I have always loved photography. When I travel, I take lots of photos. I’d be doing so even if I weren’t a writer.
But as it happens, photography can greatly aid effective storytelling. In addition, and maybe more importantly, with almost every publication facing low budgets, a writer’s photography skills can be a critical factor in landing assignments.
Use photos to improve reporting
Photos help me both remember and tell the story. I take photos of everything whenever and wherever I am reporting, whether I’m sitting in someone’s office or out on a ship at sea, watching research underway. These photos are often strictly utilitarian. I use them to pick out the key details I need to paint a scene once I start writing. This practice is a reassuring insurance policy that covers me when I (inevitably) realize, midway through a draft, that I forgot something critical in my notes.
Photos also offer a reliable record of the days and times when specific events happened. I try to record the chronology of events in my notes, but usually I miss something. Flipping through a few pictures and checking date and time stamps can be simpler and quicker than combing through notes to clarify a timeline.
Offer photos to enhance the story’s appeal
Offering photos with a story idea is just a financial reality of the times. I wish this weren’t the case, because I certainly don’t want to take work away from full-time photographers, but publications, even major ones, often don’t have a large enough budget to send two people to do a story, even if photos are critical.
Also, there may be story opportunities in places without space for a photographer, such as on a research expedition where every bunk on a ship is spoken for. In such cases, you’re going to have to convince the editor–and probably an art department–that you can handle both the writing and the photography.
Doug Fox [bio] has a great, though painful for him, tale that motivates me to take photography very seriously. He wrote a story on Antarctic research that was killed by a major pub after he returned home because they didn’t think the photographs were suitable. He was vindicated somewhat when another publication took the story and found the photos perfectly workable.
I recently wrote a story for The Washington Post Magazine that involved an expensive trip to Egypt. It almost certainly wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t done the photography. (Here’s a link to the magazine’s gallery of those photos.) I have a reasonably good portfolio of photos now that have been used in a variety of other publications, so that helped things along. Barring that, keeping a portfolio of your best shots is a good idea. Depending on where you’re going and the publication, you might be able to set editors and art departments at ease with solid photos–even if they haven’t been published.
Learn the basics
Getting some training can also be a good bet, as Jessica Marshall [bio] did before a recent trip to Alaska, where she did photography while reporting a story for Discover. Though I’m sure I could still use some help, I’ve gotten by with training I had in high school and college. I continued to work on my photography chops on my own before it was part of my profession. And, of course, there are plenty of web and other tutorials that can help you along.
Doing photography properly, particularly for a glossy pub, cannot be an afterthought. It can be hard enough to get your reporting done, so covering both writing and photography well requires some well-planned juggling. Doug recommends setting aside separate times for each task during the reporting trip. He credits that strategy with helping him stay sane during long trips with scientists.
I try to separate the tasks, but I tend to jump back and forth a good bit in certain situations. One helpful trick is to leave a recorder running by your subjects if you need to be in photography mode while important activities or conversations will be underway. It’s not ideal, but you’re going to have to make some tradeoffs to be able to cover a lot of ground.
Most photos by Mark Schrope; photo of Jessica Marshall, in Alaska with microphone, and of an Indonesian slum, courtesy of Jessica Marshall; photo of frozen landscape in Antarctica courtesy of Doug Fox
[Editor’s note: Mark will offer more tips, sage advice, and general discussion about photography in tomorrow’s post.]