such as a coffee shop or park. Talk to them about something other than the story you are working on; then, gradually turn the conversation back to them. Ask them what else is happening in their lives that seems to have caused a change in their enthusiasm for the story. Remind them that the most difficult, sensitive times are among the most important to capture, because they illustrate the raw emotion of what the subject is dealing with. Remind them of the benefits that made them want to be your subject in the first place.

6. Deal honestly with objections. Whereas in some instances your subject might quietly withdraw from you, in other cases the subject might raise specific objections to what you’re doing. They might think you’re too intrusive, or that you are spending too much time with them, or that you’re reaping all the benefits. For example, the subject might raise the objection that you’re getting paid for your work, while they receive nothing. This is when you have to be at your persuasive best in articulating the benefits to them. Never get argumentative. Always listen and show appreciation for the subject’s point of view. But don’t be afraid to push back and give them your point of view in return.

These steps continue to work for me, and have allowed me to enjoy excellent access not only to my intended subjects — but also to a whole host of other stories that my subjects have made me aware of.

[tags]photojournalism, photography advice[/tags]

2 Responses to “Six Strategies for Getting Closer to Your Subject”

  1. Thanks for the tips. I found this site a gem of useful resources for the PJ.

  2. Thanks so much for this very useful information.

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