There are many reasons for choosing to photograph a story. For a professional photographer, the motivation has to be important; providing information is both the responsibility and duty of a photographer. I always start with “the why” in telling a story: Why do we tell a story? What makes us do it? Why one story and not another?
The duty in providing information is to consider carefully the truth of the story. Personally, I believe that in order to fully tell a story, a photographer needs to have as much time as possible available to him, which is not always possible on newspaper assignments but can be for our personal projects. Examining in-depth a story is to examine in-depth “man himself”. To photograph man is to bear witness to the human race and to those things that disappear over time. Photography follows a story and turns it into memories.
The “why” behind my story of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia was this: to give memory to the ancient tribal rituals of the various tribes, that have accompanied man for hundreds of years and that one day will most likely disappear. In this sense, photography is documentary but also anthropological. Man is at the centre of the world in his continuous evolution. To photograph man is to take care of him. For photographers, the camera is your free pass, your access to the different worlds, yet it is not your armour. it is not your protection. Taking care of man is not just about taking his picture, but also respecting him. In this regard, the photographer is neither a hunter nor a predator.
Rather, the photographer is a narrator and, in order to tell his stories, he must really know them in-depth. This prompts you to take your time with your subjects, to approach them with respect. There’s no special permission for taking photos of your subjects; your master key to your subjects is your heart and your ability to listen to their stories. There are wordless conversations that can happen between human beings. Your sensitivity will enable you to understand when a subject is ready for your camera.
Spending time together will tell you a lot about a person whose story you wish to tell; gradually, time shared with your subjects will open up their worlds to you and you will understand the best way to enter into their lives. The sensitivity with which you treat other people’s lives must always be an important element in a photographer’s ethics.
This sensitivity will enable you tell the truth of a story, and of life, and you will be sure to get truthful images that depict the reality as authentically as possible. For a good feature, it is essential to prepare yourself for the story you want to tell, which means gathering as much information as possible about the place you will visit; you can start at home, using all the available sources, from the internet to newspapers. It is also very important to exchange views with those who have already been in the place we would like to visit. When you are in your story location, it’s important to make contact with as many people as possible, to talk to them and explain the reasons behind the work you are doing.
The place will always turn out to be different from the idea that you got at home and you have to be ready for this unexpected change in perception. Mixing with the local people will be fundamental to understanding the world around us and how it moves.
It is important to listen, and it is even more important to show respect and interest concerning their culture. In Ethiopia, for example, you eat with your hands; I adopted this custom straight away, refusing cutlery even when I had the choice. This opened a lot of doors for me, allowing me to connect with the local people.
It is very important to put yourself on the same plane as the subjects you wish to photograph; the people with whom you are forming relationships will pick up on this. I always avoid treating the people with whom I come into contact in a superficial manner, and this puts me in a positive light in terms of our relationship.
Knowing the country and the people you want to photograph is also a way of making sure you stay safe. Understanding how to manage photography within different cultures helps to avoid any unpleasant incidents; even when you don’t have time to develop a relationship, it’s always best to ask before taking a picture.
I never normally raise my camera straight away; aiming your lens at a subject can be a problem in some cultures and, furthermore, you must never feel that you own a place and this will make it easier to avoid any nasty surprises. Our journeys to discover the Earth are our journeys to discover man. We use a camera to bear witness to this; it is not a weapon of invasion. The camera is to be used to enhance our vision of man, not to control him.