Figuring I could be a useful human by putting my cameras to work, I jumped into photography by hiring myself out to NGO clients. I had a lot to learn. Here are a few notes to my younger self.
Brass tacks, tactfully
You seem savvy enough to know that there is more to this work than good intentions. Nevertheless, it is a messy business. Hash out expectations with your client as early as possible.
Always bring extra
Bring enough snacks to share with grouchy coworkers and rogue livestock. Also, are you wearing pants? Good. Put a freshly charged camera battery in your right pocket. Spent batteries go in your left pocket.
Don’t look away
Give your subject respect. Give your clients and their audience an honest story. You don’t need to give the cynics anything.
Really, it is your job to smile
Build rapport before you photograph.
Always be improvising
Don’t worry if you’ll have enough time, enough light or enough coverage – you won’t. Keep your lens clean and take your vitamins. Then, channel Bruce Lee. You’ll get it done.
Be someone to lean on
Field managers can juggle tasks like a superhero but even they can’t read minds. Trust is a two-way street. Communicate often and navigate by asking better questions.
WYSIATI (what you see is all there is) is a concept from economist Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” describing how people rely on heuristics – quick, automatic decisions based on patterns you already know.
It’s WYSIATI 10x when you’re working in someone else’s culture. Said another way:
“Observation across cultures is notoriously difficult…”
“…there is a great deal you will be unable to see, whether or not you’re in the proper state to observe. The trouble is that you will not be able to see anything that does not constitute meaningful behavior in your own culture. You must remember in this context that it is not the eyes that see but the mind. The eyes merely convey images to the mind, which then interprets and confers meaning on those images it recognizes, things it has ‘seen’ before, and confers no meaning on – and therefore does not see – anything it does not recognize.”
– Craig Storti, The Art of Crossing Cultures (Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2004), 80-81.
There is an emotional cost to this work. It’s stressful. Always create, and keep, rituals for yourself to process your experience. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
These are things we all have to learn by doing, I think. Just know that you’re not the first photographer to face these challenges.
What did I miss? Send me a postcard. [email protected]