Pictures and Prose: When Photographers and Writers Work Together

Dominic Bracco photographs fishermen after a long day of work on the eastern Sea of Cortez.

Modern journalism was built on teams of photographers and writers heading off together to report stories back to the reader in pictures and prose. We asked a roundtable of writers, editors and photographers to discuss the value of teaming up and how they make it work.

Participants were:

Dominic Bracco, a freelance photographer and a cofounder of Prime Collective.

Karen Coates, an author who often collaborates with her photographer husband, Jerry Redfern.

Douglas Fox, an award-winning veteran science writer.

Laura Helmuth, science and health editor at Slate.

John Nowak, an Atlanta-based general interest photographer and videographer.

Jon Sawyer, director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Jamie Shreeve, executive editor at National Geographic.

Jared Soares, a DC-based photographer who explores the intersection of identity and community in contemporary American life.

JT Thomas, a science photographer for newspapers and magazines.

What’s it like working as a writer-photographer team?

Douglas: I think of one assignment where I was part of a 3-person writer/photographer/videographer team traveling [on a ship] with researchers for eight weeks. It was constantly difficult for the three of us to stay out of each others’ way. That is hard, no matter how well people work as a team. Part of what saved us was the fact that this ship had a 24/7 science schedule, and we could not all be awake 24/7.

Karen: My husband and I have worked together a very long time and we complement each other in the field. He helps make subjects feel more at ease as he’s taking their photos, telling jokes, getting their mind off my slew of questions. Plus, having a male/female team can smooth over certain gender issues encountered in the field.

What do you look for in a writer or photographer collaborator?

JT: Most all of the writers I work with are science/environment writers as that is my dominant interest and why I do photojournalism in the first place (as someone with a biology background). I am especially interested in writers who build the narrative around scientists in the field and make images that allow readers to step into their shoes.

Jared: For me, it is more about what we can do together as opposed to shoehorning somebody into a project. Though sometimes you get a phone call out of the blue and you’re immediately on board because you enjoy working with that person.

Karen: My story is a little different because I mainly work with my husband. Many years ago we went to J-School together. We didn’t like each other, but we respected each other’s work. Then we ended up at the same small paper in a windy Wyoming coal town, where there wasn’t much to do but work and drink. We did a lot of both, together. The rest of the story writes itself.

What’s the worst thing that a writer can do to irritate a shooter?

John: Refer to them as “my photographer.”

Jared: Ask a subject questions while a crucial scene is unfolding that will only happen once during the trip.

Dominic: (Laughing) What Jared said. Stop talking!

Shooters, how does your approach to a story differ from that of the writers you’ve known?

Dominic: Without intimacy, photography is really pretty ineffectual. So I basically need to spend as much time with people as I can. This lesson can be great for writers though as well.

John: We’re both looking for details, for unique pieces to fill the pages. But a writer can spend hours in a conference room and get those pieces from a subject. I need to be in the element. I need to experience what we are illustrating. That said, plenty of writers I’ve worked with feel the same way.

Editors, how much thought do you put into visuals at the time of assignment? Is it valuable to do this or distracting from the story itself?

Jamie: As you might expect, at National Geographic a great deal of thought and research goes into the visuals before the photographer leaves for the field. Indeed it’s helpful to include some examples of what might be shot in the proposal itself.

Laura: It’s not distracting; it helps me understand the story. At Slate, I don’t need to know about visuals right away, but it definitely enriches a pitch.

Jon: I agree with Laura. It’s something we consider in every proposal, and something we champion in every pitch we make to potential news outlets.

Writer Douglas Fox in his UV-protecting goggles at sub-glacial Lake Whillans.

Writers and photogs, have you had any luck pitching a story alongside a writer or photographer? More or less than when you’re on your own?

Dominic: It depends on the writer, but usually more success when we pitch together. Especially if you are interested in a package of good reporting.

Jared: Definitely more luck when pitching with a writer. Most of the places I work with are word driven so the percentage is always higher when the writer is on board with the pitch.

Douglas: One difficulty that I have encountered before is that, say I’m running off to some remote continent to do some field work, it was planned months ahead of time, and I’ve already got a photographer on-board–even before the magazine assignment was nailed down. Sometimes the magazine will then try to say, “Oh, we want to choose and assign a photographer ourselves.” And you have to say, “Well… no, that’s not possible, this photographer has been on board with me for months, and has already built relationships with the researchers we’re going to be spending weeks in the field with, and I cannot even consider tossing this person aside because it would be bad for the project.” That happened to me once–it led to a few tense days of negotiations with the magazine, but worked out in the end.

Editors, what kinds of stories are more likely to get your attention from a writer/photographer team?

Laura: It’s all about the location and occasion. If the team has identified a story in a remote or rarely visited site or that only takes place rarely, having a photographer makes much more of a difference.

Jon: We want visuals in every project. A data-driven piece of investigative reporting might not lend itself to extensive photography/video but that’s very much the exception.

Jamie: Proposals with strong visual promise, of course. And, in my experience, almost always from writers and photographers who have worked together before on an NGM story.

Editors, are you eager to hear pitches from writer/photographer teams? Or would you rather assign the shooter most of the time?

Laura: I am always happy to get joint pitches. We rarely assign a photographer for a story and don’t have much of a budget for photography, but I can sometimes cover it from my text budget.

Jon: At the Pulitzer Center we welcome team pitches. We’ve also done it the other way, reaching out to photographers or writers we know when we get a proposal. If the partnership is right, the collaborative approach is almost always stronger for it.

Jamie: At National Geographic we don’t often encourage joint writer/photographer proposals, unless both have consulted beforehand with their respective editors. Usually this would apply to freelancers who have worked together before on an NGM story, or at the very least, freelancers who have established a connection with both a text and photo editor. This prevents a good proposal from being rejected because either the writer or the photographer is deemed to be not right for the assignment, which I think is more likely to happen than the proposal being accepted but then assigned to a different writer or photographer.

Would you be more attracted to a team pitch if it had the promise of a video component, shot by the photographer?

Jon: It very much depends on the project. In our model we’re always on the lookout for broadcast-quality video because we know it heightens the project impact.

Laura: YES. A LOT MORE. Sorry to go all all-caps SCREAMING at you, but always do video. In some cases this is more important than photos.

Jamie: I’ll follow Laura and SCREAM about the increasing importance of video in our stories–usually from the photographer, but sometimes we’ll send a videographer out with the team as well. Or rely on the photographer’s assistant for video, if there is one. I would think a strong video component would strengthen a proposal from a team, but as above, there are good reasons not to pitch a story in tandem.

Karen Coates interviews Walter Paran, a Kelabit villager, as he forages for wild gingers and edible leaves in the highlands of Malaysian Borneo, as part of a story on the biologically diverse edible jungle.

Karen Coates interviews Walter Paran, a Kelabit villager, as he forages for wild gingers and edible leaves in the highlands of Malaysian Borneo, as part of a story on the biologically diverse edible jungle.

How can writers meet photographers we might want to work with? Few of us writers can judge good photography–how can we tell if a shooter is any good?

John: Types of photography vary by everyone’s taste, so if you find someone who you like, stalk them. Keep tabs and follow their feeds. Good shooters will be consistent.

Dominic: Add things like Lens Blog, TIME LightBox, and burnmagazine.org, to your reading list.

Jared: If you really want to meet photographers in person (and drink a lot), attend a festival like Look3.

Karen: Lightstalkers has long been a gathering place for journalists to meet and mingle. Also, The Vulture Club on Facebook is a useful place to post searches for photographers in particular areas, especially overseas. The Bangkok-based founders of OnAsia Images (now defunct) just launched a fabulous photo web-hosting service called LightRocket (akin to PhotoShelter), which not only allows photographers to showcase their work but it highlights key projects and helps writers/editors connect with photographers.

Do you think that more photo/writing teams would be a healthy thing for journalism as a whole?

Jamie: I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a good working relationship between the writer and photographer on our stories, right from the get-go. To make the best possible National Geographic story the photography and narrative need to be conceived and executed with a lot of communication between the team members, lots of cross-pollination of ideas, and ideally, some overlap on reporting in the field. I think the same would apply increasingly to other outlets as the visual components of a story become more and more a driver for the story, rather than conceived as a response to a written draft.

Jared: Good ideas usually happen through conversation.

Douglas: Yes, what Jared said. Working with an experienced photographer, you can really learn a lot about creating and building stories in a larger sense, beyond the mere narrative.

Jon: Very much our view as well, especially in the age of the web. EBooks, data visualization and specialized websites that let you do more, and more creatively, than ever before. Having strong visual assets has given us the means to repurpose our content on multiple platforms and for broad, diverse audiences, in ways that we ever imagined possible five or 10 years ago.

Dominic: Photo/writing teams have a built in mechanism for fact-checking and ethical standards. We both make fewer mistakes because we are there filtering information together.

Laura: Yes, absolutely. Some of the best stories are born of these collaborations. Not every story needs it, but when there’s a good mix of art and writing, those are the most memorable stories.

 

Erik Vance

Erik Vance

Guest contributor Erik Vance is a freelance science writer based in Mexico City who has worked alongside photographers with the Christian Science Monitor, Harper’s, and National Geographic.

 

Photo credits from top: Dominic Bracco, JT Thomas, Jerry Redfern.

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  1. Pingback: The Open Notebook – Capture the Moment: Get More out of Your Stories through Photography

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