Reportage photography is about access. As Lou Klein, the Art Director at Time-Life Books when I was just starting, and who was very influential for me, said, “it’s all about being in the right place at the right time.” Nothing about technique, camera work, style, because it was accepted that you’d already mastered the craft of photography, otherwise you wouldn’t have been given the job. No, the practical matter that determines whether or not you’ll succeed at being a reportage photographer is access. Reportage photography is, after all, exactly about reporting, usually in a storytelling kind of way, which means staying on the case for some time and building up a sequence of images that cover the subject. Access to that subject is the key. I have space here for only five tips, but as you can imagine, there are many more.
A tough challenge? Maybe not as difficult as you might have thought, because visibility has a lot to do with who’s doing the looking, and as any accomplished street photographer will tell you, there are ways of behaving and moving that render you uninteresting and part of the street furniture. You do want to be uninteresting! There’s a show-off style of photography that we’ve probably all seen, especially at big events, which tries to draw attention with a bit of swagger, heavy-duty equipment that looks highly professional, a big lens or two, usually a multi-pocket jacket in a combat style, and the overall aim is to say, ‘look at me, I’m the big famous guy, so don’t get in my way’. I really do see this a lot, and apart from being psychologically suspect, gets you absolutely nowhere in either street photography or any kind of situation when you want to capture normal life as it goes on.
This is why it’s absolutely important to know at the start what kind of access you need. There’s a clear difference between getting a backstage pass at a rock concert so as to gain access to a restricted area, and getting access to ordinary people’s unguarded moments. Maybe the most misunderstood photographer’s access is this latter — being allowed to shoot natural life going on around you — and there are just two ways of doing it. One of them is that you’ve already become thoroughly accepted (more on this below, #5), the other is this one, not being noticed because you blend in. Arguably the greatest photographer at this kind of shooting was Henri Cartier-Bresson. As Adrian Hamilton, a colleague of his, wrote when working on portrait assignments for Vogue, “Most off the subjects were surprised that he didn’t ask them to sit or stand this way or that. ‘Just talk to Adrian,’ he’d say…’I’ll just stay in the background’. Which is what he did, almost invisible…” Cartier-Bresson himself wrote, “When the subject is in any way uneasy, the personality goes away where the camera can’t reach it.”
Street school lesson, Getsemani, Cartagena, Colombia
Here are seven ways of deflecting attention away from yourself, and you’ll see that they’re a mixture of appearance and behaviour:
- Dress boringly
- Keep the camera out of sight
- Move around the margins, not in the middle
- Either keep moving or sit down
- If you have a friend, take pictures of them
- Do what other people are doing
- Don’t make unnecessary eye contact
THE PERMISSION AVENUE
Yes, it’s not just a way or a route. Asking permission before you shoot is a broad avenue, direct and visible, and once you’re on it there’s no turning back. This is a basic reportage photographer’s dilemma. If you’re granted permission, from anyone, whether a stall-holder in a picturesque market to the command of a naval base, then it’s all plain sailing. But if you’re refused, that’s it. You’ve closed off any alternatives, any sideways approaches or back-door entrances. If it’s a personally granted permission, such as asking to take a portrait of someone you only just saw, then you have to use your judgment, and it better be good. You could perhaps try the invisibility method just described and go for it quickly. Or you might think that the only way to do it properly will require at least a bit of co-operation on the part of the person, and ask. That’s what happened here, a Tibetan man with such a strong face that I really wanted to take his portrait. We spent some time talking through a translator, and then when I judged the moment was right, asked if I could take his portrait.
Tibetan man, Benzilan, northern Yunnan
A second example of a fully worked-out, official method was an assignment from the Smithsonian magazine to shoot a story on a rare archaeological dig at Stonehenge. Here, at Britain’s most visited monument, all access is very strictly controlled, so there was no alternative. For me, though, it was relatively straightforward, as we were working in tandem with BBC Television, and the broad permissions had already been worked out over a period of time. Nevertheless, it did mean having to do everything by the book, not stepping out of line, and even attending a meaningless press photo-call. In a situation like this, you simply have to follow the procedure.
Excavations at Stonehenge, with lighting, and below as used
In informal situations though, there’s often a choice between asking of it’s OK to shoot, or shooting anyway and deal with the consequences afterward. For what happens afterward in situations where you probably wouldn’t have been given permission, read on…
Peter Hessler, in his book Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, wrote, “In China, much of life involves skirting regulations, and one of the basic truths is that forgiveness comes easier than permission.” The all-embracing chain of command that has managed every aspect of life for 70 years has made sure that the many, many officials do what they’re told to do, and personal initiative is frowned on. At the same time, this jars with normal community relations where people generally have to get along. The problem with permission is that it means approval, and that works for the future, whereas simply quietly letting someone get away with doing what would have been refused doesn’t signify approval. So yes, this is highly relevant if you’re shooting in a situation where you know the rules are going to stop you — or at least have a suspicion that they might. And this isn’t about China, incidentally. It may be famous for this approach to skirting through life’s obstacles, but the permission-forgiveness trade-off is one to consider everywhere.
It doesn’t always work. There are some transgressions that will get you into serious trouble. If you see a sign that says something like ‘military area, do not use a camera’, don’t push your luck. But if the sign says ‘no tripods’, or worse still ‘apply to the Archaeological Survey of India 15 days in advance for permission to use a tripod’, you might try your luck. Don’t take this as my encouragement for anyone to break the law, which would be wrong, but the reality of being a reportage photographer is you do come up against restrictions that may seem petty and pointless. Objectively they may even be petty and pointless.
Here’s an example, but from Mexico, where I was surprised to find that the same restrictions as in India were enforced in Mayan archaeological sites in Yucatan. I’ve always assumed that the tripod ban is to prevent damage to monuments from spiked feet (even though most tripods these days have rubber feet). But it may also have something to do with preventing professional photographers from exploiting national treasures, and a tripod was always a signifier of a professional. Whatever. It doesn’t though. make much sense in an archaeological zone that is half forest and a couple of square kilometres in size, as here, in Labná. I was using a 4×5-inch camera, and even though it was a model called a Sinar Handy, 4x5s are not intended for hand-held shooting. My answer was a small tripod that fitted in the bag, and being prepared to shoot from ground level or from any convenient fragment of wall. Not ideal, but a working method, and given the size of the area, I decided to shoot for as long as possible before someone came along and told me to stop using the tripod. Which they did eventually, at which point I apologised and packed up.
Special access to events and occasions that are either off the normal radar or are heavily subscribed usually means invoking some kind of privilege. That’s a word and an idea that rankles with many people, because it sounds unfair and a bit like queue-jumping, but really, it’s the way that things work at all levels. We all have our network of friends, for instance, and within that loose group we do things for each other. Tapping in somehow to a much wider network is one of the most effective ways of opening doors to restricted or difficult things to photograph. The Chinese guanxi is probably the world’s most highly developed system of relationship and networking, but the principle can be applied anywhere, and it’s a worldwide phenomenon, just that it’s easier in some cultures than in others. The practical issue for a reportage photographer, as we’re normally shooting stories away from our home base, is how to tap into a different set of networks.
Here are two examples, from different cultures, both on-the-spot efforts. In the first, I was shooting a book on Tuscany, and was in the area of Siena at the time of the annual Palio, which is a no-holds-barred horse race dating back to the Middle Ages in which jockeys ride without saddles and there are few rules apart from winning. In fact, it’s an expression of the strong rivalry between the contrade, the wards or districts of this ancient city, and a very crowded event. One thing to understand about the Sienese is that the Palio is their own private city race, not a tourist spectacle. Television crew from Rome? Go find your own viewpoint! So, how to get a good camera position? Enter the author commissioned for the book, Lorenza di Medici, Italian television personality with a wine estate close to the city, Badia a Coltibuono, and with very powerful local connections. Front row seats at the Palio are more like gold nuggets than gold dust, but one of them fell my way. That’s a connection in action.
The Palio di Siena, from the front row
A second example is from China. I was leading a photography workshop at the boutique hotel designed and run by friends of mine, The Bivou in the village of Shuhe in Yunnan. Hwee Ling, one of the partners, had spent much time cultivating the friendship of the local Yi community, who have villages high on Jade Dragon Mountain, as guests do treks up there. Her main contact, a
teacher, mentioned that there would be a large and traditional funeral for an elder, and from this we gently negotiated over a couple of days to be able to attend. This was a great privilege, and needless to say there was no-one else from outside this ethnic community apart from my small group.
Yi women waiting for others to arrive at a traditional funeral, Yunnan
It’s important to remember, when you’re getting access this special way, that these are favours being called upon, and somehow those favours get called in, otherwise a connection network can’t function properly. To put it crudely, there’s no free lunch. If you’re lucky, it may simply be in someone’s interest for you to shoot the story — they may want publicity — but just keep in mind that people, maybe more than one and maybe someone you don’t meet, are making an effort that gets you into a special place. That deserves reciprocity.
This became a popular term during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, where the military solution to dealing as positively as possible with the nuisance of combat photographers was to draw them in and put them with a unit rather than having them wandering around on their own. There was certainly an element of control in this, but it also produced some remarkably good photography, such as the late Tim Hetherington’s book Infidel and film Restrepo. In a less dramatic way, embedding yourself with a community you want to photograph means settling in, building trust,
and eventually becoming a sort of honorary member of the group. It takes time, inevitably, but it really does pay off, and for access to ordinary life you end up getting the best of both worlds — natural behaviour, actions, expressions but without having to be surreptitious. My first direct experience of this was a three-month assignment for Time-Life to shoot a book on an ethnic minority in the highlands of the Thai-Burmese border. This was a time before mass tourism, and the real issue was acceptance. The writer, Fred Grunfeld, and I were working with three different anthropologists, none of whom got on with each other, which didn’t help, but we eventually corralled them into making the introductions and getting us embedded in one village. I learned a valuable lesson, that part of the process means not taking photographs. Frustrating, obviously, for a photographer, but good sense if you think about it. One thing that few photographers think about is what you look like when you use a camera. It hides your face, and not in a nice way. It’s a plain truth that if you want to build trust among a group of people, you have to look them in the eye — a lot — and engage with them live a normal person. When you shoot, you’re no longer another person, so to get to the point where your subjects don’t mind this, they have to know you and accept you. I didn’t use the camera for the first two weeks! After that, I could do whatever I liked, and people would make suggestions and take me along to anything that they thought might be remotely interesting for me.
Akha girls, Thai-Burmese border