How do photographers working in unfamiliar cultures and communities go beyond making clichéd or stereotypical images? Photographers have taken a variety of approaches to deepen their understanding of the people and places they’ve photographed, and to create respectful depictions of their subjects. Over the years, PDN has interviewed many photographers about their efforts to create more nuanced portrayals of the people they cover. These have included documentary photographers who have embedded themselves in communities, environmental photographers documenting local populations affected by conservation efforts, travel photographers creating stories about their own journeys in unfamiliar places, and photojournalists working to protect vulnerable subjects. Here we’ve excerpted a few of those interviews.
As a photojournalist from Texas who is telling stories about women’s rights in Peru, Nigeria and elsewhere, Danielle Villasana is sensitive to her status as an “outsider” and the questions it raises about her work. “It’s a positive development in the photo community that we’re asking this question about insiders versus outsiders,” she says. “It comes from a lack of diversity in the photojournalism industry, and it’s important that we ask ourselves these questions: Who am I to tell this story? What can I bring to it that’s new?”
She faced those questions about her project “A Light Inside,” about transgender women in Peru, when she started showing it at portfolio reviews several years ago. When she showed her images to one photographer, he warned her editors would want her to focus on “the sexy stuff,” but she felt the media was getting the stories of these women wrong. They showed the women as “hypersexualized, deconstructed objects only capable of prostitution. These stories dangerously focus on the superficiality of sex rather than the complexities of gender identity,” she says. Her subjects, of course, had no particular reason to trust her, but Villasana worked hard to overcome that. She talked to PDN about her decision to help the women she met—not only through her photos but also at times intervening in life and death situations.
Since PDN interviewed Villasana, she and Fotoevidence have turned A Light Inside into a book. It will be published this fall in Spanish and English to make it accessible in Peru to police officers, health care workers, legislators and others whose actions and policies have often contributed to the abuse of transgender women. Read the full story here.
In pursuing stories around the world about the effects of climate change and habitat loss, Jason Houston has noticed the central role that local communities play in the success of any conservation effort—and their importance in stories he wants to tell. An assignment for The Nature Conservancy in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest required him not only to photograph the NGO’s environmental initiatives, but to teach local high school students how to use photography to document their own lives and environment. The engagement with the students helped him photograph his story for The Nature Conservancy more accurately, he explains.
“I learned from their perspective how they saw their community, and I learned a lot about their community and culture,” Houston says. “It was also a soft and effective introduction to the community. By the time I started working on the assignment [for The Nature Conservancy], I was already accepted and had a lot of connections.”
While he was working on the story, Houston continued to engage the community with what he called “listening sessions,” which were open meetings to give the local community a look at Houston’s work as it progressed. “What I wanted was feedback from them, and in particular, what they thought about how I was representing them,” he explains. Click here to read the full story to learn how locals not only helped Houston find photos but also provided valuable context and interpretation.
Brandon Thibodeaux’s book, In that Land of Perfect Day, interweaves formal portraits and landscapes, and candid and metaphorical images the photographer made over eight years in a 40-square-mile area of the Mississippi Delta, in towns with populations as small as 250 and as large as 10,000. Several personal interests inspired Thibodeaux, who lives and works in Dallas, to explore rural Mississippi. And his choice to travel by bicycle “made it much easier to meet people because I could travel faster than walking but I didn’t look like an encyclopedia salesman,” he says. People were also curious about his “clunky Mamiya c330 twin lens the size of my head.” In Alligator, Mississippi, he was introduced to a prominent family, the Coffeys, who “adopted him” and came to “serve as the nucleus of all the relationships I now have in the Delta,” Thibodeaux says. Their family name opened doors, and Thibodeaux’s “intense connection” with the family kept him returning to the Delta. He believes the Coffeys and others welcomed him because “I acted like a person and not a photographer…. People are willing to share as much as you are. I am pretty generous with revealing personal tidbits about my life.”
The book tells “stories about black achievement,” Thibodeaux says, and celebrates “the achievement of a normal man just making it through the week and holding on to his family and his faith, and I think those are things that are common to us all.”
There are a number of reasons Thibodeaux, a white outsider, was able to tell these stories, but the permission of his subjects was probably most important. Thibodeaux says, “Looking back, am I the perfect narrator for this tale? Who’s to say. The only reason that I was able to tell what I’m telling is people have allowed me to, right?” Click here to read the full story.
Stacy Kranitz has spent the last seven years photographing in Appalachia. She takes an immersive approach, embedding herself with subjects to the point of participating in their lives. She approached editors at VICE with a five-part, in-depth series about the region, and worked with three local writers to report it. “I did the best I could to say, ‘We’re going to take these issues seriously and do strong, long-form journalism.’” The stories examined a variety of social and economic issues. “I worked on each story for at least ten days,” Kranitz says, explaining that she spent some of her own time, in addition to paid assignment days.
Writer Jason Knabb showed her around his hometown of Madison, West Virginia, and introduced her to local officials, lawyers, schoolteachers, business owners, mineworkers, retirees and unemployed youth. They hung out in bars and restaurants, talking to people they met by chance. Kranitz also sought out community events. She says she measured the success of the project by the depth of the reporting. “The only thing I can do is give a genuine voice—a voice that isn’t making fun, that isn’t marginalizing people, and that gives them room to be present in [outsiders’] minds,” she says. Click here to read the full story.
Daniel Castro Garcia won the $35,000 W. Eugene Smith Grant in 2017 for his ongoing project called “Foreigner: I Peri N’Tera,” an investigation of life in Sicily for young migrants and refugees from Africa. He initiated the project in 2015 in response to what he felt were troubling media representations of migrants. “Images of overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean [were] becoming increasingly repetitive. And often the headlines would be very dramatic, very one-sided, either sanctifying those on board or vilifying them,” he told PDN. “My idea was to zoom in on the individuals within these crowds…Each individual on these vessels has a story and a reason for taking on these journeys, and we [wanted to] offer them an opportunity to communicate their stories.” He sought permission from his subjects, spent time explaining what he wanted to photograph, and tried to portray the people he met as more than simply victims. “For me, spending time is a key part because I don’t want to create work where I’m just projecting my own artistic or visual urgencies and thirst onto a scene, especially on a subject like this,” he says. “I’ve always been concerned and interested by that opportunity to stand straight in front of someone and have that interaction.” See the full story here.
In a talk at a National Geographic seminar, photographer Lynn Johnson described a turning point in her career. In quick succession, magazine clients killed two of her assignments on difficult topics. One, for National Geographic, was about pain: She had spent months with people who live with chronic pain and “who felt their pain could be given meaning and purpose by sharing their story so others would not have to suffer as they had suffered,” Johnson recalls. When the story was laid out, she got a call from then-editor Bill Allen. “He said, ‘We can’t run that story. It’s too painful to look at.’” A short time later, she decided to get her master’s degree.
“I had to continue to grow to be capable of telling other people’s stories. And stories I was telling were more and more complex.”
It was around that time that Johnson learned to connect on a deep, intense level with her subjects. She explains, “I can never promise [a subject] that our time together will end up on page or screen. I used to feel like I could do that. So I feel like only thing I can truly give is my attention, and that’s the most important thing,” she says. “When you’re with [someone] by a bedside and their child is dying, it is our human intimacy that will carry the day.”
That intimacy arises from being present, and “listening with every fiber of who you are,” she says. “Listening to their words, looking at their body language, listening to the unspoken message [they’re telling you]. Sitting, watching, meeting their eye. It’s kind of like the devotional center of the work.
In certain situations, taking photos can be risky, but being photographed can be even more dangerous. The reach of the internet and social media extends even into remote places, so photojournalists say they now take extra precautions in order to protect the identities and safety of subjects who may be at risk for retaliation or reprisal. They are also doing more to make sure that the people they photograph understand how widely their image may be seen.
Photojournalist Lynsey Addario says that, when approaching any subject, “I am always very clear about who I am—a photojournalist working for X publication… and I explain that while the images will appear in a newspaper in America, there is a possibility that they will also appear online.” For example, she says, photographing women in Afghanistan takes extra work and communication with subjects and their families, “but it is important that if I can help it in any way, my work doesn’t jeopardize the subject’s safety.” Read the full story to learn the precautions Addario and other photojournalists take.