If you’re thinking about starting to tell the stories of people or places you visit, either as a traveller or as a future documentary maker, then you’ll have to translate everything that happens around you into visual stories. In this article, we have prepared a useful list of 5 tips to follow before going on a trip or starting a documentary.
I have always been fascinated by the culture, traditions, and history of other civilisations and, ever since I started photography, I’ve tried to pass on these experiences to others.
The world is a wonderful place, full of a myriad of sensory experiences, ranging from those we can see to those we can hear or smell. As photographers, it is a delicate task to succeed in capturing all these in one single image. I could use the word “difficult”, but it wouldn’t be the right one because, with some careful consideration and detailed planning, we can achieve anything we want.
Here are 5 tips to follow before going on a trip or starting a documentary:
1. Prior research
From my experience, I can tell you that there is no field in photography that doesn’t require at least a bit of research. When it comes to travel photography or documentary, it is essential to do a detailed prior research about the local culture, traditions, and customs; about the advantageous shooting locations; planning the itinerary depending on the topic to be covered.
For example, let’s say you want to document an ethnic group. Well, then you should know the location of the group, how to get there, and how long it would take. Then, you have to know whether it is a small or a large community, what are their customs and traditions (in order to respect them and not offend them in any way), whether they are happy to welcome strangers in their homes, whether it is easy to communicate with them, what are the best ways to approach them and the list could go on and on.
Here are some ways to do your research: read as many books as possible about the location / the group of interest and use the internet (Wikipedia, blogs, and articles of other photographers or professional journalists).
2. You have to know your camera and what you can do with it
This sounds like a cliché, doesn’t it? You hear this recommendation all the time. In my opinion, this advice is not given the importance it deserves.
You have a new camera? Then read the user manual; the same goes for an old camera, for used lenses, or any other part of your equipment. The reason I put emphasis on this is simple: if you focus too much on what your camera can do (how to change the diaphragm, how to set the ISO or the exposure time), you may overlook the composition, the light, the colour, the right moment, the message, and so forth. Moreover, if you know your photo camera, you will try to take with you precisely what is necessary, and thus you won’t carry with you on your trip lenses or components that you are not going to use and you’ll be able to focus on what matters.
3. Imagine how you’d like to convey the chosen subject
I think this is most easily done once you’ve decided what you’re interested in. In order to tell the story of a place, of a person, of a group of people, or of an entire culture, it is important that what you’ve chosen to be your subject is also important to you.
Try to picture in your mind the photos you are going to make. Naturally, once you are on site, you may find something completely different from what you expected, and this is where your adaptability and creativity come into play.
What made you choose this subject? What is your interest? Why does this subject matter so much to you? Who is involved? Who is your target public? Where does your story take place? Do you need permission to access the place? How are you going to document the place, the subject, or the story?
And remember, try to be as objective as possible.
4. Find inspiration, or better said, learn from the more “experienced”
Inspiration may be too much, so let’s use the word “learn”. Learn from what others have done before you, learn from their mistakes. And we’re talking here about biographies containing the advice of the best known and most appreciated photographers in the field you want to cover. For documentaries, I highly recommend Martin Parr, Henri Cartier Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Brassai, Robert Capa, David Seymour and many, many others.
5. Pay attention to clothing
I won’t linger on this point, but my experience whispers that I should mention it. Before leaving somewhere, we have to pack. When it comes to clothing, it is essential to pack only what is strictly necessary, and remember that a photographer’s backpack is very heavy. The clothes you choose have to match the weather (after doing your research, you will definitely know where you’re going and what temperatures to expect) and the location. When I say location, I mean culture and traditions.
Try to wear loose work clothes that would not offend the locals in any way. Or you can wear an outfit similar to what the locals are wearing, if there’s significant difference (for example, India, Pakistan, etc.).
Obviously, don’t forget the medical kit, it is more important than you imagine.
There are many recommendations to follow before leaving for a place much different than your own. However, don’t forget to pack your enthusiasm, communication skills, empathy, and ethics (see here). In my opinion, these are crucial; for the rest, you can make a checklist and stick to it to the letter.
Do you have any advices not stated in here? Please share it with all of us!
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Author: Luiza Marinaș (Boldeanu)
Copyright: Luiza Marinaș (Boldeanu)