Photographer Interviews

Photographers Explain Their Approaches to Covering Sensitive Subjects

November 4, 2016

© Jody Rogac

One of the challenges Jody Rogac faced in shooting a story about abortion providers in Texas was finding a patient who was willing to be photographed. The clinic staff set restrictions about where and when Rogac could photograph, to protect patient privacy and comfort, but they helped facilitate the shoot. “Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” says Rogac.

Jody Rogac on Documenting a Battle Over Abortion

Texas laws are threatening abortion clinics in the state by imposing costly medical standards on them, a subject that photographer Jody Rogac covered in a story for, “Shuttered: the end of abortion access in red America.” Rogac, who specializes in portraiture, was hired both to shoot portraits and to document the routine of one doctor who traveled the state doing procedures in different clinics. For the portraits, Rogac recalls one challenge was to win the trust of her subjects, who ranged from pro-choice activists, clinic owners, attorneys and patients, among others. “It’s a pretty charged topic,” she notes. Rogac made subjects feel comfortable by engaging in small talk and photographing them in their own homes or other comfortable spaces. When photographing within the clinic, Rogac relied on the staff to notify her when consenting patients were available to be photographed (they had to be alone), or when the doctor was setting up for a procedure so she could capture the details—his shoes, hands, symbols of the clinic’s offices, etc. Director of photography Amy Pereira, who hired Rogac for the assignment, says, “It’s an emotional time for the patients, and Jody was able to capture that with delicacy and the respect they needed.”

How Photographers Try to Protect Vulnerable Subjects From Harm

When covering sensitive stories, photojournalists have to assure their subjects that by being photographed, they won’t put themselves in jeopardy. But at a time when the reach of the Internet and social media extends even into remote places, photojournalists have little control over where their images will be posted or who might see them—the subject’s enemies, the community or family members a subject hoped to escape, authorities working for an oppressive regime, etc. Photojournalists say they now have to 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 vulnerable subjects they photograph understand how widely their image may be seen. PDN spoke with several photographers who cover sensitive subjects like violence, war and drug trafficking—Lynsey Addario, Walter Astrada, Dominic Bracco II and Seamus Murphy—to learn what they do to protect their subjects.

© Mariella Furrer

A young girl at The Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children in Johannesburg. While photographing children, Mariell Furrer always asks for permission from the subjects and their guardians, and tries to be as unobtrusive as possible. © Mariella Furrer

The Long Fight: Mariella Furrer on Her 10-Year Project About Sexual Abuse in South Africa

For 11 years, Mariella Furrer documented child sexual abuse in South Africa. Her book, My Piece of Sky, is a powerful testament to that struggle and to the enormity of the problem not only in South Africa but across the globe. The project began with an assignment from  Marie Claire to document infant rape. But she was often frustrated, both with the process, and the publication. “I couldn’t show faces, and faces are where the emotions are held. [Also] not being able to move around and try [different] angles was one of the more difficult things…because these children have just been sexually abused and there is so much shame, guilt and trauma attached to it, somehow having a camera put in your face is almost like pointing a finger,” she says. She began working on the project independently. She took great pains to be unobtrusive during police interviews with the children, and always asked permission from children and guardians before taking any photographs. In her pursuit to turn the photos into a book, Furrer also interviewed confessed pedophiles at a sex offender group-therapy program that she attended. 

Andrea Bruce Explains Her Approach to Romania Sex Trafficking Story

Andrea Bruce began work on a story about sex trafficking after her photo agency, NOOR, received grants to begin a project about modern-day slavery. Bruce went to Romania and looked for victims by hanging out on the streets of Bucharest with staffers from NGOs, talking to police, visiting strip clubs and massage parlors, and approaching known traffickers by writing letters to prison. She also traveled to villages where many victims came from, villages that are “very religious, and very conservative. You find out the truth after you dig and dig and dig,” she says. In one village, Bruce was able to photograph a teenager whose mother turned her to prostitution. That teenager was determined not to fall into the hands of sex traffickers. The photographs show her at home, preparing to go to work, but also show, through details in and around her family’s house, what her life is like. “The details encourage the viewer to recognize the dignity of the subject she’s photographing,” noted Vaughn Wallace, former deputy photo editor at Al Jazeera America, which published the story. “Andrea’s work is humanizing. She was really interested in photographing these young women to explain to a larger audience [what] they’re facing.”

Photographer Zanele Muholi on Fighting Homophobic Violence With Portraiture

Since 2006, Zanele Muholi has been confronting the violence faced by South African gays and lesbians by making more than 250 portraits of queer black “participants” that humanize and empower them. Muholi photographs only people she knows personally, emphasizing their individuality. She refers to them as “participants” as a way of acknowledging their agency and their role in her success, she says. “The minute you say ‘subjects,’ you are not allowed to connect with the person you photograph. I make sure I connect and try to relate to the people I photograph.” She also gives the participants the opportunity to write their own story to accompany the photos, “so when you look at each and every face, you should think of that person’s story.”

What Photographers Need to Know About Model Releases

Whether or not you’re covering a sensitive subject, it’s important to know when consent is required to use a person’s image for commercial use. To help photographers better understand the complexities of publishing people’s likeness, PDN spoke with three experts—Alan Capel, head of content at photo agency Alamy; Dan Heller, author of A Digital Photographer’s Guide to Model Releases; and Nancy Wolff, a partner at the law firm Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard—to gain  insight and advice about the sometimes unexpected troubles that can arise if photographers license photos without getting a signed release from subjects.

How Stacy Kranitz Avoided Stereotypes in her Series on Appalachia

Photojournalists have to tread carefully in Appalachia. National media have sensationalized the region’s poverty for decades, and Appalachians have come to resent the stereotyping by outsiders, and the staring. Last year, Vice sent photographer Stacy Kranitz to report a five-part series about issues facing Appalachia, and the resilience of locals. Between May and September, Kranitz spent ten days reporting each story and recruited local writers to help. These locals helped open doors for Kranitz, including introducing her to local officials, lawyers, schoolteachers, business owners, mineworkers, retirees and unemployed youth. “It is very easy to fall back on choosing the most salacious, ‘shocking’ pictures to get people to click,” Vice photo editor Elizabeth Renstrom explained via email. “Because of this, [we] focused on making each theme an informative blend of these types of moments with quieter observations.”

Why a Confrontation Between Photographers and Locals Turned Ugly in Appalachia

On Monday, March 23, in McDowell County, West Virginia, photographer Marisha Camp and her brother Jesse found themselves confronted by an angry and hostile group of folks, who accused them of taking photographs of children without permission. The Camps, who were on the road gathering material for a television show, were detained and threatened with physical violence by locals until they were escorted out of the county by state police. Their arrest made national headlines, but West Virginia-native and photographer Roger May, who also is working on a project titled “Looking at Appalachia,” looked deeper into the story. He explains why the locals are sensitive to outsiders, especially those with cameras, and the unusual circumstances that caused this particular situation to escalate.

Helping Communities Speak for Themselves: Aaron Huey’s Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project

In 2005, Aaron Huey began exploring South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservations—an area with 90 percent unemployment, 70 percent school dropout rates and a male life expectancy of 47 years old. Many of his photos of the region were published in magazines and websites, like The New York Times Lens blog. In response, he received letters from Pine Ridge locals expressing their discontent with his portrayal of their community, in which many sober and employed families do reside. Huey used that feedback to fuel a larger project with National Geographic, which included an article and photo essay in print, as well as an online component featuring the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project, which allows community members to share their own stories. Huey says the response from the reservation has been “huge” and that he really believes “that people feel heard.”

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