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DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT

HUGO PINHO

INTRODUCTION

T he designation “Documentary Photography” refers to the genre of photography used to record events, persons and environments with relevance and significance, for future memory. This description may not

differentiate it from “Photojournalism” and actually they share many similarities, but while photojournalism is more about breaking news and creating contents to the news media, documentary photography is generally related to long term and in-depth projects.

Frequently designated also by “Social Documentary Photography”, when the author uses a form of documentary photography with the aim to draw the public’s attention to ongoing social issues, like child labour, poverty or famine and can provide evidence of human rights violations.

famine and can provide evidence of human rights violations. Child labour in a quarry - near

Child labour in a quarry - near Kuito, Angola.

It’s also sometimes confused with “Street Photography”. And while street and documentary photography may have many aspects in common, street photography focuses on photographing people in public spaces, with the relevant characteristic of being spontaneous, un-premeditated and candid. On the contrary, documentary portfolios are usually the result of long term projects, with a premeditated intention to tell a particular story. Although street photographs often have visual similarities with documentary ones, street photography is not necessarily about the truth, but a well composed, aesthetically interesting and appealing image.

In a fast changing world, a documentary project may have a noble mission of preserving memories, like professions, habits and traditions in extinction. We shouldn’t wait until it’s too late to capture what’s important to us.

until it’s too late to capture what’s important to us. Children playing in the street -

Children playing in the street - Kuito, Angola.

The Halo Trust demining team - Andulo, Angola

The Halo Trust demining team - Andulo, Angola DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 4

DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT

B y developing a documentary photography project, you will produce a visual narrative, you will tell a story. The most known documentary projects, or at least the ones with more impact, usually cover stories of

political or social significance. But it’s possible to develop a project about almost everything. The possibilities are endless. And it isn’t necessary to reach remote or exotic areas of the planet to create a good story. The subject can be located in our own city. What frequently happens is that, ironically, in our own countries actually can be harder to connect with people and get permission to take photographs.

When thinking of a subject for a documentary project, there are two important aspects to take in consideration:

1. It must be interesting to you, its author. Otherwise, very easily you’re going to

quit;

2. It also must be interesting to the general public. If it’s interesting to you but no

one wants to know about it, you will feel frustrated and probably you won’t

complete it.

Most documentary projects usually take from a few months to several years, so choose wisely. And when you truly commit to a project, no matter how much time passes, it will touch you.

Within the several ideas you may have to a new project, carefully check if they have these two key elements before starting working on it:

Belief - This is one of the most important elements in order to embrace a project. No matter how appealing a project may sound, if you don’t believe in it, hardly you’ll be able to go forward with it until the end.

Meaningfulness - Recent estimates tell that around 100 billion pictures are taken

and 2 billion are uploaded and shared online, every day. From those, how many are meaningful? It doesn’t matter if it is a landscape, portrait or sports photography, the genre or technical skills aren’t the question here. The point is, are these photographs interesting? Are they particularly important? Despite the quantity, many photographs we see nowadays lack personal effort, or are made exclusively for its aesthetic value, stripped of any significance as a register of a place, situation or event. So, before starting the development of a new project, ask yourselves if it’s really meaningful.

One of several abando- ned tanks in a post-war country - Kwanza, Angola

One of several abando- ned tanks in a post-war country - Kwanza, Angola DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY
Child labour in a quarry - Near Kuito, Angola DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 7
Child labour in a quarry - Near Kuito, Angola DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 7

Child labour in a quarry - Near Kuito, Angola

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Entire families working on the exploration of stone and gravel for construction.

working on the exploration of stone and gravel for construction. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 1

PLANNING

After the subject is well defined and it’s time to start working on the project,

planning is crucial for its success. Whether it takes place in your home town or a distant country, the right amount of preparation will make all the difference. When you go abroad it’s necessary to consider:

• Weather

• Native language

• Passport and visa

• The need of specific vaccines

• Transportation

• The access to the sites, events or people we want to photograph

• Local currency

These are just a few examples of important aspects to have in mind. There are so many others and the degree of preparation also varies if you’re going on yourself or if you’ll join a group already operating in that place. There will always be unforeseen circumstances, but it’s good to be prepared to the most likely situations, so we can focus our attention and time on what matters instead of passing half the time trying to solve the occurrences.

EQUIPMENT

The same way as everything else, when it comes to equipment there isn’t a right or wrong. And what works for one person may not be ideal for another, so the opinions here expressed reflect my personal experience and should not be considered as a rule for the success of the project.

Anyway, what makes a good photograph is the combination of: a place as background; one or more subjects; the relationship between them; their expressions; the historical/political/social relevance of the event; the light illuminating the subjects and all its variables as intensity, size, direction or colour; the right timing of the capture; the framing of the scene; and finally the settings like focal length, aperture, ISO and shutter speed. So, as you can see, the role of the equipment when it comes to obtain a good and meaningful image is nearly secondary.

Now I’ will describe what works for me but, before that, I would like to highlight

that in every assignment we should use as much equipment as we need, but as little as possible. The ideal was to be able to use just one camera and one lens. It allows us to move freely, faster and interact more with people. It also saves time. In the past I tried to take all my gear to everywhere, to be sure that I wouldn’t miss anything and have all the possibilities covered. But in the end, while the events were happening in front of me, I was too busy deciding what to use and missed many potentially good photos. It’s understandable why people want to take

everything, like the old saying “Just in case

”.

Child selling mice at 400 Kz (approx. 4.00USD) each group. Near the Luachimo river - Saurimo, Angola.

(approx. 4.00USD) each group. Near the Luachimo river - Saurimo, Angola. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT

We have to overcome that sense of “being ready” by having everything that we may eventually need and force ourselves to be as minimalist as possible. It will allow us to focus on the subject instead of the gear, to get much more photos and a higher keepers rate.

Of course a backup camera might be handy, especially when we are on remote areas of underdeveloped countries and the nearest camera store is 900 km away.

This reminds me when I went to Saurimo, in the Northeast of Angola. It was planned to be just for a few days, so all I took was a cabin bag with a few clothes, the basic toiletries and one camera with one lens attached. Turns out I ended up staying for 2 months, washing my clothes in the sink almost every night and limited to just one lens with a fixed focal length. In the end, I believe I was able to take some of my best photographs. “Use what you’ve got” - that is the way to see things and it forces us to be creative.

Camera:

As said above, the equipment is the least important factor in the equation and it’s possible to capture a great story whether we use a medium format, a compact camera or a smartphone. Undoubtedly there will be differences in the final image but it’s all about a compromise between image quality and portability. Any interchangeable lens camera will be a good choice but my preference lies with the mirrorless cameras. I started using them in 2012 and find the mirrorless systems perfect for this kind of photography. The few disadvantages are totally overcome by the advantages.

Advantages:

Compact size - When traveling this is a major convenience, because all the

necessary equipment can be carried in a small messenger bag. Actually this was the main reason why I bought my first mirrorless camera, because I wanted to be able to carry a camera to everywhere, literally. I would have missed probably half of my

shots if I hadn’t a camera with me all the time. Also, in some places it’s better not to draw unnecessary attentions to ourselves carrying a DSLR with big lens, looking like a professional and expensive camera, even if it isn’t.

Electronic viewfinder - Being able to visualize in real time how the final image

will be recorded is a big advantage. From exposure to white balance, what you see is

what you get. Especially in tricky situations like low key portraits, we can nail the photo at the first attempt, instead of continuously shooting and chimping the rear screen until you get the photo and taking the risk of causing a sensation of discomfort in the person being photographed. Also, having full time live-view in the rear lcd allows us to frame the shot through this screen, which can be very useful when maintaining a conversation with the person in front of us.

Quieter shutter - Please note that I didn’t use “quiet”, because apart from some

few cameras that have electronic shutter, it’s still noticeable. However, mirrorless

cameras generally have a much softer shutter than DSLRs, which can be very useful when working indoors or whenever we wish not to disturb the happening events.

Disadvantages:

Short battery life - This was never a problem for me, even when I was several

days without electricity, which happened frequently. If one battery lasts for 300~350 shots, it’s so easy to carry 3 or 4 spare ones inside a messenger bag. But definitely, it’s a major disadvantage in comparison to DSLRs.

AF performance in low light conditions - Some of my preferred photographs

were taken in poorly lit environments and the cameras still managed to achieve focus. But yes, sometimes the AF lacks some responsiveness.

Depending on the conditions under which we develop the project, having a weather sealed camera can be extremely useful. Usually I take two cameras with me, one weather sealed and the other not. And I’ve been for long periods under heavy rain without any issues.

Having two cameras can also be convenient when we need two lenses with different focal length. It’s much easier to have one on each camera body and swap when needed. But beware of having too much gear. Two cameras with 2 lenses can be useful, 3 lenses it’s too much.

Lenses:

Taking into account the wide variety of camera systems, from M43 to full frame, to simplify this text, all focal lengths here referred will always be in full frame equivalent.

Let’s start this subject by explaining what I think that shouldn’t be used:

Telephoto lens - When developing a documentary project we want to tell a story,

so it must have a context. Using long telephoto lens it’s a bad idea for many reasons. First, it will compress the background and make it blurry, taking our main subject out of the context. Second, A telephoto lens creates a distance between you and your subject, it disconnects you from the action and makes the photos

look very “impersonal”. And if you’re not doing anything wrong, there is no need

And if you’re not doing anything wrong, there is no need My old Mamiya 645 AFD.

My old Mamiya 645 AFD. Didn’t use it much. Sold it to get a much smaller camera.

to be far away from the persons you’re photographing. Third, this kind of lens is usually large and heavy, which will add weight to the camera bag and lower our mobility. There are always some exceptions where a telephoto lens is actually

needed, when the subject is out of reach or for safety reasons it’s better to keep a distance.

Ultra wide angle lenses - Despite being appropriate in many situations like

architecture or landscape, creating very dramatic scenes by affecting the perspective

and adding emphasis to the foreground, I believe they should be avoided in documentary photography because they introduce heavy distortion, often representing people with out of proportion body parts.

So, the more appropriate range of focal lengths to use should be from the 24~28 to the 70~85mm. Again, I would like to point out that this is a personal opinion and certainly there are many examples of wonderful portfolios made with lenses out of this range.

Using wide lenses allows to include some background, giving a context to the photograph. For portraits, a 50mm or 85mm lens provide interesting results, without having to go too far from the subject.

If I had to use only two lenses, would be a 28 and 50mm. With these two, almost all the needs are covered, from wider shots in tight spaces to portraits and detail shots. Remember when I said that I stayed for 2 months in an amazing place with just 1 lens and 1 camera body? It was a 35mm. At first I regretted so much for taking just one lens but, being at 900km from the capital city and 1250km away from my work base and without any possibility to go get the rest of my equipment,

I had to find a manner to get the most of this lens.

Anyway, after some frustrating days stuck with a single focal length, it felt so liberating not having to think which lens to use. I was shooting more, being more creative, moving more around the subjects to find a better framing. It was really a relief. From all the variables a photographer has to think before making the shot, removing one of them allows to focus on the others. In the end, I didn’t miss a bit of the rest of my gear and I was able to shoot landscapes, environmental portraits, group shots, full body portraits, upper body shots, head shots and close-ups. With the 35mm you have to beware the head shots, because this focal length sits between the wide angle and a normal lens, and when used too close may introduce some noticeable and unflattering facial distortion.

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All photos with the same camera and lens combi- nation, near the Lua- chimo river - Saurimo, Angola.

and lens combi- nation, near the Lua- chimo river - Saurimo, Angola. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY

Child waiting for the lunch time in the Kan- tenga Elementary School - Katenga, Angola.

the lunch time in the Kan- tenga Elementary School - Katenga, Angola. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY

Now, regarding the question about using zoom or prime lenses, again there isn’t a right answer for it. I use both. Regularly I use a zoom with constant F/2.8 aperture in one camera, and a prime in the other. But if I had to be stuck with one lens again, probably I would choose a fixed focal length.

Zoom lenses:

+ Versatile: With just one lens it’s possible to cover all the focal lengths needed.

+ Dust: Using a zoom we don’t need to change lens to switch the focal length,

taking the risk of letting dust coming inside to the sensor.

+ Image stabilization: This argument is not always valid, because there are some

camera models with image stabilization on the sensor and also stabilized prime lenses, so it all depends of the model and brand. But, supposing the camera has not, many zoom lenses are stabilized. - Size and weight: Generally zoom lenses are bigger and heavier, which is a big drawback to carry inside our everyday bag. - Inertia: Having a zoom lens it’s hard to resist the temptation of standing still and use the zoom in the wrong way. A zoom lens is made to change the focal length and not to get closer. Photographing a subject with a 70mm focal length is completely different from getting closer and use the 24mm. It’s just not the same thing, they have different angles of view, totally incomparable.

Prime lenses:

+ Cheap: This isn’t always the case, but generally, a good zoom with constant

aperture is more expensive than a prime lens.

+ Fast: From 28 to 50mm usually there is a wide variety of lens to choose with

1.4/1.8 maximum apertures. This is a major advantage comparing to F/2.8 zooms, because allows to capture images in dark ambientes without having to raise too much the ISO. + High image quality: Again, this isn’t always the case, as recent zoom lenses often have an excellent image quality. But generally, even an inexpensive 50mm F/1.8 has an outstanding image quality. (Now I would like to make a note: it’s far better to produce interest contents with lower image quality than meaningless images with superb definition.) + Small and light: This is the main reason to use prime lenses. When on assignments, it’s important to remain light and with high mobility. Also a plus because of the weight limits when traveling by plane. - Fixed focal length: We can see this aspect as a limitation, but can also be an advantage, promoting our creativity. But using two lenses, a 24 and a 35mm, or a 28 and a 50mm, this limitation shouldn’t be a problem.

Recapitulating, when it comes to lens choice, there isn’t a right answer. And it’s preferable to use what you got and invest in traveling to interest places than the other way around (buying expensive gear and keep making boring photographs within our comfort zone). If possible, invest in fast prime lenses, as this will open new possibilities. Often the most interesting images are made in poorly lit ambients.

Grocery store & bar - Chitembo, Angola.

Grocery store & bar - Chitembo, Angola. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 2 3

Manuel, the 8 year-old boy who takes care of his baby brother - Kunje, An- gola.

the 8 year-old boy who takes care of his baby brother - Kunje, An- gola. DEVELOPING

Accessories:

Bag: I’ve been using just small and medium messenger bags. I prefer these over

the backpacks, because they allow instant access to cameras, wallet, mobile phone,

notebook and pen, passport, power-bank, and many other essential items, doing it on the go, without having to stop and take it off, as it would be

necessary with a backpack. Also because I use them as my daily bag to carry what I need besides the photo equipment. To avoid catching too much attention, it’s preferable to use the ones which look like a regular everyday bag instead of the ones with popular camera brand names.

Camera straps: Some like to use them, some don’t. This is a very personal choice. I find them useful when shooting with two cameras in order to have one in the

shoulder while using the other, making the switching operation very fast and easy. I either use a third party leather strap, or just cover the brand names in the original one with duct-tape.

Spare batteries: Depending for how long will be away from a power source, I

carry between 2 and 6 spare batteries. I don’t like camera grips as they add too much bulkiness and never found them useful at all. I’d rather carry a couple of

batteries in the bag. They’re small and weight near to nothing.

Memory cards: We should avoid overshooting a scene. It’s better to think

carefully and make 1 to 2 shots instead of shooting in continuous mode hoping to get one good picture. Still, it’s always good to have several spare memory cards. And I’ve learned it the hard way, when I went to shoot a situation without any expectation and took only one card. It turned out to be an amazing event and I had to constantly check the photos in playback mode to choose which ones to erase from the card, ending the day shooting in jpeg only to save space. As a note, it’s not advisable to delete photos in camera. If you wish to know a bit more, there are

many explanations in the Internet. After making the backups, just format the card

in camera.

Lens cloth: A basic accessory when on assignment.

Sensor cleaning kit: When shooting for long periods in dusty environments, I

always have one in the car or the work base. It saves much time in post processing cloning the dust spots.

Notebook and pen: I still prefer the old school paper and pen to take notes, even when there isn’t a power source available. The mobile phone or tablet will do the same. To take important notes about the project’s development, names of people and places, making plans or just taking notes on meetings.

Power-bank: For charging the mobile phone when away from power sources. In

addition, some camera models can also be charged using a micro USB cable.

Personal documents: Whether the originals or the copies authenticated by a

notary, they should always be carried next to us and kept safe, especially in

countries with many police or military control checkpoints.

Laptop computer and external hard-drive: To make the backups (more on that

subject below).

Money: In Euros, US Dollars and local currency, it’s always advisable to have

some money, because we never know which unexpected situations we will face.

Euros and USD are widely accepted, but for small expenses it’s better to use local currency.

AC power adapter: According to where we travel.

The items listed above are the essential to go on assignment and refer only to the basic need in terms of photographic gear and accessories. There are of course a series of other items that one must take according to the place we’re heading, like a small Swiss knife, flashlight and a first-aid kit, including some basic medicines that may be difficult to access.

Finally I will address two pieces of equipment very important and useful to many photographers: the tripod and the flash. And, unless you need them for a very specific purpose, I wouldn’t recommend their use.

Tripod: Generally, when shooting for one project, whether it is on the streets, a factory, a village, we benefit from keeping the bag as simple and light as possible, freeing both hands to handle the camera(s) and increasing the mobility. Both we and our subject may be moving, so the tripod in this cases is practically useless. Flash: This is the point on which many will disagree with me, but I don’t use flash to shoot a documentary project. It’s all about being as faithful as possible to the reality and the available light conditions. I can accept that in some particular conditions, indoors, like an industry or a laboratory, some sort of additional light has to be used, whether it’s a flash or continuous led light. But for my personal taste, I’d rather not use it. Of course this doesn’t apply to other genres of photography. For portrait, fashion, macro and many other genres it’s generally necessary.

IN THE FIELD

Once the planning is done, all the preparations finished and it’s time to go to the field, my first advice would be to always, but always, carry a camera with you. Even when we’re not on “working mode” and haven’t reached the place as planned. At any time, something as unexpected as wonderful may happen, so be ready. And that includes the camera ready to be used, with the right settings. Typically I have the cameras in aperture priority mode, auto ISO and auto White Balance, Raw+Jpeg, single shooting drive mode and the center focus point active. These settings allow to be ready to face any situation that requires a fast response. If other adjustments have to be made, like change ISO above the upper limit of the auto settings, or select another focus point, at least this is a good starting point.

Approaching people When approaching people, no matter the context or place, in your own country or abroad, urban or rural, be respectful, introduce yourself, be truthful regarding your intentions. A good way to start is to introduce yourself, ask people’s names, tell about what you’re doing and ask permission to take some photographs, if possible using their names when addressing a specific person. That will show you care about them and how much this means to you.

Each situation is unique, but always tell what you would like to do and respect people’s will. After your introduction and explanation if someone still doesn’t want to be photographed, kindly thank him/her and ask someone else.

be photographed, kindly thank him/her and ask someone else. Kuito train station - Kuito, Angola. DEVELOPING

Kuito train station - Kuito, Angola.

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When you’re honest and straightforward, usually people don’t mind that you photograph them.

Don’t hide your camera or camera bag. Let them see you’re a photographer and get used to the idea of you being around. Usually the best photographs aren’t the first, but the ones you take when people get used to you and your presence is familiar to them. On some villages it took me months stoping by regularly until I was welcome just like visiting a relative. After gaining that kind of trust, I didn’t need to ask before grabbing the camera and starting to photograph.

Don’t photograph people against their will trying to be unnoticed and using a long lens. Besides making a completely uninteresting photograph, it’s disrespectful and compromises your future presence in that place.

Let people know what you’re doing and that some photographs may end up published on a magazine or website.

Don’t act strange. If you aren’t doing anything wrong, if you believe in your project, stand for it and be confident on the approach. If you act strange, people will actually suspect you’re doing something wrong. If you are nervous and unable to explain what you are doing, is unlikely to have permission to shoot.

The following series of photographs was taken inside a building in ruins in the city of Kuito, after being bombed by the Soviet MIG jets. Despite the lack of conditions, without water or electricity, many families and homeless people live inside. Some rooms are filled with piles of garbage and the smell is unbearable.

A place that, at first, seemed complicated to enter and photograph, turned out to be a surprise. They were very kind and welcoming and insisted to be photographed.

Many times ignored by the society, they liked to have someone paying attention and listening to them.

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Access Access may be one of the key elements to the success of a project. And right after you decide on the subject, this is the first thing to be worked on.

Take the required steps to be granted access if necessary, such as for example private properties, institutions, industrial facilities. But for most of the times it’s just a matter of talking to the right people, courtesy, persistence and a lot of patience.

In this series from Angola, most of the photos were taken in small villages where I stopped on the way to work. The first step was to ask to be in the presence of the village’s chief, “Soba” as they call him. After meeting him and having a pleasant conversation, I had the doors open for the whole village. This shows how friendly they are. Many families were so welcoming that I visited many times, not to photograph, but to have a nice chat and an occasional drink. And when they were so used to my presence that they were acting normally like I wasn’t there, that was the time that I took my best photographs.

Learning a few words in the local dialect helps immensely and shows how much you care about them. Even if the pronunciation is very bad. They will love to hear and will laugh, generating immediate empathy.

love to hear and will laugh, generating immediate empathy. Agostinho, the Soba of the Nanjengue village

Agostinho, the Soba of the Nanjengue village - Nanjengue, Angola.

Me standing next to Soba Agostinho - Nanjengue, Angola.

Me standing next to Soba Agostinho - Nanjengue, Angola. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 3 9

A number of times I collaborated with European NGOs that were working on the

ground. Being with them the access was very facilitated and gave me the opportunity to photograph within schools and health centres.

Because they needed photos to illustrate their progress reports or to raise funds, post-processing was done in color, taking into account the purpose for which they were intended.

My personal work is normally processed in black and white, but I will further develop this theme later.

In the Katenga village, school absenteeism was over 50%. Most of the children

went with their parents to work in agriculture. A school canteen was built with the

aid of a Czech NGO and conditions were created for a group of volunteers to cook hot meals exclusively for students who attended classes.

In a few months the abstention rate was drastically reduced.

classes. In a few months the abstention rate was drastically reduced. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT
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Vaccination of the stu- dents to prevent polio- myelitis - Katenga, Angola.

of the stu- dents to prevent polio- myelitis - Katenga, Angola. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT

Me, explaining to the children to behave like I wasn’t there. I guess it didn’t work!

the children to behave like I wasn’t there. I guess it didn’t work! DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY

At the Kunje school the situation was more or less the same as in Ka- tenga. Likewise, a can- teen was built with the aim of reducing the rate of school absenteeism. For many children, it was the only hot meal of the day.

absenteeism. For many children, it was the only hot meal of the day. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY
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In Candumbo it was a different case. The inha- bitants of a very poor vil- lage were being helped to develop their agriculture skills. Famine still exists today and many children die from lack of food.

Famine still exists today and many children die from lack of food. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY
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In the hospital of Andulo there is a section that re- ceives mainly children who
In the hospital of Andulo there is a section that re- ceives mainly children who

In the hospital of Andulo there is a section that re- ceives mainly children who suffer from malnu- trition.

Attitude At first I was thinking of calling this section by “Shooting techniques” but, as I won’t focus on technical aspects but in the posture to adopt in the field instead, I thought it was better to call it “Attitude” and describe some matters that I consider important while shooting.

Atitude: “A manner of thinking, feeling or behaving”.

Research about the place you’re about to visit and its culture. It’s important to know their history and habits. Have an open mind and don’t judge what you don’t understand.

Always adopt a positive posture, try to create empathy and, when meeting people from other countries with different cultures and habits, be genuinely interested in them and what they’re doing. If you’re not genuinely interested in them, you should not be there in the first place. The project is not interesting. Spend time getting to know your subjects, instead of rushing to take the photograph and leaving.

Don’t cause something to happen just because you are photographing. Don’t affect the situation. Otherwise you will be telling your story, not theirs. The only exception are portraits, which sometimes require some direction from the photographer.

sometimes require some direction from the photographer. Having a chat with the guys from the Kunje

Having a chat with the guys from the Kunje school.

Soba Agostinho, one of his wives and daughter - Nanjengue, Angola. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY
Soba Agostinho, one of his wives and daughter - Nanjengue, Angola. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY
Soba Agostinho, one of his wives and daughter - Nanjengue, Angola. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY

Soba Agostinho, one of his wives and daughter - Nanjengue, Angola.

Try to put yourself on the other people’s shoes. Respect your subject, in order to respect your viewers so they respect you and your work. Often I see in other photographers social networks candid photographs of homeless people taken at distance with a long lens. Please don’t do this, unless you’re really interested in helping those people and make a proper approach and introduction, talking to them and asking to tell their story, if you think that could help in any way. Otherwise, don’t do it. Any one of us is not immune to being in such a situation. Most of those people had a family, a house and a job.

In my Angola’s project, most of my photographs show poverty and people in very humble situations. But that’s completely different. Most of these people became my friends and I was invited to their homes. These photographs tell their story and way of living. In all these portraits I tried to capture their dignity, even in the most dramatic situations. There is a border that separates a serious and dignifying work from bad taste candid photos of poverty.

No matter the context, please don’t be tempted to take advantage of somebody’s situation. It’s an easy and fast thing to do, but also very destructive.

When your project takes place among people with scarce resources, try to dress modestly. You will hardly blend with them, but at least try not to stand out.

If possible, return to that place and offer some prints of the photographs you have made. That will mean a lot to them and it’s a good way to show that you care. Usually it’s also a great way unlock the possibility to photograph other people that refused at first.

If they offered you a meal or gave you some craftwork and you wish to monetarily

compensate them, it’s ok. Otherwise, money for photos it’s a bad principle and it isn’t good neither for them nor for your story. If you wan’t to help, try to buy from them local goods like sugar cane, mangos or pineapples.

In those situations that pointing a camera may cause some tension or even trigger a

complicated situation, many photographers use to shoot from the hip, or look at another direction while pressing the shutter button. Those techniques will work, but better than trying to hide our presence is to make ourselves so familiar within the locals that they forget our presence. Of course this is not always possible.

Always put your safety in the first place. The notion of risk is different from person

to person, but avoid placing yourself in potentially dangerous situations to get a photograph.

Know your camera. Not the basics, but really get to know your camera in depth, its limitations and how far can you go with it. The worst that can happen is coming back home and find that some potentially outstanding photograph is ruined by a wrong setting. Know all the buttons and learn how to change basic settings without taking the eye of the viewfinder. When shooting a documentary project, people aren’t posing and waiting for you to make the right adjustments in your camera. The events are happening and either you capture them or you don’t.

A good exercise to practice is to look through the viewfinder and, maintaining this

position, just using the fingers and their tactile feeling, make the following changes

in the camera: exposure mode, shutter speed, aperture, white balance, ISO and

metering mode. After some training, these basic operations can be intuitively made

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while keeping the attention on the subject. The worst we can do is trying to capture a photo of someone that kindly agreed to be photographed and spend half the time more concerned with the camera rather than the person in front of us. The lack of confidence using with your equipment will be shown and will most likely create an discomfort sensation in the person in front of you.

As said before, I like to work with natural or available light, to register in the photos the same ambient where the story is taking place. But using only available light also introduces limitations and doesn’t offer the control the flash does, so constantly be aware of light and how the camera will record it and make sure the eyes are well lit.

Harsh direct sunlight rarely works, so usually we find the most flattering light at

sunrise and sunset. As this isn’t always a possible choice, it can be a limitation and you have to find some alternatives to surpass this problem:

Shade: Portraits captured in the shade have low contrast and almost no shadow.

If processing the image in colour, it may have some blue cast to be corrected.

Window light: Windows and open doors will produce a strip of unidirectional

light. Shooting indoors it’s a great option to use at noon, to avoid the direct

sunlight. When the subject is lit by this source and it’s placed against a dark background, it produces a beautiful contrast. If using matrix metering the exposure must be corrected, otherwise the camera will try to lighten the dark background. Or you can switch to center-weighted or spot metering to expose for the illuminated side of the face.

Face the sun: When none of the previous options is possible, positioning

yourself towards the sun, your subject will be lit from the back. Again, using spot

metering or exposure compensation, expose the photograph to the subject’s face. One of my preferred conditions to shoot is an overcast sky, that will produce some dramatic background. However, beware of the chance of rain if your camera isn’t weather resistant. If it is, shooting in the rain can be a highly rewarding experience, with unusual results.

Once the memory card is full and it’s time to replace for an empty one, keep it with you, not inside the bag. For any reason the bag can be lost or stolen, so at least the images are safe. Usually I do the same when I finish shooting an assignment, even if the memory card is not full yet.

When it comes to backups, each person has their own workflow, more or less complex, sometimes using a cloud storage service. The important is that you have one. Mine is rather simple: when possible the photos are transferred from the memory cards to a portable hard drive, then copied to a backup hard drive. Only then I format in camera all the cards, getting them ready to be used again.

Using only the door light for indoor portraits. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 6 2
Using only the door light for indoor portraits. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 6 2

Using only the door light for indoor portraits.

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Photographing under rain - Kuito, Angola.

Photographing under rain - Kuito, Angola. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 6 4

IMAGE EDITING AND POST-PROCESSING

When the capture stage is completed, it’s time to proceed to the photo editing, which is the process of selecting the photos that will compose the project’s gallery. Magazines have photo editors to do this work. And if the goal is to come up with a group of images that do tell a story, editing a body of work doesn’t consist in selecting the best photos, but to find the right ones. Frequently, a few photos that aren’t aesthetically as pleasing as others may have an important role, making the transition between two other photos or two chapters of the story.

This is such a subjective matter, that two different editors will certainly make different choices. But assuming that the editing is done by ourselves, as most of us do, there are some simple guidelines that help to complete this task:

Composition: The elements in the picture have a harmonious relationship

between them?

Framing: A correct framing will draw the attention to the subject and remove

from the scene the elements that do not matter. Is the framing well achieved or can

it be done with just a slight crop?

Exposure: Is the exposure appropriate? *

Focus: Is the photo well focused? In a portrait, is the focus on the eyes?

If analyzing a certain photo, the answer is yes to all the questions above, it might be a candidate to be selected. But of course, someone may disagree with these criteria

and be absolutely correct. There are entire projects made with out of focus photographs, or underexposed *, or with unusual framings. You are in charge and you decide which criteria to apply. What matters is to maintain a certain level of consistency.

* As perfectly stated in Michael Freeman’s Perfect Exposure book, “in exposure there is no right or wrong, but like an artist you have to stand by your opinion”. Above all, you must know your camera, the sensor’s dynamic range and anticipate the final result. Try to get it right on camera and don’t rely too much on postprocessing, or you will end up with noise on the shadows or flat highlights.

A good photo shouldn’t be stripped of context, that’s why the use of long telephoto lenses isn’t the best choice. It should have at least two layers, preferably three, to add dimension. This is not the same as including everything inside the framing, which would cause confusion about who is the main subject.

Make sure the focus is on the eyes. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 6 6
Make sure the focus is on the eyes. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 6 6

Make sure the focus is on the eyes.

Family working in a quarry - Near Kuito, Angola.

Family working in a quarry - Near Kuito, Angola. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 6 7

Finally, as photo editing is not a mathematical formula turning everything too much predictable, a good photo should have some originality and surprise element that catches the attention of the viewer.

Many times a good portfolio is the result of knowing what images not to show,

which isn’t an easy task to do. In the current days the pressure that social networks put on it’s so much, it encourages the pursuance of likes and followers, that photographers feel compelled to publish at least one photo a day. It’s difficult to resist to this pressure, but try to show only your best work, not giving into the

temptation of publishing those photos that are

almost good.

Having the selection job done, if desired with ratings from 1 to 5 stars, it’s time to move forward to the post-processing. Once again, consistency is the key. Whether you prefer oversaturated or gritty and contrasted black & white images, if you wish to build your own style, find a certain look that pleases you and keep faithful to it.

This takes time and involves a lot of experimentation. But once you find it, maintain that kind of image processing for a period of at least 2 or 3 years before you try different settings. Developing our style takes time and frequently we feel tempted to follow new trends. That’s also motivated by the pressure of getting acceptance to our work. Social networks are a wonderful tool that allow us to easily scroll through the portfolios of so many talented photographers.

On the other hand, trends are changing all the time, from HDR to cross- processing look, from art filters to the current tendency of the faded vintage film look (which actually doesn’t look like film at all). And the worst you can do is to imitate and follow these trends because of what you think that others will like,

instead of pursuing what you like. Times have changed a lot. In the old days, the scarce amount of options made it easier to build a style. And often you find photographers that have used one film stock and one or two focal lengths for their whole life. Fortunately digital cameras allow us to easily experiment a diversity of processing styles. Whether you prefer colour or black & white, my advice would be to avoid the over processing.

Since 7 years ago, when I switched from film to digital, I have preference for black and white images. Along this way I could not resist the temptation to use film simulation presets also, having even bought VSCO packs. But I ended up always coming back to a simple post processing workflow, with some shadow and highlights recovery, dodge and burn when necessary, a little contrast and that’s it.

Adobe Lightroom is by far my preferred tool, because it allows to make both image editing and processing in the same software. I acknowledge the vast potential of Photoshop, but I try to keep my workflow as simple as possible and Lightroom offers all the tools I need.

Original file and final re- sult.

Original file and final re- sult. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 6 9
Original file and final result. DEVELOPING A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT 7 0

Original file and final result.

TELLING THE STORY

Being a documentary photographer implies a large responsibility. Although it is impossible not to incorporate a good amount of your personal character into your work, the main objective is to represent reality. Aesthetics should never override the truth.

Having the capture complete, the next stage is to select the photographs that best represent the subject, including those ones that aren’t so strong but add important information to better understand the context.

Now I’ll list some guidelines for building a powerful and impacting story:

• Choose your first photo wisely, to draw the viewer’s attention and arouse

curiosity to visualize the rest of the images. If the whole story could be told using just one photograph, this would be the one.

• The following photographs right after the first should act as an introduction, giving the needed information to establish the context.

• Use different types of photographs to avoid the monotony and disinterest of the viewer.

• Avoid using all your good photos if they are redundant.

• Including a caption in each photograph is optional, but sometimes becomes

necessary given the greater or lesser complexity of the photographed subject.

• Keep a logical relation and sequence between the photos.

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LAST WORDS

This humble document isn’t meant to be a step-by-step guide, but a way to share my personal view of the theme. By any means I intend to impose my point of view. There is never just one way to achieve the goal we set ourselves. So, be critical and walk your own path.

Before concluding, I would like to leave a few last words:

• Choose a theme that for some reason has aroused your interest. As a project can last a long time and require a lot of effort, it becomes easier to proceed.

• Make your work timeless. Trends will always come and go. But if you wish to

make your portfolio time proof, shoot work that matters and do it consistently.

• The world is constantly changing. We have the obligation to capture it for future

memory. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

• The success or failure of the project is not measured by the likes and interaction in social networks. Only you can determine if the goals have been achieved and, more importantly, learn from the mistakes and make sure the next one will go better.

Thank you for your time. I hope you find it interesting. For questions or comments, please contact at any time.

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THE BEST CAMERA IS THE ONE WITH YOU

Remember when I mentioned in the Equipment chapter that even a smartphone could be used to capture a good story? Actually, I used an iPhone to make a series of snapshots, just for fun, to take a break from the other cameras.

Of course a good camera with dedicated buttons for the basic settings offers more creative possibilities, but the lack of a proper camera shouldn’t be a deterrent to developing a project by which we fell in love.

The following photos were captured with a simple iPhone 4s and processed in Lightroom.

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